Non-Fungible Tokens: Allen Yang Of Hitch Interactive On The 5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Highly Successful Career In The NFT Industry

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine

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Empathy: The founders of Bitcoin and Ethereum have created fantastic technologies with their respective blockchain networks. It is time that the rest of us “get out of the building” and win over the other 98% of the world’s population so they want to adopt Web3 and decentralized applications.

Many have observed that we are at the cusp of an NFT boom. The thing is, it’s so cutting edge, that many people don’t know what it is. What exactly is an NFT and how can one create a lucrative career out of selling them? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Highly Successful Career In The NFT Industry”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Allen Yang.

At UC Berkeley, Allen is the founding executive director of the FHL Vive Center for Enhanced Reality, the founding director of the Berkeley Defi Research Initiative, and the chair of Robot Open Autonomous Racing (ROAR) in the College of Engineering. In the EECS Department, Allen established the AR/VR, Autonomous Driving, and Blockchain Master of Engineering degree programs, where he advises more than 50 undergraduate and 30 graduate students annually. He also guest lectures at Berkeley Haas Business School and Berkeley I-School for Entrepreneurship and Data Science curricula. Allen received his PhD from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His primary research areas include high-dimensional pattern recognition, computer vision, image processing, and applications in motion segmentation, image segmentation, face recognition, and sensor networks. He has published 30+ patents and 100+ publications.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

I was born in the late 1970s. My parents were committed to my education and enrolled me in computer classes when I was still in elementary school. That was in the mid-1980s, and my first computer for learning to program was an Apple II, to which I could hook up my home TV as a monitor. Since then, I have been fascinated with how computers can execute programs to solve math problems and can also be coded to play chess and other games. By the time I went to college, I had 10 years of coding experience, and I remember the TA in my computer lab actually thought I was another TA because I could answer classmates’ questions fairly easily.

In my graduate study, I chose Computer Vision as my PhD topic, and have been doing cutting-edge research in this area ever since. Interestingly, around that time in 2010, Computer Vision became a critical enabling technology for three emerging markets: (1) Autonomous Driving, to perceive the world; (2) AR/VR, to simulate realistic virtual reality; and (3) Deep neural networks, to build algorithm models similar to how the human brain operates through interconnected neurons.

I believe we live in the most exciting era in human history where matured technologies including autonomous systems, virtual and augmented reality, and AI will fundamentally change how we live our lives for the better.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The most important media that have made a significant impact on me, in terms of technology innovation, are actually two platforms: YouTube and GitHub.

In the real estate business when the market is hot, it’s said ‘every week is [like] a new market.’ Similarly, in the hot blockchain market two years ago and certainly the hot AI market this year, new technologies, new products, and new rankings are being updated on a weekly basis. Good places for me to stay updated are those AMA and fireside chat sessions on YouTube. Then I typically verify what’s being discussed by checking the relevant open source code repositories on GitHub.

To a large extent, I think we should credit open-source culture with the exponential growth of the blockchain and AI industries, including the open-source development of the Bitcoin and Ethereum networks and the open source release of the Meta LLama2 GPT model. I’m in complete agreement with the opinion that only open-source blockchain or open-source AI projects can possibly be safe ones.

Good citizens in these markets should learn how to best use these resources and should also contribute to their positive development in open-source fashion.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in this new industry? We’d love to hear it.

The blockchain and NFT industries are built on the fundamental belief of a decentralized economy and decentralized technology. As someone who has worked in education for 18 years, I was not among the first generation who embraced blockchain technology with open arms. Far from it, in fact, since in its early days so many things could and did go wrong.

However, what changed my mind and prompted me to seriously look into this new market was Elon Musk and Tesla announcing that, as a well-run public company, they would accept some cryptocurrencies as payment methods.

Subsequently, I started educating myself about smart-contract blockchains such as Ethereum, and found the theory of decentralized finance (defi) to be a fascinating topic. It potentially can create a democratized global computing network that does not depend on any single company and is extremely difficult to hack.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

At UC Berkeley, I have been leading two research programs, one in AR/VR and the other in AI Autonomy and AI Racing. For the former, my program was the first to systematically offer undergraduate and graduate courses on AR/VR at Berkeley, based on two previous startup experiences I had in Silicon Valley. In the latter area, I currently serve as the principal investigator of Berkeley ROAR, i.e., Robot Open Autonomous Racing, which participates in the premier league Indy Autonomous Challenge AI Racing competition. ROAR is the most decorated U.S. racing team for the past two years while competing with the other eight racing teams globally.

In my work, I meet with many industry partners and VC investors who come to visit Berkeley to look for the “next big thing” in technology. On one occasion, a group of investors visited my lab and, at the end of the meeting, I believe they were fairly impressed with our research program. They joked, ‘Allen, your lab is working on so many cutting-edge technologies, maybe the only market you won’t touch is the food industry.’

At that point, I had to reluctantly correct them that Hitch Interactive, which I co-founded, is developing a new Web3 project to create one of the first interactive and programmable gourmet NFT collections called Yummy Hamo. The group laughed and was happy to learn about it!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The NFT market as a whole is in a down time right now. One valid concern about many OG NFT projects is that, although NFTs are being marketed as immutable and decentralized on-chain, what is being minted as a non-fungible token only creates an immutable link to the underlying artwork that is stilled stored off-chain on some centralized storage. Furthermore, the NFT is also less decentralized because any utility of the NFT (i.e., substantive uses or benefits of owning the NFT) is merely a promise from its creator. In this scenario, if an NFT’s creator or cloud storage goes off-line or bankrupt, then the NFT owner would have nothing meaningful to be immutable other than an IOU token left on the blockchain.

In fact, this observation of OG NFTs actually lacking immutability and lacking decentralization has been the main complaint from Elon Musk in a recent interview:

Elon Musk Blasts NFTs — And Bitcoin Fans Love It — Decrypt.

One year ago, before Elon’s complaints about NFTs were made public, we identified the same issue with many OG NFT projects, and we created a new NFT format to make NFTs and their utility more immutable and decentralized, called the Immutable Miniverse Format (IMF). In a nutshell, the IMF allows programmable code, messages, music, or a binary game executable to be efficiently embedded as part of the NFT artwork and more indestructible when such NFTs are shared on social media — especially for those not Web3 friendly.

The launch collection of NFTs created using the IMF technology is called Yummy Hamo NFTs: https://hitch1999.com.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. I’m sure you get this question all the time. But for the benefit of our readers, can you explain in your own words what an NFT is, and why people are spending so much money on them?

Technically, NFTs or non-fungible tokens are just digital tokens issued on a blockchain, such as Ethereum. As its name suggests, many of these blockchains can create through programming two types of tokens: one type is fungible and the other type is non-fungible. Fungible tokens are similar to those cash-equivalent coupons used in cafe shops and shopping malls or, more precisely, similar to gold bars. There is no difference in the properties between one gold bar and another, other than their weights and the cash values they represent.

But non-fungible tokens are created with limited supply from the get go. If an NFT’s total supply is one, then it is similar to a unique artwork that is created by an artist that can be authenticated on the blockchain. An NFT may also have multiple copies, then it is similar to a collection of stamps that are limited in supply but not unique.

Although the above examples have limitations in illustrating the total use cases of NFTs, most people who are familiar with blockchain still believe NFTs are synonymous with digital artwork. In my opinion, the public, biased perception of the utility of NFTs is the biggest pain point for the NFT industry.

The NFT industry seems so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Compared to the cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ethereum minted as a kind of immutable currency for the operation of those networks themselves, I believe those who build applications on blockchain technologies should be even more excited about NFTs. If we think about Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains as comparable to the Internet or 5G networks, then NFTs could underpin millions of websites and applications that truly create value for the masses.

I am truly excited about the future of the industry. I see three trends:

1. NFT projects should continue to focus on utility and decentralization. After all, a centralized NFT project is not really much different from a Google Cloud or an AWS account.

2. NFT projects should be more individualized and personalized. The social media revolution on Web2 has created many successful companies that build their business model on connecting people and friends online. Yet they are also being criticized for monetizing such connections for their own profits. The next revolution on social media should give the full control of user data and connections to the users themselves.

3. NFT projects should embrace recent AI technologies. There is perhaps no greater utility of NFTs than to tokenize human intelligence in a decentralized and immutable fashion.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

The possibility that the NFT industry will fail to deliver on the great opportunities that exist is one of my main concerns.

I am also concerned about the public perception of NFTs as just digital tokens for artwork. Although NFTs have distinct utility far beyond that of cryptocurrencies, many early adopters viewed NFTs just as tradable cryptocurrencies. The over-emphasis on a dollar value for every NFT distorted the growth of the NFT industry as a whole. Think about this:

  • When people create social media for their family, would they put a dollar value on such personal social networks?
  • When researchers open source a programming project on Github, would they put a dollar value to a piece of code?
  • When students receive an invaluable degree certificate thanks to their hard work in school, would they put a dollar value on their credentials and experiences?

Doing so misses the point. The innovation in the NFT industry should be focused on the incredible value they can offer to tokenize personalized information and experience, and not be hindered by tradability related to their face value.

Next, I am concerned about the centralization of many NFT projects. This is the same criticism offered by Elon Musk recently, that many NFTs are merely QR codes or URLs that reference off-chain websites. In my opinion, equating an NFT only to an artwork or a coupon for a happy meal is a far cry from the full potential and impact the NFT industry can bring.

Finally, I am concerned about the tunnel-vision that over-emphasizes fancy technologies and the lack of focus on user-centric use cases and killer applications. For example, a new topic of bitcoin ordinals that supports minting NFTs on the Bitcoin network is all the rage recently in the blockchain community. However, technology aside, it does not help a bit to expand the user community. I am sure that if a person does not understand NFTs on Ethereum, they would not understand a bit about the technicality of minting NFTs on the Bitcoin network.

To put it another way, if one studies the Internet, TCP/IP, and 5G wireless networks, they would examine countless technologies that form the backbone of the modern Internet. But if the focus of the entire industry were still on the Internet protocols of TCP/IP, we wouldn’t have the genius creation of the iPhone, the App Store, and the social networks of today. We need to think more from the consumer side to find the killer applications for the NFT industry.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about NFTs? Can you explain what you mean?

The three concerns above cover some of the most important “myths” and misinformation that I hope both OG developers and newcomers can work together to dispel.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they enter the NFT industry? What can be done to avoid that?

The biggest possible mistake when people enter the NFT industry is identifying an NFT project as a cryptocurrency project, and identifying the utility of NFTs as the same as tradable fungible tokens. In fact, doing so is at the creator’s own peril. In the eyes of the SEC such NFTs could be labeled as non-registered securities purely for the purpose of raising funds from investors.

How do you think NFTs have the potential to help society in the future?

NFTs should be the fundamental building block of the app store for Web3 and a decentralized economy — comparable to the significance of apps in app stores for the mobile phone industry. To achieve that, NFTs would need to have immutable utility (no one would download an app merely based on a promise of future utility as an IOU), and such utility should be articulated, coded, and audited via computer programs on-chain.

Hitch Interactive is one of the first organizations to attempt to bring immutable utility and a programmable NFT standard to the industry, called the Immutable Miniverse Format. More on that at https://hitch1999.com.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Highly Successful Career In The NFT Industry?”

  1. Empathy: The founders of Bitcoin and Ethereum have created fantastic technologies with their respective blockchain networks. It is time that the rest of us “get out of the building” and win over the other 98% of the world’s population so they want to adopt Web3 and decentralized applications.
  2. Regulations: Being in a “Wild Wild West” environment is not good for NFT adoption. Make sure your team has a clear understanding about rapidly changing regulations in the blockchain industry and, in particular, in the NFT industry.
  3. User-centricity: In an emerging market, early adopters and investors are always asking for a killer app that can help improve the adoption of new technologies. Innovators in the NFT industry, for each project, should have a clear user portrait around how their NFTs could become an integral part of a user’s daily life.
  4. Bridge-building: It is a lot easier to find target users of new technologies from matured markets rather than in a new market. Therefore, making sure an NFT project can be interoperable with existing social networks and other Web2 applications is important.
  5. AI and Metaverse intersections: The two most promising markets that are highly synergistic with the NFT industry are AI and the Metaverse.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

The AI revolution wouldn’t be like it is today if every past contribution to GPT and many other modern AI models were judged by their tradable profit. In fact, significant contributions to GPT are open sourced and free for society to adopt.

As exciting as investing in bitcoin and ethereum is, the NFT industry must bravely blaze a new path forward. If bitcoin is the digital gold, then NFTs should be the substance of a decentralized app store market catering to people’s daily lives and daily needs. I recall the famous slogan about smartphone app stores: “for everything in life, there’s an app for that.” We are calling for the “there’s an app for that” moment for the NFT industry.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

One of the most important innovators of the 21st century has to be the creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. The entity behind this pseudonym not only created a perfect decentralized digital currency, but must have foreseen the consequences if their identity were ever made public.

No innovator today, including me, would turn down an opportunity to have a private lunch with Satoshi Nakamoto.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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