Trent McConaghy | From Starships to Tokens: Pioneering Futures

about the episode

Trent McConaghy is the founder of Ocean Protocol, a decentralized platform aimed at democratizing AI data sharing while maintaining privacy. With a career starting in AI research for national defence, McConaghy transitioned to entrepreneurship, where his first startup, ADA, was acquired by Synopsys in 2004. His work continued with Solido, an AI venture aiding Moore's Law, culminating in an acquisition by Siemens in 2017. His current venture, Ocean Protocol, follows earlier initiatives like the ascribe NFT platform and BigchainDB. McConaghy's enduring mission is to equalize AI opportunities and ensure humanity's significance in a future of autonomous technology.

Session Summary

This podcast episode delves into Trent McConaghy's integration of AI with global challenges, highlighting his innovative strategies in technology and environmentalism.

  • The Map: Trent discusses the need for a resource like Wikipedia to show potential technological outcomes – his "Starships and Tokens" outlines pathways to major goals of humanity, from superhuman intelligence to reshaping the cosmos.
  • AI Evolution and Impact: He highlights AI's growth, especially in creative fields and CAD. Discusses AI-induced job displacement, with UBI as a potential solution. He mentions projects like Nature 2.0 for surplus wealth generation.
  • AI Superintelligence Challenge: Focuses on keeping humans competitive with AI through high-bandwidth BCIs and addressing regulatory challenges.
  • Climate Change Strategy: He emphasizes addressing climate change impacts on society, exploring special zones for BCI research and governance adaptations, and stresses the need for aggressive BCI development and jurisdictional arbitrage for research and climate adaptation. He also proposes a climate-focused DAO for legal actions and addressing investment risks in flood-prone areas like Miami.
  • Vision of Eucatastrophe: Trent's long-term goals for humanity include developing Dyson spheres and achieving human superintelligence.

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Trent McConaghy
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About the Scientist

Trent McConaghy is the founder of Ocean Protocol, a decentralized platform aimed at democratizing AI data sharing while maintaining privacy. With a career starting in AI research for national defence, McConaghy transitioned to entrepreneurship, where his first startup, ADA, was acquired by Synopsys in 2004. His work continued with Solido, an AI venture aiding Moore's Law, culminating in an acquisition by Siemens in 2017. His current venture, Ocean Protocol, follows earlier initiatives like the ascribe NFT platform and BigchainDB. McConaghy's enduring mission is to equalize AI opportunities and ensure humanity's significance in a future of autonomous technology.


About the artpiece

Philipp Lenssen from Germany has been exploring between technology and art for all his life. He developed sandbox universes Manyland and wrote a technology blog for 7 years. He's currently working on new daily pictures at Instagram.com/PhilippLenssen.


Beatrice Erkers

Welcome to another episode of the Existential Hope Podcast. I'm Beatrice Erkers, and I'm the co-host of the podcast together with Allison Duettmann. Today, we're joined by Trent McConaghy. Trent’s early fascination with computers and AI led him to start the company Ocean Protocol, where he works to revolutionise the decentralised data market. Beyond that, he also has collaborated with the Foresight Institute on crafting potential maps of the future of different technological areas called tech trees. So Trent is really a visionary, which is why we really wanted to have him on the podcast, and we're very happy you came on. We’re discussing, among other things, AI tech trees, Blockchain, and Existential Hope, of course. And so, let's just dive into this episode!

Allison Duettmann

Everyone, welcome to Foresight’s Existential Hope Podcast series. I'm really happy to have Trent here today – we have quite an interesting, collaborative history that I reminded myself of when we met at DeSci Paris, which was a few weeks ago. Basically, I got super inspired when I read some of your Medium articles, you were really laying out this long-term map for a potentially very ambitious and positive future for our universe. Starting with pretty much solving individual bits and pieces that we need to get around to today, all the way out into Dyson Spheres and beyond. And this map really led to a collaboration where we have started developing individual versions of maps of potential futures. It resulted in the Tech Tree Project, but which remapped specific areas, and you have this holistic setting of how different technological areas actually fit in with each other to create a wonderful future. But before we dive into all of this, perhaps you would like to introduce yourself and a few words, a few minutes of your life history and what makes you the person that you are today. Because apart from this positive future stuff, you do a lot of other projects, too, that are really interesting, and that I think we can use that people know so we can dig deeper into some of them as we go along. So welcome, Trent. Thanks a lot for coming.

Trent McConaghy

Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure to be here. This is my first podcast, and I'm quite excited about it! A bit of background about me: I was raised on a farm in rural Canada, shoveling pig manure and driving grain trucks by day and hacking computers by night. My father, a farmer, bought me a computer at a very young age. So, instead of learning piano, I got good at math and computers. This led me to pursue undergraduate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I managed to get a job with the Kenyan government, working on AI. My resume showed my experience in hacking AI, which I did for fun. I then worked on audio radar classification and more. In '97/'98, I couldn't believe someone would pay me to work in AI full-time, and I loved it.

Returning to my final year of undergraduate studies, I focused on AI for automatic creativity in designing analogue circuits. This experience, combined with my electrical engineering knowledge, led me to launch a company specializing in the automatic creative design of analogue circuits. The company was acquired in 2004, marking the end of a great adventure. In my first startup, we were young and naïve, raising money during the dot-com boom and enduring the bust. From there, I started another company, focusing on AI for chip design, particularly large-scale verification. Concurrently, I pursued a Ph.D. at KU Leuven in Belgium, further exploring automated creative design with AI. This phase led me to explore other ideas, including a longtime interest in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), virtual reality, AI, and augmented reality.

In 2010, a friend introduced me to Bitcoin, which became a common topic among my friends. I bought Bitcoin in 2011, lost the keys in 2013, and found them again in 2022. In 2013, inspired by a conversation with my wife, a professional art trader, we tackled the problem of collecting digital art. This led to the early development of NFTs on Bitcoin, though it was eight years too early. We then pivoted to decentralized databases. By 2017, missing my work in AI, I questioned how blockchain could help AI. This inquiry led to the development of Ocean Protocol for decentralized data markets and data access control. Since then, Ocean Protocol has been my full-time job.

Aside from my main work, I spend less than 5% of my time on side projects. These include advising Estonia on E-residency, monitoring BCIs, and exploring human superintelligence and AI safety. I'm also involved in climate change initiatives, leveraging my experience in AI, blockchain, and token engineering. Day-to-day, I'm a builder; today, for instance, I spent 10-12 hours coding. I always think big picture, focusing on impactful work. An essential aspect of this is choosing projects that might make a difference in the world, from AI risk mitigation to human transcendence and even the creation of Dyson spheres.

Predicting the far future can guide current choices, as interpolating from a far-future vision is easier than extrapolating from the present. With that, I'll stop here. Back to you, Allison.

Allison Duettmann

Okay, you've touched on many topics I want to dive deeper into. But first, let's set the scene for the map component. Could you describe what inspired you to start writing about starships and tokens, or "the map," as you call it? I've just posted an image of it in the chat. This map resonates with many of Foresight's goals. Could you give a brief summary of your Medium post to pique our audience's interest?

Trent McConaghy

I'll start with a current topic. Take superconductivity, for example. Its Google Trends search spiked last week when Korean researchers announced a breakthrough in room temperature, low-pressure superconductivity. This discovery is significant, not just for low energy transmission and better power grids, but also for enhancing fusion efficiency and energy storage. Now, imagine a physics undergrad pondering a Ph.D. topic. Should they focus on fusion, superconductivity, or some grand unified theory? They only have a partial picture of the impact of each field. But what if there was a clear, widely agreed-upon resource, like Wikipedia, showing the potential outcomes of these breakthroughs?

For instance, if we achieve efficient energy storage, what does that unlock next? This concept of interconnected technological progress, working forwards or backwards, is essential. Technologists, entrepreneurs, and VCs constantly consider these interrelationships, but there's no comprehensive map for it. This led me to create my post. I've been thinking about brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for a long time. Periodically, I would revisit the technology to assess its progress. Eventually, I decided to draw out these interconnected technologies and their potential impacts. The post became a map of sorts, outlining pathways to significant technological achievements like a decentralized world computer or addressing the risks of AI.

From a VC perspective, it's fascinating to consider what steps are necessary to reach significant milestones like room temperature superconductivity. This map also suggests potential funding opportunities for these crucial steps. Funding, in my view, is a strong curation signal for a project's importance. That's the essence of the map. I've used it as my guide, shared it with friends, and discussed it with Allison and Foresight. We're collaborating to turn it into a reality.

Allison Duettmann

Thank you. Let's explore a few areas on the map that you're passionate about, like AI, BCI, and climate change. Shall we start with AI, particularly its impact on job loss and potential solutions?

Trent McConaghy

AI is becoming increasingly powerful. Since the late '90s, I've witnessed its evolution, including various approaches like neural networks and symbolic logic. AI has seen periods of decline and resurgence, much like the crypto industry. In the '90s, AI was mostly dormant, but there were sparks of potential, especially in creative applications. I was particularly inspired by the genetic programming community, which applied AI to creative design. Now, AI is recognized for its potential in diverse fields, including computer-aided design (CAD).

However, the advent of humanoid robots capable of cognitive tasks raises concerns about job displacement. If AI can perform tasks more cheaply and efficiently, job loss seems inevitable. To address this, universal basic income (UBI) emerges as a practical solution. UBI could provide the means for people to pursue self-actualization beyond basic survival. A blockchain system that redirects surplus wealth into a universal self-actualization income could be a solution. This idea is at the core of initiatives like Nature 2.0 and the Sovereign Nature Initiative, where autonomous systems like self-driving cars generate surplus wealth for UBI.

The larger challenge is AI superintelligence. The debate here is not just whether it will happen, but when. We need to consider how humans can remain competitive in the face of such intelligence. The answer might lie in enhancing human intelligence through means like brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). My vision involves developing BCIs to achieve human superintelligence, enabling us to explore the cosmos and transcend our biological limitations. The path to this goal includes developing high-bandwidth BCIs and considering regulatory challenges and opportunities in different jurisdictions.

In addition to AI and BCI, climate change is a critical concern. The escalating impact of climate change could lead to significant societal upheaval and force us to rethink national policies and research priorities. This includes exploring special economic zones for BCI research and adopting innovative approaches to governance and societal structure.

Allison Duettmann

Since initially writing the map, have you updated your priorities or thinking?

Trent McConaghy

Yes, there are two main updates. First, the rapid advancement of AI superintelligence necessitates a more aggressive approach to BCI development. The regulatory environment, especially in the United States, might not adapt quickly enough, which leads to considering jurisdictional arbitrage. Countries could offer services for BCI research, much like some are doing for longevity research.

Allison Duettmann

That's great. So, do you think creating a comprehensive map, a kind of Mega Map, would help nations identify where they could be more competitive in advancing certain technologies? This map could also foster coordination between investors, nations, and technologies, possibly creating a market where investors pre-commit capital to projects in favorable jurisdictions. Or would you advocate for more direct approaches, like lobbying for large-scale projects within specific countries? What individual strategies do you see as feasible, especially considering the timelines we face with AI?

Trent McConaghy

I believe we should not solely rely on existing nation-states for solutions. The 2016 Paris Accord, despite initial enthusiasm, largely failed to achieve its goals. For instance, emissions are now higher than in 2019. We may have even lost the Gulf Stream, indicating the severity of the situation.

In terms of specific actions, I think we should focus on both the supply and demand sides of the CO2 reduction market. While many discussions focus on the supply side, like green technologies, the demand side often lacks robust mechanisms. We need to create a market where there's a real demand for CO2 reduction. I've thought of two main approaches.

One approach is creating an attack dog DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) for climate, similar to the Electronic Frontier Foundation but focused on environmental issues. This DAO could sue on behalf of natural bodies, like rivers or lakes, that have been granted legal personhood. It would leverage litigation finance, where people can invest in these legal battles. This approach could effectively deter harmful environmental practices.

Another project I'm working on addresses the paradox of rising real estate prices in Miami, despite the threat of flooding. This project aims to provide transparent data on future risks, that possibly affect investment decisions.

Lastly, jurisdictional arbitrage for brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) is crucial. This approach can also aid in climate adaptation, as regions like northern Canada may become more habitable and require infrastructure to support large populations.

Allison Duettmann

Could cross-jurisdictional arbitrage for BCIs also assist with climate change adaptation?

Trent McConaghy

Yes, exactly. The world is inevitably warming, and migration to areas like northern Canada will be necessary. Special economic zones and new cities could be key to accommodating this migration. For example, in Saskatchewan, Canada, anyone owning a square mile of land can start a city without permission. So, these strategies – climate games, jurisdictional arbitrage for BCIs, and adapting to climate change – are interconnected.

Allison Duettmann

Regarding our goal of a eucatastrophe, an event after which the world is better than before, what would you choose? We're planning to create an art piece related to this concept for our podcast episode.

Trent McConaghy

I have several ideas that align with the tech tree. The farthest goal is Dyson spheres and reshaping the cosmos. Before that comes exploring the cosmos and achieving human superintelligence. Steps leading up to these include jurisdictional arbitrage for BCIs, shorting Miami, and establishing EFF-like organizations for climate.

Allison Duettmann

Wonderful, that's very concise. Let's move to Creon's question next. We have a clear outline of potential strategies to approach these significant challenges.

Creon Levitt

Let's see. I want to bring a reality check on some of your climate statements. I urge you to look carefully at contrarian opinions on climate change, including actual sea level and temperature rises, and consider factors like urban heat island effects. I've noticed significant differences in temperature records between urban areas and nearby rural weather stations. I think there's a tendency towards extreme pessimism and panic in climate discussions. Also, historical CO2 levels have been much higher than now, and lowering them too drastically could affect plant growth. An interesting experiment would be to monitor temperature in greenhouses with varying CO2 levels, as higher CO2 is known to enhance plant growth.

Trent McConaghy

I acknowledge the variety of models and opinions on climate change. While I'm not a doomsday person, I am action-oriented. My observations over the years indicate that many predictions have not been aggressive enough. Regarding the 'short Miami' idea, it's a market; people can bet for or against it. The main goal is not just to reduce CO2 but to prevent societal chaos and maintain our pursuit of the future and self-actualization. The issue isn't just about CO2 levels but also the potential impact of rising sea levels on places like Florida. Your points are valid, and it would be great to have more debates on this.

Regarding genetic programming, it's the most general search algorithm with the most general search space. It's part of evolutionary computation, simulating evolution in computers. Genetic programming searches through trees or graphs and the algorithm is based on evolution. This field focuses on solving problems, not just the algorithm itself. It's exciting because it allows the exploration of different objectives and design spaces. The GP community is vibrant and creative. Recently, I've seen its ideas being integrated into neural network research.

Allison Duettmann

Thank you, Trent, for sharing your insights and ideas. We have to conclude now, but I look forward to further discussions at our upcoming event. Thanks to everyone for joining. Our next episode of the Existential Hope podcast will feature another exciting thinker discussing their vision of positive futures.



Starships and Tokens –  Trent McConaghy

The Sovereign Individual –  James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg

Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order –  Ray Dalio

Why Nations Fail –  Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need – Bill Gates