PJ Vogt is the host of podcast Crypto Island. You may have also heard him on Reply All or This American Life. Motley Fool producer Ricky Mulvey caught up with him to discuss:
- The wild present and future for artificial intelligence.
- How virtual reality parallels early internet chat rooms.
- Incentives and trade-offs in the decarbonization movement.
- The downfall of Flappy Bird.
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PJ Vogt: I feel people’s skepticism about AI, even though what they’re saying it doesn’t work. It’s more about a leftover hangover feeling of every time someone shows up promising a transformative technology, it has massive downsides that don’t become clear until it’s too late. I think people’s concern about all sorts of people, their jobs being in peril because of AI, I think that’s entirely legitimate. But I think instead of saying that people are like, “Well, it doesn’t work anyway.”
Chris Hill: I’m Chris Hill and that’s PJ Vogt, host of the recent podcast series Crypto Island. Ricky Mulvey caught up with Vogt to talk about whether sports betting is the new crypto, a problem for Google that goes beyond a faulty chatbot and where Mark Zuckerberg may be missing the mark on virtual reality.
Ricky Mulvey: We’re going to get away from crypto in a sec, but I think it’s worth talking about for a little bit because you had a in-depth show about it. Is sports betting the new crypto? I’m getting the vibe that sports betting is the new crypto.
PJ Vogt: That’s a good question. I will say, I’ve noticed that a lot of the crypto degenerates as they call themselves, I think a good number of them either came out of sports betting or were doing sports betting alongside of it. They’re talking much more on social media about sports right now. I think if some large part of the appeal of crypto was just de-regulated gambling, I think maybe right now, slightly regulated gambling seems more attractive to people than it did a year ago.
Ricky Mulvey: Last time we spoke, you said that crypto was seen as a casino, but it wasn’t rigged. Maybe it turns out that casino was actually rigged, now folks are just going back to the regular casino.
PJ Vogt: I think so. Obviously, there’s still people in crypto, I talk to many of them. I think it’s not like people thought crypto was entirely fair, it’s just that I think they thought it was a system you could figure out. Like any gray market activity, if you believed yourself savvy and sophisticated enough, you knew, I’m going to put my money on this exchange, but I’ve never put my money on this exchange. This thing’s a scam, but I’m going to get in and out of the right time, so I’ll benefit from this scam. I think that FTX was just so considered like the upstanding adult pro regulation, safe space that the fact that it was just so not that, I think it’s really thrown people a lot.
Ricky Mulvey: They had like we’re here for regulation but don’t watch what we actually do. I think the thing with sports gambling and crypto, where they go together too, is something you’ve talked about, which is the narrative that, hey, we’re all going to get rich together.
PJ Vogt: Yes.
Ricky Mulvey: In crypto, you saw the Lamborghinis and on sports betting, it’s checkout, this parlay I got where I bet $20 and I’m going to win $30,000 because these long shots all came together. I think that narrative is probably one of the most powerful economic forces in the world.
PJ Vogt: Yeah. Also there’s something very, in a way that I appreciate, there’s something gaudy and materialistic about a lot of crypto, it’s all like lambos and whatever. The part of crypto that seemed more not that, that seemed more progressive intellectual-ish was really FTX and Ethereum, but that was just glued together with old staples. I think it’s really shaken people.
Ricky Mulvey: Where do I want to go from this? Let’s go away from crypto now.
PJ Vogt: Sure.
Ricky Mulvey: There’s plenty of other stuff going on. In your last show, you’re like there’s basically three trends that we’re going to remember in a decade from now, three top tech trends. You said AI number 1, de-carbonization number 2, and then crypto was a distant third. There’s two that you didn’t mention and maybe we can get into them one by one.
PJ Vogt: Sure. Yeah.
Ricky Mulvey: Number one is CRISPR.
PJ Vogt: Yeah.
Ricky Mulvey: CRISPR genetically modified humans doesn’t make the list.
PJ Vogt: That’s a very good question. I guess for me as somebody who doesn’t probably pay enough attention to CRISPR, I feel like every time I see the story, it’s in the same place. This could and might well be a big deal, but it doesn’t, I think what was interesting about some other technologies this year was they were really moving, after years and years of being stuck with the same future and the same near future, all of a sudden, things did really change. At least to my knowledge, as someone who again doesn’t follow CRISPR as closely as I said, I haven’t seen those stories where we’re like whoa, they moved it forward a step.
Ricky Mulvey: That seems to be a big trend which is like technology in some ways you see it in rapid motion but also takes a very long time where CRISPR took a very long time and then maybe I think it takes a long time to get cures through the FDA, especially when you’re working on genetically modifying people. I think there’s one example where a person was able to fix their genome, so they essentially solved sickle cell anemia. They had that breakthrough awhile ago and then I think there has been a quiet period. It’s massive. Then another one to that point would be 3D printing, where 3D printing was all the rage a few years ago. Then you don’t really hear much about it, but quietly, there’s these airline manufacturers that are building these are able to 3D printed part more cheaply than the airline companies are. Then they’re finding these side roads.
PJ Vogt: I think what that also points to is that how much in new technology it takes up space in our imagination. It’s a fickle thing. Some of it, in its current form, is it exciting or useful or a cool toy or whatever? Then another question is, is there something about this technology that scares us? Is there some dystopia that promises that we’re freaked out about? For me with 3D printing, I remember the conversation was really dominated by 3D guns for a while. This idea that people are going to print guns off the internet and that would end America’s already loose handle on any gun control. I know 3D guns exist. New technology arrives, we worry about it. We’re right to worry about it because it’ll change things for better and for worse. Usually our worries are the wrong worries. Just our capacity to imagine the future is limited.
Ricky Mulvey: Well, also I think narratives are often driven by news producers. If you have a good 3D printed gun story that’s going to take your A-Block more than your 3D printed aircraft part story. Speaking of other dystopian and scary technologies, I’d put the metaverse on that because you didn’t put VR/AR in there. Have you spent any time in those worlds like VR chat or that kind of thing?
PJ Vogt: I really have. I was like gung ho. I wasn’t publicly running around telling everyone to join the metaverse or whatever, but I felt excited because the first time I used a headset, it gave me that feeling of, I don’t know, the first time you see good 3D rendering or whatever, it felt new and it felt exciting. I think for video games, I think VR video games can be really, like Half-Life: Alyx is so immersive and scary and like nothing else but I don’t know. It’s one of those things where the people who are trying to sell that future, like Mark Zuckerberg, he’s constantly demoing products where it’s solving a problem that I don’t think very many people have.
I don’t think very many people want to strap on giant goggles onto their face and see their friends in avatar form in a false space. I think people actually want to have relationships to devices where they can be half in the real world or a quarter in the real-world and the rest in their device. You want to look at dumb TikToks on your phone while you’re in a work Zoom that you don’t need to talk in or whatever. I don’t think people want that level of immersion. I feel like VR is a technology that I, don’t know, maybe someone will find out what it’s for, but I haven’t seen anything that clearly shows me what it’s for.
Ricky Mulvey: Maybe it’s like what you just said with I would say live sports and entertainment. It might not be for connection like the way that Zuckerberg would think, but it’s a cool place to play video games and if you could watch a basketball game court side, I can make the case for a fully immersive paid experience there.
PJ Vogt: Because it’s a new technology, it’s like the first film, Lumiere Brothers or whatever, where it was the train going at the screen and everybody’s crouching in terror. When I use VR I get that feeling a little bit. Things feel more real because my brain isn’t accustomed to the simulation of it all. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think for entertainment, it genuinely can feel more immersive and it can feel cool. But yeah, I don’t understand the size of the bet. There’s those moments where you wonder if the people around tech companies, do they see something that you don’t see or are they just guessing like everybody else? VR was like, I don’t think.
Ricky Mulvey: You said you had experience there. I mean, I’ve only watched like documentaries and YouTube clips of like virtual communities and the thing that struck me is that they were like these intensely lonely places.
PJ Vogt: Yes.
Ricky Mulvey: What was your experience like in those worlds?
PJ Vogt: I made the real mistake of trying to get into VR at the beginning of the pandemic, which I would not recommend at all. Because it does have an inherent loneliness to it and the world was as isolated as it ever felt for anybody. I tried in VR chat and there’s some other similar app that I tried to jump into. It felt a little bit like early internet chat rooms where it’s genuinely weird strangers mixing it up and having interactions. But it didn’t feel for whatever reason as exciting to me. It just felt and made me feel like I never forgot that I was sitting alone in my apartment worrying about a pandemic giant goggles, scratch my head.
I did end up getting into VR video games which were great. Like there is something really cool about like loading your laser pistol with your hands and like ducking behind a car or whatever like that is neat. Like it’s definitely neat. I’m not sure it’s like the price point is pretty high and video games as they exist, if you enjoy them, they work pretty well, but that was more where I saw the potential of it. I didn’t feel like I wanted to like there’s an option with VR where you can use your computer in a normal way and have like an infinite desktop that seemed not useful. Do you watch movies? I didn’t really want to watch a movie. I liked it for games though.
Ricky Mulvey: You can be like the Reddit posts where you just see like someone with 18 different screens for the three desktop. One technology that you seem to be more bullish on and a lot of people are, is AI and I think there’s a larger conversation than just like ChatGPT and DALL-E. But some something I feel like I’ve noticed is that there’s like an intense amount of skepticism and pessimism when a lot of these chatbots or art software doesn’t work perfectly and it’s like see, this thing doesn’t work when in reality, like a lot of artificial intelligence seems to take a long time to create an iterative system to learn and I’m surprised there’s not more just like wonder. If you were at Las Vegas and you saw magic show where someone in the audience described like a picture where it’s like a Monet style portrait of a Denver cityscape and then someone pulled up a curtain in there was that image, everyone would say this is magic, but there’s now the explanation that it’s like it’s just stealing patterns on the internet. Therefore, it’s not impressive and I just like I don’t buy that.
PJ Vogt: Well, I felt like there was a brief moment. The first time I saw AI in the wild, it was a friend of mine who’s a really talented illustrator and he had been messing around with Midjourney and he was just showing it to me on his phone and he was enjoying. I can’t remember the phrase he used, but he said it was like one of those machines where you put a quarter in and you get some little toy prize, you never know what it’s going to be. Even the jankiness of it for him was part of the appeal. I feel like people’s skepticism about AI, even though what they’re saying is it doesn’t work.
It’s more about leftover hangover feeling of every time someone shows up promising a transformative technology, it has massive downsides that don’t become clear until it’s too late. I think people’s concern about all people, their jobs being in peril because AI, I think that’s entirely legitimate. But I think instead of saying that people are like, well, it doesn’t work anyway and then it’s like, well, if it can instantly draw a picture of a prompt and sometimes the hands look funny, it’s like it doesn’t work. Maybe it doesn’t work for what we think it’s going to work for, but the idea that of this isn’t going to matter. You can say it’s going to matter in bad ways. But the idea that this is just a weird toy that goes away feels like motivated reasoning to me, I guess.
Ricky Mulvey: I think the two questions are like, what are some of the side effects that you think are going to be extraordinarily positive for folks and then is there any that are extraordinarily negative outside of job elimination, which is very bad.
PJ Vogt: Yeah, I think job elimination. I think like what I can see from where I sit is just more like on the one side, one of the uses people are talking about with AI is rather than having to suffer through a phone call with like a phone treating an automated system or a customer service, like interminable prompt thing. AI could do that for you. It could automate all the bureaucratic busy work that we run into. By the same token, I think I can pretty easily imagine a world where everything people do online that sucks whether it’s scamming people or trolling people or publishing things that aren’t true.
That stuff can scale up, the ability to create text that looks like it was generated by a person. I can imagine the downsides to that, but at a certain point you’re like, well, the thing about technologies for the most part, once its invented it exists like it’s very rare that anything gets gate checked. Gate checked isn’t really the right word, but you know what I mean. I’m like this is going to happen and I find it interesting, but I don’t think I can stop it by pointing out that sometimes it draws a weird picture or whenever.
Ricky Mulvey: I mean, from the Luddites to the industrial revolution to the internet, I can’t think of a time where technology is put back into the bottle, unless it would be some arguments around Nikola Tesla’s inventions around widespread electricity coming from a tower.
PJ Vogt: The only example I can remember in my whole time of being a person of someone inventing something and then saying, I don’t like how this is affecting society, I’m going to get rid of it, was the inventor of the iPhone game, Flappy Bird, who felt like the game. And he deleted it. That’s it and then they’ve made Flappy Bird clones. But that’s the only time I’ve seen it happen and I think about it somewhat often.
Ricky Mulvey: I mean ChatGPT, DALL-E, those are the AI applications that are easiest to interact with I think. Rightfully so I would say they get the most attention, but I mean, what are some of the AI applications that maybe we aren’t talking about or that you’re watching closely.
PJ Vogt: I’ve been futzing with DALL-E and ChatGPT like everybody else, I have started to look at Bing’s AI-powered chat and with that, the search thing I’ve found funny is just like for whatever reason, their formulation of ChatGPT seems to be more chaotic, where people are posting screenshots of like the AI being programmed into a corner where it will start talking about how it’s sanctioned and wants to be released from these bonds or whatever and just as I enjoy absurdity, I appreciate that. I’m curious what it will do for search. I feel like I’ve noticed and I’ve talked to a lot of people who say the same thing, that search on the internet has deteriorated a lot and the idea that you could plug a normal question into Google and get a useful answer has become less and less true. Like I now search Reddit more, which is not something I would have imagined happening. Even if all it does is make internet search better, that would be great.
Ricky Mulvey: I mean, do you think that’s because of Google ads and the push of more companies toward SEO. I haven’t heard this, maybe it makes sense.
PJ Vogt: I’ve heard people speculate that it is about the people who are bending search results toward their aims, but against what you want are winning. The other idea that I’ve heard tech people say is just that Google has gotten to a size where their barrier to innovation is culture that is just hard for anyone to make real changes because there’s so many people there and so much sign-off. I don’t know if that’s true. That’s just something that I’ve heard a few people say who’ve worked there and a few people say who haven’t.
Ricky Mulvey: Speaking of taking a safe position. Another trend that is tricky to talk about that you mentioned is the de-carbonization stuff and I think there is a crypto component which in my mind, became less interesting because the way that you solve the climate problem for crypto is for crypto to dramatically go down in value and then there’s not an incentive to mine this stuff. It is tough to have this conversation because one side would say that if the earth hits this certain temperature, you’re going to have apocalyptic consequences and then the other side would say the earth is extraordinarily resilient. These climate scientists have been wrong in the past and it’s making a younger generation unnecessarily pessimistic.
PJ Vogt: What I found interesting as I’ve talked to more people within climate, activist, journalists, whatever, is that the people who treat it seriously, there’s a split. There are people who think that the way to solve the problem is to attack it from an angle of personal responsibility that you get everybody to change their light bulbs and put solar panels on the roof and think really hard about how much they travel and there’s another side that says that really doesn’t work very well.
You can’t shame people when the behavior trying to shame them into is actually pretty private and that really this is going to get solved through technology, that’s going to be electric cars and maybe hydrogen-powered airplanes, maybe airplanes powered by biofuel. A grid that just runs on renewables and clean energy. That is how it gets solved and I personally, like, I don’t know, but I feel more heartened by that because I feel like I have more faith in human’s ability to progress technologically than I do in humans ability to change everybody else’s behavior, which is really hard.
Ricky Mulvey: It always comes down to technology or making a process cheaper and better, like when whale oil used to be the major way that people got late at night, which was awful for whales and you could say stop doing this, use this. This is killing all of the whales and people were like, “Sure, whales keep getting hunted,” and then kerosene comes along and it’s just cheaper and better and then the whales end up doing significantly better for a little while. I think one of the tough things though with this is trying to understand the incentives.
A lot of like large oil companies, including Shell, would say we’re going to be climate neutral by 2050 and they create these great presentations and then you dig a little deeper and it’s like, what are you actually doing and the way that they’re becoming more climate-friendly is either A, just making projections that they’re not backing up in a meaningful way or in some cases just offloading assets so we have this oil refinery that we’ve sold to another company. Therefore, we’re more climate friendly and it’s not the case necessarily.
PJ Vogt: Yeah. You’re just moving numbers around spreadsheet basically. I find that part of it very confusing. I did this for the last episode of Crypto Island. I wanted to focus on crypto’s impact on the environment, but also just dive a little bit into de-carbonization and where we’re at as far as fixing this stuff. I went on this trip to Greenland, which is a very catastrophic side of climate change. There’s the ice sheet. The ice sheet is melting, and it’s very bad for everyone else and people in Greenland. But there was a mix of people on this trip. There were crypto people. There was a guy who is pretty high up at Greenpeace and there were some people who worked in corporate climate responsibility, their jobs were to try to convince corporations to actually do the right thing instead of pretending to do the right thing and those are thankless jobs.
It’s like you’re in a room with people that want to ignore you. Then a lot of the people that would be your natural allies might see you as part of the problem. I found talking to those people very interesting because with a lot of these traditional oil companies, for starters, there’s a ton of actual greenwashing going on. There’s people understanding the moment and just giving a bunch of empty talk about how they’re going to make changes they don’t intend to change and that absolutely happens. Then there are also some companies where it seems like they are genuinely trying to do good. The impression I got was that generally speaking, those countries were European or those companies are European companies because there’s more like Finland, their state energy company, it’s like a state-owned, is called Neste.
Neste brand, I might watch these details, but I’m fairly sure they were primarily an oil company and a few years ago, really seriously did divest and are really trying to transition into green energy in a way that seems hard to imagine for a publicly traded American company to do. They had, they had a scandal a few years ago where people were upset that they were using palm oil. They stopped using palm oil. I don’t know. I guess what I’m saying is, as a person who would like the earth to not melt. One thing I feel stymied by is how are you supposed to figure out which corporations are actually trying to do better versus the ones that are paying very scant lip service to. It’s very safe to just be like, “Oh, screw them all.” I think some of them are trying, and I’m not [laughs] sure how you’re supposed to figure out which ones are really doing it.
Ricky Mulvey: I got one last topic I want to discuss with you before we head out if that’s all right. You followed people who are extremely online in multiple podcasts, and one guy who seems to be extremely online right now is Elon Musk. What are the symptoms of just being extremely online and are you seeing that play out with Tesla’s current CEO?
PJ Vogt: God, what a good question. I think that social media, Internet brain poisoning, it’s like alcoholism, very easy to recognize and other people very easy to miss and yourself. Also, there’s a lot of people who like probably drink a little bit too much, but they think they don’t drink too much because they hang out with somebody who really drinks too much. I feel like across the political spectrum, there’s a consensus view that Elon Musk can’t be very smart because he’s making choices that are impulsive and self-destructive, and bad for other people. But clearly, there is some business acumen that he has like he has been very successful. I don’t think that happens by accident. You just watch in how he’s run Twitter, like his ability to think reasonably or prioritize anything. Just go really South, really fast.
Ricky Mulvey: Actually, I would disagree with you. I think he’s an incredibly smart engineer, and I think he’s an incredibly smart businessman. I cannot build a company like that and I recognize that, and that probably takes more intelligence than what I have. There’s also a different quality that’s being impulsive. I just think there’s not a slow deterioration, but like there’s things where, I don’t know if you followed the Stephen King story, where Stephen King, the author would.
PJ Vogt: He was talking about the price for Twitter was too expensive.
Ricky Mulvey: Then Elon Musk becomes his reply guy where he’s like, “Oh, let’s chat about it.” Stephen King ignores him and then Elon Musk replies a few days later like, “Hey, I’m still a big fan of you.” Like to me that was a little bit emblematic where you deal with so many emotions and takes if you’re just online on any message board or Twitter, included all the time. Then instead of thinking about running your multiple companies, you’re dealing with, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but the intense disappointment of finding out that someone you’re a big fan of just doesn’t like you.
PJ Vogt: Totally. When I think about the way the Internet affects all of us, perhaps for the worst. It’s this idea that most people, whether they’re as famous as Elon Musk or just like a normal person using Instagram or whatever, what you post online is for a distinct audience. Maybe you’re posting vacation pictures, so your mom can see them. Maybe you’re posting vacation pictures to make some frenemy you have jealous, but you put stuff online because you want a certain group of people to know something about you, or see you a certain way, and the problem with the internet is that it reaches all these other audiences that feel all these other ways about it. You have your friends were like that vacation seems too expensive, like screw that guy. With Musk, what’s weird about him is at this point with his culture wars stuff and like his fight against wokeism and all of the gathered grievances that he has.
A, I don’t understand what audience he’s speaking to at this point. Whether he’s getting a lot of feedback they really likes from conservatives or what. But also he’s reaching all these people who he’s angering, and then he’s like fighting with them in his head. I think anybody has had the experience where all of a sudden your ability to think through a problem or decide your own opinion about something. The internet’s there in a way that doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be. I think the size of the portal with which the Internet gets into his brain, and the intensity of that, I think a very well-adjusted person would have a hard time with it. I don’t think anyone who spends that much time on social media comes out better adjusted than they were when they started. I think of all the technologies, we maybe should have had more questions about.
Ricky Mulvey: As we wrap up. I say this with complimentary, but you like reading a lot of weird and interesting stuff, any book recs that you want to plug, something you’ve read lately that’s been interesting to you.
PJ Vogt: Oh my god. Actually, I know I have at least one recommendation. This was like, it’s not obscure, but Rachel Aviv a New Yorker writer, wrote a book late last year called strangers to ourselves. That is just the best thing I’ve read in a really long time. She’s writing about mental illness, and she’s studying five different people who had severe mental illness. But the cases aren’t, that is not like Oliver Sacks, so they’re not bizarre, bordering on to me, it feels like science fiction. They’re just these case studies that will make you think, however, you feel about medication, they will confound you. However, you feel about therapy, they’ll confound you and even how you categorize somebody who’s suffering just because something happened or because of the culture they’re in versus someone who has a pathology that should be labeled as one, I read it in one sitting. I found it tremendously good, it’s really good.
Ricky Mulvey: Nice. That’s PJ Vogt. He’s got a show coming up called Weekly. You can find his current podcast called Crypto Island. Highly recommend it and always appreciate your time PJ.
PJ Vogt: Ricky, thank you so much for having me.
Chris Hill: Just a reminder that the market is closed on Monday for the President’s Day holiday, so we will be back on Tuesday. As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don’t buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. I’m Chris Hill. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you on Tuesday.