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Muneeb Ali

Technology

We have the illusion that the centralized Internet is free, when in fact we are giving away all of our data to large corporations who act like middle men to advertisers.

Muneeb Ali moved from Pakistan to Sweden with almost no money, living on one McFish burger a day at McDonalds and whatever snacks he could find in his research lab. He had been accepted for a research assistantship without funding and lied, saying his university in Pakistan would pay for his expenses: “Yes, I have a research grant, I’m coming. I’m on my way,” he told the school, when in actuality he had taken a small loan from the bank to do whatever it would take to learn. “I didn’t even tell my parents what I was doing. Within 3 months, my mother could tell I was physically weak. She even asked if I was eating.” This move was the first of many sacrifices Ali made in his relentless pursuit to solve the most challenging computing problems.

Rules of Impact // Muneeb Ali

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“You can think of Blockstack as a second or parallel Internet.”

Ali eventually pursued a Ph.D. in Computer Science at Princeton, developing a comprehensive research portfolio before even being admitted to the program as a means of showing “I can do the work, give me a shot.” His background in distributed systems research served as the foundation for his work as co-founder of Blockstack, a startup building a platform for a new decentralized Internet and apps built on blockchain. Remarkably, when his startup got into Y-Combinator, the top accelerator in Silicon Valley with an acceptance rate even more competitive than Princeton, he decided to take a leave of absence and returned four years later to finish, having to re-do his Ph.D. research because the field had changed entirely.

“Most people didn’t think I would come back,” he laughs, thinking about the incredible amount of sacrifice and hard work it takes to simultaneously pursue a Ph.D. and build an industry-defining new startup. Today, Ali and Blockstack are at the forefront of a movement to decentralize the web and give users control over their own data: “You can think of Blockstack as a second or parallel Internet,” he explains. It has a browser and connects to the Internet the same way people do when they visit sites like CNN, Google, or Facebook, but is designed with security and ownership at the forefront.

Blockstack is built (or stacked) upon the blockchain, which is decentralized in a way that nobody controls or tampers with the information, unlike typical computing systems. “When computers work together, they also need a process,” Ali explains, inferring their similarity to the way in which human workers organize. If you look at a company like Google, it has a large system of computers that are listening to a central computer. There is a top-down hierarchical way in which the processes organize how computers work. In contrast, blockchains are bottom-up and distributed, empowering individual computers to work together without giving any one computer too much power.

Blockchains are bottom-up and distributed, empowering individual computers to work together without giving any one computer too much power.

“That’s a very hard problem to solve,” Ali says, pointing to how hard it would be to get a group of thousands of people to collaborate without a central decision maker. Like a chain of blocks interlinked and interconnected (hence the name blockchain), these computers on a network divide up the problem in a way that shares the responsibility to solve it, rather than one computer having total decision-making capabilities. “The end result is you have this massive network of computers working together and nobody controls it. It’s completely neutral, fully decentralized.”

“A good example is Google recently revealed that they were actually recording your conversations for over years if you had this one thing enabled on your phone,” he explains. “Imagine having a discussion with your partner late at night in bed and the next morning you see ads based on the discussion you are having in real life.”

“In the digital world, there is no concept like digital land. You are renting space on Facebook.”

Data stored on central servers is also at risk of being hacked. For example, Yahoo subject account information of 500,000,000 users. “Imagine all of this data, your personal information, sitting in a single, centralized depository and it gets hacked, and now all of these hackers have access to all of your information.” That exposes everyone to a great amount of risk, especially when you consider the incredible amount of personal information about website visits, search history, emails, entire conversations and messages. “We actually want to bring it closer to how real life actually works. In real life, if someone wants to steal something from your house, they would have to come to your house. They cannot steal from 500,000,000 people from one place.”

Ali thinks the costs of a centralized Internet now outweigh the benefits. He compares the current state of the Internet to someone taking medication over a period of time: initially it improves quality of life, but not without side effects. “After a while, the side effects get really ugly and people start noticing this isn’t a good solution for what we are trying to do.”

The analogy Ali uses in his TEDxNewYork talk and elsewhere for describing how the Internet should work is akin to property rights. In the real world, people buy property, build a house, and have owner rights to protect themselves against predators, intruders and unsolicited offers. “In the digital world, there is no concept like digital land. You are renting space on Facebook,” he explains. “It’s like living in a hotel, where the hotel is benefiting from your things.” Nothing these days come free: users are paying for it with their data.

Blockstack envisions a world where users own the data over their entire digital persona.
Klein started with a passionate conversation about ideas. The pair began reflecting on their own notion of space and relationships to home: “What is a home? What defines what you need?”

Blockstack envisions a world where users own the data over their entire digital persona. As users surf the Internet, their ID and privacy preferences could follow them across websites. Instead of a company paying for third-party advertisements on Facebook or Google, users can opt-in to be contacted or earn money from the exchange. “You can opt-in for certain types of information. For example, if I tell an app I’m a 35 year old male living in Brooklyn, it can compensate me.” To achieve this, Blockstack is creating what it calls identity tokens, which will enable users to receive targeted ads when they want or need things, without exposing themselves to unnecessary risks.

You might imagine this digital world as a future of decentralized Ubers or Airbnbs: where anyone can hail a ride or rent a home directly from the source without paying a large fee to a central authority. “Uber is like this really big player in the middle enabling a new market, but they are a monopoly controlling it.” Drivers frequently complain about taking too high of commission fees without their consent. In places like New York City, Airbnb faces lawsuits from hotels and lobbyists who want to shut them down. Decentralized on-demand services built on Blockstack run the risk of being shut down or run like monopolies.

On the one hand, this represents the evolution of the Internet, with platforms like Blockstack laying the foundation for decentralized apps and a revolution in commerce free from centralized authorities; yet on the other, it is a return to the way the Internet was always intended, connecting us directly to each other without the interference of middle men. Decentralization makes regulation challenging and opens up a new frontier for innovation unprecedented in history. “If there is no company in the middle that you can take down, then the network is truly open.”

“If there is no company in the middle that you can take down, then the network is truly open.”

With so much hype today around ICOs’ (initial coin offerings, a way of raising money directly from the public in contrast to issuing stock through an IPO) and the blockchain, we are at a moment similar to the birth of the Internet, filled with optimism and hope, but no clear sense of how the future will unfold. Ali has such an uncanny ability to explain technology in such simple language that in conversation you forget sometimes how revolutionary his work is.

“I was always interested in startups, but a subset of them,” he explains. “I was always drawn to things that were technically very complicated that would actually be a breakthrough in computer science and then try to commercialize that. The people I would look up to were Stanford or Princeton professors.” Growing up in Pakistan, Ali realized at an early age that he needed to be surrounded by the right people. His advice is to collaborate with best-in-class experts: “There are only a handful of people in the world when you get to deep expertise who really know what they are doing. You have to work with them to learn.”

While he plans to contribute to academia in the future, Ali feels more at home in the startup world which is embracing the future and faster to adapt. He recalls writing a 100-page application for a research grant during his Ph.D. studies whereas “we raised our first round of $1.5m and we never made a PPT presentation. Zero documentation.” Blockstack are fortunate to count among their investors Union Square Ventures, one of the top 3 venture capital firms in the world, and Naval Ravikant, Co-Founder and CEO of Angellist.

As Ali works on building a decentralized Internet to empower the future of humanity to be more open, transparent, and free from today’s privacy concerns, he advises people who want to follow a similar path to seek out mentors and teachers who can help you learn how to think and formulate approaches. “How do you make decisions about what problems to go after? What is your intuition for what a solution might look like?” Despite earning his Ph.D. in Computer Science at Princeton and becoming a pioneer in the emerging blockchain space, he emphasizes the need to continually learn: “Be humble. You are always a student. You are always trying to improve on what you already know.”