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Ep. 64: Max Galka on building a universal search engine for the blockchain.

Watch our interview with Max  on Youtube.

Max Galka is the CEO of Elementus, a company seeking to build the first universal search engine for blockchain data. He has also taught data science at the University of Pennsylvania and is a former securities trader. We discuss how Max went from trading complex securities to building a data science company, the threat of ransomware and what can be done about it, how cryptocurrencies might facilitate machine-machine transactions, and so much more!

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Show notes

  • Max is a born problem solver with a strong analytical bent. From the time he was a child, all the way until today, his father get's him puzzles for his birthday and Christmas.
  • These are traits he took with him to his work in finance and building data science companies.
  • One of those companies, Elementus, is the company he runs today. Its ambition is to build a universal search engine for blockchain data.
  • Max plunged down the blockchain rabbit hole in 2017 when someone pointed him at #Ethereum . From the first, he intuitively grasped how important smart contracts could be, and he has been exploring the space ever since.
  • The motivation for building a company around searching blockchain data came from his startling realization that almost no one had a firm grasp on the data being generated by blockchain transactions.
  • Max spent a decade trading complex financial instruments, which necessitated his being constantly surrounded by screens displaying detailed, up-to-the-minute information.
  • Given that the blockchain contains a record of every transaction ever performed going all the way to the beginning of the network, why wasn't there a state-of-the-art equivalent of Yahoo Finance for these data?
  • The answer wound up being simple: people simply didn't know how to gather and parse the data into a useable format. He reached this discovery in mid 2017, and solving this problem has occupied him ever since.
  • We asked Max about how big of a problem ransomware is.
  • A few decades ago ransomware was at worst a nuisance. You might be asked for $1000 to unlock a computer with sensitive information on it.
  • Today, ransomware groups are going after multinational corporations, infrastructure projects like the Colonial Pipeline, hospitals, and governments.
  • What's more, ransomware groups are organized in much more sophisticated ways, with hierarchies, franchise models, and subtle techniques for identifying and recruiting disgruntled employees as attack vectors.
  • As Max summarized it: when you look at a trend that is so upward sloping in every dimension it paints a very, very alarming picture.
  • Thomas uses this chance to make a point about the more general question of dangerous technology. There are many who are worried about the destructive potential of runaway AIs, but the immediate threat is more likely to be advanced AIs in the hands of willfully malicious people.
  • Max gives an excellent overview of the blockchain; it's essentially just an anonymized ledger, not unlike the one your bank has of your transactions.
  • Thomas is curious about the possibility of placing important documents like birth certificates on the blockchain as non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
  • Supposing information like DNA were included along with the document, what sorts of opportunities or problems might arise?
  • 19:43 Max responds by citing the example of how web 2.0 companies handled personal data and privacy. There are many ways in which the world could be a better place had they chosen to do things differently.
  • Trent makes the point that personal responsibility has to play a role in people owning and protecting their data in the future. The best safeguards in the world simply won't help if people don't bother to use them.
  • After some back-and-forth on revealed preferences and whether the brunt of better security should be born by companies or users, Thomas, Trent, and Max turn to the question of future applications of the blockchain.
  • Max replies that for blockchain technologies to gain adoption two things need to be true: existing laws need to be enforceable, and privacy needs to be achievable.
  • Max thinks that the lightning network is going to be the key to bitcoin becoming a global currency.
  • Max again draws on the lessons of the early web. Many detractors of the new technology pointed out--correctly!--that reading the news on the internet didn't add much to reading the paper that was delivered to their house everyday.
  • What they missed was the ways in which the web would change what news is. Modern web applications go far beyond simply putting a newspaper on the internet, they allow you to check many accounts against each other, hyperlink different conceptual threads into broader chains of content, mix text, audio, and video together, see real-time coverage of events as they unfold, and much more.
  • Similarly, critics of bitcoin point out that existing credit card processors are pretty good at handling transactions, but they miss the ways in which bitcoin can transform what a transaction is.
  • For example: money transactions have always been between human beings. But can machines or software engage in transactions?
  • Max laid out a hypothetical scenario in which sensors spaced along the road might give and receive updates on weather and traffic conditions on the basis of tiny bitcoin transactions.
  • Other possibilities, such as setting a policy for bidding on space in a queue, tipping other drivers for prosocial behavior, or making pulse pricing relatively painless, also spring to mind.
  • Whether or not any of this comes to pass isn't the point; the point, rather, is to think through how a radically new approach to payments and settlement might change and expand the nature of transactions in the same way that the internet changed and expanded the way news worked.
  • This and much more in our riveting interview with Elementus CEO Max Galka!
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