BNC#5 – Stafford Masie Q&A: Booming AI, BTC, quantum-computing, Starlink and SA’s untapped potential

Tech entrepreneur and former Google Executive Stafford Masie answers questions on the rapid rise of cryptocurrency, the integration of Artificial Intelligence in business and the growing concern surrounding South Africa’s economic future. Masie highlights the overlooked value of Bitcoin as both an asset and an international currency, emphasizes the threat of economic irrelevancy for South Africa if they fail to catch up to their technologically pioneering peers such as Rwanda and Nigeria, and discusses the nuances surrounding the inevitable integration of AI into commerce.

Timestamps from the Interview:

  • Stafford Masie on the security and longevity of Bitcoin given the possible threat of Quantum Computing development – 00:29
  • Masie on the advantage of Bitcoin’s non-reliance on state banking systems and infrastructure – 02:24
  • Masie on why Bitcoin is not just an asset, the cryptocurrency’s “Lightning Network” and its overlooked utility as a spendable currency – 04:01
  • Masie on the possibility of South Africa facing economic irrelevancy – 08:07
  • Masie on Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite project and its potential importance to South African businesses – 12:01
  • Masie on the possibility of Elon Musk implementing Starlink in South Africa – 15:43
  • Masie on the AI “hype”, whether Artificial Intelligence is the future of business and how AI can be successfully or unsuccessfully integrated into commerce – 19:04
  • Masie on Cathy Wood’s prediction that the Bitcoin price will reach $1.5 Million by 2030 – 25:59
  • Masie on the big winners and big losers of the AI takeover – 27:53

Excerpts from the interview

Stafford Masie comments on Bitcoin’s utility as a spendable and payable currency, rather than just a secure asset

You can now, for the first time in history, exchange value instantaneously in the world, without any intermediary more securely than we’ve ever done in the history of humanity. That is a profound statement. When you have frictionless movement of value, that changes society. We’ve seen that in the history of money. Now, what we’ve done with Bitcoin: Bitcoin is slow, Bitcoin can only handle seven to fifteen transactions a second, but we want it to be slow. Bitcoin is tied to electricity, it is tied to energy and it mines in a particular way. We don’t want it to move fast.

So what people have done is they’ve built what we call a layer two on top of bitcoin. It’s called the Lightning Network. And layer two is a bunch of channels. If I had to explain it to you, it’s like I’m in the bar, right? I give the barman my card and I tell the barman the cap on my card is R500 and I open up a tab. Alec walks in and says, “Oh, I forgot my wallet. I need to settle the barman.” I tell him, “Barman put it on my tab.” Then Janet walks in and you owe her R100. And you ask me to settle the R100 and you will settle me later. That’s all happening without a transaction switching on the bank, right? That is the Lightning Network. Those are channels that are sitting on layer two on top of Bitcoin that allows for transaction processing. Some of the numbers I’ve seen: 400 million transactions per second. 

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So in terms of capacity it outdoes anything on the planet, in terms of speed it outdoes everything on the planet and its accessibility is extraordinary. This is what people are doing in Africa today. In Nigeria, they’re paying with Lightning. Now that’s utilizing Lightning on top of Bitcoin. But you know what’s really cool? There’s a company called Strike and there’s other companies like it. Do you know what they’re doing? They are pumping U.S. dollars through their switch and they’re using Bitcoin as a bearer instrument with Lightning to switch it into another currency. So instead of going over Visa, Swift, the traditional banking rails: they’re utilizing Bitcoin Lightning Network as the bearer instrument to switch that value. So you can pay someone’s tab in London in pounds or in South African rands. You can pay for their beer instantaneously with rands switched over Bitcoin and it lands up in pounds in the barman’s wallet instantaneously. We’ve never seen this before in the history of value exchange.

Stafford Masie on South Africa’s untapped potential as a forerunner for technological innovation and the repercussions of leaving this potential unutilized 

I used to argue that [South Africa] is where you want to be as a technologist. Why? Because when you build things in South Africa, they work everywhere else in the World. I’ve built technologies here with the terrestrial challenges that I’ve had. What do we have in this country? We’ve got multiple languages, we’ve got illiteracy, we’ve got security issues, we’ve got price sensitivity, we’ve got energy issues etc. If you build a piece of technology here, you take it to Australia and it’s really really simple. You take it to India and they don’t ask questions because your technology works in South Africa. You can take it to South East Asia, you can take it to Latin America [and it works]. So, that was the argument before. 

And my argument there was that we won’t see the next Facebook coming from here or the next Twitter coming from here. We’re gonna see the next Facebook of agriculture, we’re gonna see the next Twitter of water purification coming from South Africa. Because of the challenges that we have, you have to innovate here with real human impact and conviction, not passion and user base and clicks and likes. That’s not what you find here, but it is getting extraordinarily difficult. 

And I think that South Africa’s irrelevancy index is climbing at the moment. We’re losing more of our skills and more of the venture funding that would’ve come here is moving up into North Africa. In Nigeria there’s a lot of venture funding, [as well as] in Kenya and Rwanda. These countries are saying the right things. Their legislation, their rule of law, their political stability etc. means people are leaning [toward] there from a venture capital and inflow perspective. In South Africa we’re seeing an exit.

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Stafford Masie on the promise of AI in business as well as the dangers of careless AI integration

I think you should be concerned about AI, but I don’t think you should approach it in a negative way. I think you should approach it in a positive way. I think there’s a beauty in human-machine symbiosis. I really do. I always say that the best iteration of AI is not Watson in the corner disseminating radiological information better than any radiologists in the world, therefore all radiologists are going to lose their jobs. Or Blue in that corner now playing chess against Kasparov and whipping him. For me, the best chess player in the world is a centaur. Where it’s the Grandmaster combined with an AI and you’ve got centaur leagues. The best radiologist in the world is an AI plus a human radiologist. That derivative is the greatest instantiation of a particular service. In fact, it reimagines the service. 

I do think that the responsibility on you as a business leader is to understand AI very, very, quickly. Not necessarily from an organic adoption perspective, but understanding what’s happening with your constituency on the outside of your firewall. The people that you are hiring into your business are people that are augmented by AI. The way you’re going to hire them into your business, and the way you’re going to retain them is very different to the traditional way of doing it, from today. It’s already here, just unevenly distributed. 

So no, the scare tactic is not the fact that [I am concerned], but I am concerned. I am very concerned from a legislative framework perspective, from a humanities perspective. The problem that we have in the world today is that – Scott Galloway termed this, [he is] an author of a couple of books. We have the idolatry of innovators. We believe so much in them when they come into the room and they get on stage and they wow the audience, just like today. Technologists can wow you. They can show you gizmos and gadgets. The challenge with technologists is that we lean into the binary world, we lean into the scientific world, so we will deliver services that do more with less, because we’re computed that way. So what you need in the room more now than ever before are the humanities. You need someone on your board, in your executive group that has Greek mythology and anthropology and Roman history as a background. Listen to that human being more than you listen to the technologists in the room and measure that out. And that’s kind of my warning to you is that these are superpowers. They really give you the ability to instantiate a dystopia.