Vitalik Buterin on Space, Longevity, Mars & More (The “B-Side”)
by Morgan Beller (@Beller). Morgan is a General Partner at NFX, a seed-stage venture firm headquartered in San Francisco.
Last week, Vitalik and I took a synchronous-but-separate walk together for 3 hours. I was in San Francisco at 4 pm and Vitalik was in Singapore at 8 am the next day, living in the future in more ways than one.
The A Side of our conversation dives headfirst into politics, crypto, Americanism, GameStop and Wall Street Bets, Tesla, China, privacy, the decentralization of finance & more — all through a very future-gazing lens.
But every conversation has its pauses. Its swerves. Its tangents. The spontaneous genius of a curious brain is something you don’t often get to see when someone is on stage, or on script, or in the media.
This is the “B Side” of my conversation with Vitalik. The weird stuff. The good stuff. We talk more about longevity, chocolate, the value proposition of the Moon vs. Mars, that SF should be as big as Hong Kong, and so much more.
Morgan: Let’s do some quick-fire questions and see where it goes. Deep ocean or space?
Vitalik: Space, though Antarctica’s also underrated.
Morgan: White or dark chocolate?
Vitalik: Dark chocolate. I usually prefer 90% but I have this long-term dream of eventually trying every integer from 80 to 100 and so far I’ve had, let’s see if I remember it. I’ve had 80, 83, I think 85, 86, 88, 90, 92, 95, 99, and 100. I believe those are the ones that I’ve tried. So there are still about 10 integers that I need to go through at some point.
Morgan: Blue Origin or SpaceX?
Vitalik: SpaceX has been doing amazing work. Blue Origin, I think the problem is they haven’t really released as much. So it’s just harder to judge them so far, but I hope they do great things. And maybe with Bezos finally getting out of Amazon, so he might end up focusing on space. They’re doing some great things there.
Morgan: Mars or the moon?
Vitalik: I feel like Mars and the moon have some different value propositions. The moon is interesting because first of all, it’s pretty close to the earth. If you have a conversation with someone on the moon, the round trip latency as we’ve established is only about 2.3 seconds, so it’s not going to be worse than this conversation, but Mars, on the other hand, something like five to 15 minutes away, I forgot the exact number.
So with Mars, you have a much more asynchronous experience interacting with humanity. So that’s one difference, and I think it definitely makes the moon more convenient. The other interesting thing about the moon is the low gravity is interesting. I am really looking forward to running a marathon in one-sixth gravity. I just want to feel what it’s like.
But, Mars and the fact that it’s farther away is also an interesting value proposition. Besides, the trope of Mars declaring independence is much more realistic than the moon declaring independence. Well, okay I guess there was one Robert Heinlein novel about that, but there are just way more sci-fi novels about Mars becoming its own thing.
In terms of what we could do in both places, I don’t know. It ends up depending on just what people want out of space travel. And do they just want a different experience, do they want to be in a place disconnected from Earthly concerns? Do they have some industrial mining, is it something else entirely?
Morgan: What’s something that you think will happen in space that seems so scifi today? So I personally believe a lot of the next Trillion dollar industries will happen in space, space farming, space manufacturing, space drug development. You could think I’m crazy, which is fine. Or you can agree with me and say something that you think will be outsourced to space at some point in the next, let’s say 100 years that seem crazy today.
Vitalik: The one really boring example is using space as a method for points of travel from earth to earth. I mean- then you go up and just be much faster than an airplane can be, like the energy expenditures are pretty comparable and so forth. That would be interesting. I’m definitely excited about San Francisco to Singapore in 55 minutes or whatever the number ends up being.
Aside from that, I think space is going to be a combination of mainly a tourist thing together with some industries happening and generally stuff being built in zero gravity. I’m not sure exactly what kinds of things it makes sense to be a built-in zero gravity – but I can guess there’s a benefit.
Morgan: What is illegal, or should be legal, and or will become legal just because of the laws of physics, over the next 5 to 20 years?
Vitalik: One big one is participating in experiments at earlier stages of a product’s life cycle — whether that’s medical or drones or self-driving cars or whatever else.
I definitely hope to see more movement in the trend of people who want to try things early being allowed ways to try things early.
Here’s a fun one. It looks like it’s becoming more and more legal to build actually reasonable amounts of housing in California. And it looks like the EMB movements are finally making some progress, whether it’s parking minimums getting struck down in a lot of places, and there are more and more movements toward upzonings.
Really San Francisco should be as big as Hong Kong, right? San Francisco should have a population of seven million people and it should have the skyscrapers and all of that. But instead, it’s barely one million.
And it does feel like San Francisco and California politically has just been giving into existing resident demands to not build anything else. And it feels like the political winds behind those original pressures are finally crumbling, at least to some extent. That will lead to lower rents for people. It will lead some more people being able to live where they want to live.
A Future Where Apple and Facebook Are “Old World” Companies
Morgan: Do you think San Francisco is dead?
Vitalik: San Francisco is never again going to be considered a necessary place for anyone to be, the way that it was up until around 2015 or so.
I expect it to continue to have a strong community with a lot of people there. But I would not be surprised if 30 years from now San Francisco was widely viewed as an establishment boomer town, basically.
Well, I guess the millennials will be the new boomers by then, but you know what I mean. Just like you have your Apple and your Facebook and all of these old-world companies that just have to base there, because it has too many capital investments, and all the cool stuff is happening in the next Silicon Valley. The set of interesting and innovative small countries are I think a very powerful candidate for that.
And then just generally it will all be much more distributed.
Vampire Stereotypes In Anti-Aging
Morgan: I know that longevity is one of your growing interests. What one thing about longevity and anti-aging should we learn?
Vitalik: I still recommend Aubrey de Grey’s book: Ending Aging. It was written in, I think, 2007, and that was the book that kind of originally indoctrinated me into life extensionism.
When I talked to Aubrey more recently, he basically said that yes, they still basically are the seven categories of aging that are by far the most significant — so that’s a good primer if anyone wants to understand the basic concepts. There’s also a subreddit, reddit.com/artist/longevity. So that’s one that I follow and go to from time to time.
Morgan: Is there any longevity challenge trial that has recently been published or that you’ve read about that you wish you could participate in?
Vitalik: I think right now things are still five years too early to be doing really serious stuff. There’s a list of things that longevity-people think have small effects and people are kind of debating back and forth and having studies back and forth about.
So ashwagandha is one of those examples, metformin is one example, and then there is this kind of long list that goes on. There were some interesting recent results around a kind of parabiosis.
This idea got reported on a few times because it just plays so perfectly into the kind of evil Silicon Valley-like vampire stereotypes. The idea a few years ago was basically that if you had taken an older person (or this works with animals too) and you basically just connect their bloodstream to the younger person, then the older person would be kind of, you know, quote ‘rejuvenated’ with the younger person’s blood to some extent.
It was somewhat inconclusive, but of course, it really captured the imagination, just because of the bloody optics of the thing.
But then there was this interesting study from a year ago that I think, or somewhere close to a year ago, that kind of really changed the narrative on this. It turns out that you don’t need young blood for this. Like, it turns out that if you just replace part of a person’s blood with, I think it was water and with saline, and albumin. Basically just water with a couple of other dumb things, then you can have basically all the same positive effects?
It turns out that the gains from that procedure don’t come from younger people having good ingredients, they come from older people having damaged ingredients. And if you can flush those damaged ingredients out, then you can potentially reduce the level of damage in a person’s body.
Once again, this is the sort of thing that’s still significantly too early to be really doing, but it’s the sort of thing that is definitely worth kind of doing more research and looking into more.
Morgan: What is something that worries you about longevity. What is the risk, if anything, socially, culturally, biologically, economically?
Vitalik: I think the things that worry me are probably around human enhancements in ways other than longevity. Some people being much stronger and much smarter than others is definitely one risk. And just being elitist, kind of making sure that these enhancements that we end up creating actually are available to everyone. But then even if available to everyone, different people may well end up choosing different enhancements. And so we may end up having more differences between each other a century from now than we do today. Of course, that could be a source of really interesting new ways for us to complement each other, but it definitely worries me a bit more than longevity itself does.
So one thing I’m not worried about is: There’s no such thing as a gene for obedience to the communist party. There might be genes that correlate with obedience in general, but if you give someone that gene, then there is no way to be sure that they’re going to be more obedient to you instead of being more obedience to the first cult that reaches out to them on the Internet, whose goal may well be to overthrow you.
Only One Side Of The Wall Says Exit
Morgan: One of my favorite moments of last year, pre-pandemic was we were in Israel together and we had the opportunity to visit Palestine together. And for me, this was a really eye-opening experience having visited Israel several times, but never crossing the border. You had never been to Palestine before either. How did visiting the other side of the wall go?
Vitalik: It all definitely seems like a very far from the optimal situation on so many levels, right? Even if you just notice the facts that falafels cost 15 shekels on the Israeli side of the border and 5-10 shekels on the other side of the border. You just know which side of that whole situation is a better place to be at the moment and just which side has just more unfairness stacked against it.
The way that the wall says “Exit” when you go from Israel into Palestine, but doesn’t say exit when you go from Palestine to Israel — I found that strange and maybe symbolic of something.
The Old Guard & The New Guard Are Both Missing This
Morgan: San Francisco or Miami or Austin? Just because those are the places where people seem to be going.
Vitalik: There are also the quieter options like Denver is one. Ethereum Foundation has been viably setting up a base that has more and more people in Denver. Denver’s cool, and I met the Governor, Jared Polis, and he was willing to read a crypto-themed children’s book with me on stage, which I thought was really nice and amazing.
Then there’s Wyoming which has all of that crypto-friendly regulation. So I think that’s the pool that neither the old guard nor the self-styled leaders of the new guard talk about that much.
And then what else? Miami? It seems interesting, though I don’t understand it well enough. So I definitely want to try to understand Miami more. One interesting thing about Miami is that Miami is a de facto gateway to Central America, right? The hub for all non-direct flights going from random US and Canadian cities to far Central and South America places. And you have a lot of Cuban immigrants that are going to Florida, a lot of our other Latin Americans in Florida.
So I definitely think that Latin America is a region that the US is going to start learning to care more about. I mean, it may just take China trying to put up a couple of Belt and Road projects or whatever they call them in a couple of South American countries.
And then you watch, people will get scared, or realize that they need to compete somehow, or it could just happen on its own. I don’t know. But, generally, it feels like Latin America does feel like one of these slightly forgotten places that probably the US needs to do more interfacing with.
And I say this as someone who has done far less Latin Americaning than I wanted to. Unfortunately, South America in particular is still the one continent I’ve never been to yet. Though that’s going to change with the next Devcon in Columbia when it happens. So this is another one of those we’ll see situations, but basically, if US-Latin America relations go well then Miami will be very well-poised to benefit from that.
Morgan: I agree. We should all start learning Spanish. How many languages do you speak?
Vitalik: This is complicated because it depends on how I need to speak to them. We’re speaking English, I can speak Russian well, I can speak Chinese reasonably well. French and German, I can understand decently, but I don’t really have enough practice speaking either of them. Spanish, I know a little bit of, and I can make my way through some blog articles, but I definitely want to really improve it. Aside from that not too much. I did study Latin and ancient Greek in high school, but I regrettably do not remember too much of either.
Morgan: That’s something else I’ll also never forget — being in Bethlehem with you. The rest of us were all taking selfies, and you’re over there translating the Latin on the side of the church.