Chatting With Ari Meilich: Project Lead at Ethereum-Powered Decentraland

Talking Bitcoin, gaming, AI, VR, and Yerba Mate

Ari is the Project Lead at Decentraland, the first decentralized VR platform. He has worked as an Analyst at Charles River Ventures, a leading Silicon Valley venture fund, and as the founder and CEO of Benchrise, a big-data company. Before entering the world of tech, he spent two years as a National Institute of Health fellow, performing neuroscience research on human decision-making, while running a BPO agency that catered to clients such as Amazon and General Electric.

You went from neuroscience and big data, to doing venture capital and crypto. What happened?

It seems like a weird path at first, but they were actually very interconnected. I first adopted Bitcoin to make ‘free’ international payments. I had an outsourcing business back in college, with over 50 people contracting from Argentina. At the time, the country suffered from strict capital controls, where the government dictated the price at which dollars had to be sold. But there was a black market price (“blue” dollar, in the Argentine jargon) of up to 100% more.

So initially Bitcoin solved a business problem?

At first, yeah. Bitcoin was a great way to bypass banks and fool a ridiculous economic policy. But pretty soon, this disintermediation convinced me that technology was an enabler of greater freedom.

Which technologies excite you today?

I think AI is fascinating since it’s making people realize that all the mental capacities that we thought were exclusive to humans could very well be outperformed by machines.

Then why then focus on blockchains over AI?

After doing a machine learning startup, I learned that to do it right, you need to have access to large, private datasets. This is why AI is dominated by an oligopoly with special access. I love blockchain technologies because they enable you to innovate without requiring ‘access’ or deep pockets.

Your latest project combines blockchains with VR. Why?

I was an avid gamer as a teenager. I would stay up all night playing Argentum, the first Argentine MMORPG. In 2015, a colleague brought an HTC Vive to our office, and my inner-gamer rushed back.

Being transported to an entirely new world was an amazing experience, akin to traveling.

However, there isn’t a lot of virtual reality content right now, and its distribution happens mostly through a handful of centralized storefronts, which constrains people’s ability to express themselves. We created Decentraland to give users and developers the VR experiences that they crave.

How does it work?

Decentraland is the first virtual platform owned by its users. You can purchase land through the Ethereum blockchain, which creates an unforgeable record of ownership. With full control over land, you can use custom scripting to create whatever you’d like.

Do users want a decentralized VR platform?

I think the days are counted for the ‘walled garden’ types of organization. Take Facebook for instance: users create content for free and attract their friends’ attention, ultimately contributing to a network effect that benefits none of them.

The idea behind Decentraland is to build an environment where the network can benefit.

Our bet is that networks will transition from the current free or ad-sponsored model to environments where you’re rewarded for your contributions. I think we’re going to look back to the web 2.0 days and laugh at it.

What’s an unexpected way VR will change the future?

Unlike networks of friends, where you extend through your social graph, virtual worlds have a great component of surprise. Stumbling upon the creations and partaking in the imagination of people halfway across the globe is pretty cool, and in this sense, it’s akin to traveling. That will be a great way to get rid of prejudice.

What about the Decentraland team excites you?

When I joined Decentraland, I had known everyone for about two years. We shared a hacker space (the Voltaire House) where we all worked on our own companies. We were a close knit community. I admired all these people, and when I realized we were all jumping on board, I felt really thankful to be working with them.

Which other projects have you been involved in? How has that experience been used in developing Decentraland?

I organized a weekend hackaton with everyone from the Voltaire House to build Doppel, an app to find your Doppelganger. We scraped millions of FB profile pictures to train a neural network that would find someone elsewhere in the world that looked like you. This project was probably a great predictor of Decentraland, since it brought our entire community together to hack for fun.

What’s something that you don’t want published in this interview?

I married when I was 20 without telling my parents.

What do you do outside of “work”?

I’m a pretty basic gaucho: I play soccer, eat asados, drink red wine, and socialize.

Why do you get up in the morning?

To walk and feed my dog before she gets furious.

Ari’s curious dog ‘Muna’

Favorite book?

Adán Buenosayres, by Leopoldo Marechal.

Coffee or tea?

I don’t trust anyone that doesn’t drink Yerba Mate.

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