I write in response to the Blockchain supplement to the recent Alumni Weekly (EQuad News, May 2023). The Princeton DeCenter project has altruistic goals, that if achieved in isolation, would create good. But its Blockchain presentation has blind spots — undiscussed questions on the potential for harm.
Blockchain is essentially a private language, understood by a small group of insiders. To most people, Blockchain means cryptocurrency, and crypto means Bitcoin, etc., commonly understood as vehicles for unhinged financial speculation.
When the DeCenter puts forth a thesis based on “trust,” it might be sensible to include a sidebar presentation on, say, FTX and Bankman-Fried assessing whether that behavior will keep happening, and whether it is an acceptable “cost.”
Crypto is attractive to actors who engage in human trafficking, arms sales, and illegal drug trade. Is this just accepted as the “cost” of the economic freedom that crypto might offer people under oppressive regimes?
What is DeCenter policy on “collaboration with industry” — accepting funding from crypto firms and people; conflicts of interest; and influence on research. If SBF hadn’t been arrested, and his bad actions were still mostly unknown, would the DeCenter have accepted a grant from him? Will it accept a grant from Google or Facebook?
Asking “…how do we avoid harms?” is not enough. Perhaps these questions are addressed in the DeCenter website, or in its foundational documents. But they were not well addressed in the Blockchain pamphlet broadcast to alumni.
Years ago, Jaron Lanier discussed the “Siren Song” of AI and social media, its likely consequences, and malign uses, and he was largely correct. It’s appropriate to have similar concerns here as well.