Can matter be digitised? Crypto-guru Vinay Gupta is banking on it
Vinay Gupta had planned on a life of meditation and esotericism. A devotee of the Nath Sampradaya movement, the Scotsman Gupta had lived many years in the US imagining his life as a teacher of meditation and a more spiritual path to happiness. “I expected to teach Kriya Yoga in Chicago,” he told us as we speak backstage before his panel at TechCrunch’s DisruptBerlin last month.
Then 9/11 happened and, as the calamities slowly began to accumulate, Gupta realised he’d need a new journey to make sense of the world around him. “Ok, now I have to go ahead and do something useful,” was what he thought to himself. “That was a very sudden awakening into material responsibility.”
Gupta started taking great interest in the material world and the historic turning point was the impetus to look more closely at the things that make us and the things that bring us down. Economic disasters, which Gupta believes are much worse than natural disasters, became something of an obsession and a topic which he spoke widely on. For now, however, his mind has turned to the world of cryptocurrency
Gupta’s earliest foray into cryptocurrency in the 90s which, according to him was “largely the PGP revolution and the birth of e-commerce”. He latched onto E.Gold in the early days though the demise of the gold-backed cryptocurrency led to more caution when promoting the new digital currencies.The last few years have seen him come fully on board again after having been enlisted as coordinator for Ethereum’s release in 2015 and being advisor to various other crypto and blockchain ventures around the world.
Although not having visited India since he was three years old (his father was an Indian migrant to Scotland in the 60s), he is still bullish on the idea of India being more comfortable with the idea of embracing cryptocurrency eventually as well. He believes that “crypto-swadeshi” movement might be on the cards in the not too distant future.
But it is Gupta’s transformation from the spiritual to the material which dominates our conversation. Even when speaking of his transformation, his natural inclination tends towards a meditative posture. This transformation is now complete with his new venture Mattereum: an attempt to digitise matter itself.
“Mattereum is basically about digitisation of the material world; to do for the physical object what we did for information over the last 30 years,” Gupta said about his latest project. “You could get full access to the information about the object. Which enables better decision making, which enables a more efficient economy.”
When some hear of digitising matter, they might get the sense that Gupta sees the world as falling green code. But the aim here isn’t to hook us up to the Matrix. The idea here is to ensure that the information about the underlying thing (be that a house or car right down to a specific screw to finish your DIY project) can be established on a public distributed ledger that would allow for people to form smart contracts to exchange property or goods. He believes that doing so can have seriously beneficial consequences including the drastic reduction of waste.
“We talked about things like one day you’ll be able to rent apartments on the blockchain and your smart contracts. But right now all of that is notional. None of it works because we can’t get access to the legal assets in the real world.”
At the moment Mattereum are working with material assets that are strongly and uniquely identifiable. In other words rare Stradivarius violins and collections of classical Indian art that Gupta says predominantly come from East India Company loot.
“[Stradivarius violins] were head and shoulders better than other violins that were made for reasons that we’ve only figured out scientifically in the last couple of decades.” Gupta said at a DisruptBerlin panel alongside Jamie Burke of Outlier Ventures. “So the idea is to take these things out of private collector’s hands and give them directly to classical music…We take the violin and we move it into a new kind of governance framework so that the classical music community as a whole has a stake in the governance of the instrument.”
Gupta is a highly compelling conveyer of ideas. Having a conversation with him one has to be prepared to speak on economic collapses in socialist dictatorships, Stradivarius violins and the practices of meditation sects in the US; all sometimes within the same sentence.
One is also never sure at any given time what might be fact and what fiction, nor is it possible to be sure that his ideas can be executed. What one can’t doubt is his own conviction that matter can slowly be digitised which, in the world of virtual currencies, might be enough for the world to take him seriously.