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Tony Fadell Is Trying to Build the iPod of Crypto

Tony Fadell Is Trying to Build the iPod of Crypto

Fadell looks at the photos of the credit-card-sized wallet and its innovative E Ink touchscreen. When Ledger reveals it on December 6, it will cost $279. That’s a rounding error for those who buy Bored Apes. To add a bit of flair, the screen wraps around one side, giving it the equivalent of the spine on a book. But the photo doesn’t show this enough. “It’s very rectilinear and 2D,” he says. “Not enough spine. I’m not feeling the curve.” He frowns. “And it’s so dark.”

David Sloo, a user experience designer who worked with Fadell at Nest, picks up on the critique. “Can we be less Darth Vader and more Rebel?”

Fadell agrees. “It’s really who we are—it’s all about the Empire.”

His remark is a segue to the next panel, marked MANIFESTO. A handful of slogans are taped to the glass.

Crypto is the new money.

Security is a human right.

Welcome to a new era of financial freedom.

The first touchscreen device made to protect your most valuable assets.

Fadell looks the hardest at one that reads: 

In [L] Stax We Trust.

He is not satisfied with the prominence of the [L], the Ledger logo, which appears in a custom military-style typeface. The brand is what people should remember. “In five years, every time you see that L you’ll think Ledger,” he says. “Like the Apple logo stands for the brand.”

The comparison seems absurd. The company is nowhere near that size, its product is alien to most Earthlings, and its niche—crypto—has been undergoing months of shock treatment. Fadell seems unfazed.

“It’s coming together,” he says. “Forty-nine days!”

During those 49 days, the arc of crypto will bend into a dunk tank. Timing, as product gurus know, is everything. Stax might be coming at the perfect moment. It could as easily be the worst. 

Ledger was founded in 2014 by members of a Bitcoin collective called La Maison du Bitcoin. They wanted to build a wallet for crypto purists. These people would never leave their private keys on a phone or laptop—too hackable—or park their holdings in an exchange, which is a trusted, centralized institution and no better than a bank. (“Trust” is a pejorative in this world.) That was the year thousands of people lost their investments in a hack of crypto’s flagship exchange, Mt. Gox, wiping out many customers’ life savings. 

Ledger’s savvy consumers would entrust their keys only to a hardware wallet, something they could hold in their hands even when servers went down and exchanges went bust. You’d begin a transaction on a phone or laptop and use the wallet to verify it. Your private key, marooned on its Alcatraz, would never cross the gap to those less secure devices. 

The company’s first wallet, released late that year, was nothing special. But it satisfied a need among some crypto folk. Subsequent models got tiny displays. Ledger ultimately sold more than 5 million of its wallets, which it says now secure 20 percent of the world’s crypto and more than 30 percent of NFTs. True believers wear Ledger wallets around their necks. 

Picture Limitless Creativity at Your Fingertips

Picture Limitless Creativity at Your Fingertips

Picture Lee Unkrich, one of Pixar’s most distinguished animators, as a seventh grader. He’s staring at an image of a train locomotive on the screen of his school’s first computer. Wow, he thinks. Some of the magic wears off, however, when Lee learns that the image had not appeared simply by asking for “a picture of a train.” Instead, it had to be painstakingly coded and rendered—by hard-working humans.

Now picture Lee 43 years later, stumbling onto DALL-E, an artificial intelligence that generates original works of art based on human-supplied prompts that can literally be as simple as “a picture of a train.” As he types in words to create image after image, the wow is back. Only this time, it doesn’t go away. “It feels like a miracle,” he says. “When the results appeared, my breath was taken away and tears welled in my eyes. It’s that magical.”

Our machines have crossed a threshold. All our lives, we have been reassured that computers were incapable of being truly creative. Yet, suddenly, millions of people are now using a new breed of AIs to generate stunning, never-before-seen pictures. Most of these users are not, like Lee Unkrich, professional artists, and that’s the point: They do not have to be. Not everyone can write, direct, and edit an Oscar winner like Toy Story 3 or Coco, but everyone can launch an AI image generator and type in an idea. What appears on the screen is astounding in its realism and depth of detail. Thus the universal response: Wow. On four services alone—Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, Artbreeder, and DALL-E—humans working with AIs now cocreate more than 20 million images every day. With a paintbrush in hand, artificial intelligence has become an engine of wow.

Because these surprise-generating AIs have learned their art from billions of pictures made by humans, their output hovers around what we expect pictures to look like. But because they are an alien AI, fundamentally mysterious even to their creators, they restructure the new pictures in a way no human is likely to think of, filling in details most of us wouldn’t have the artistry to imagine, let alone the skills to execute. They can also be instructed to generate more variations of something we like, in whatever style we want—in seconds. This, ultimately, is their most powerful advantage: They can make new things that are relatable and comprehensible but, at the same time, completely unexpected.

So unexpected are these new AI-generated images, in fact, that—in the silent awe immediately following the wow—another thought occurs to just about everyone who has encountered them: Human-made art must now be over. Who can compete with the speed, cheapness, scale, and, yes, wild creativity of these machines? Is art yet another human pursuit we must yield to robots? And the next obvious question: If computers can be creative, what else can they do that we were told they could not?

I have spent the past six months using AIs to create thousands of striking images, often losing a night’s sleep in the unending quest to find just one more beauty hidden in the code. And after interviewing the creators, power users, and other early adopters of these generators, I can make a very clear prediction: Generative AI will alter how we design just about everything. Oh, and not a single human artist will lose their job because of this new technology.

It is no exaggeration to call images generated with the help of AI cocreations. The sobering secret of this new power is that the best applications of it are the result not of typing in a single prompt but of very long conversations between humans and machines. Progress for each image comes from many, many iterations, back-and-forths, detours, and hours, sometimes days, of teamwork—all on the back of years of advancements in machine learning.

AI image generators were born from the marriage of two separate technologies. One was a historical line of deep learning neural nets that could generate coherent realistic images, and the other was a natural language model that could serve as an interface to the image engine. The two were combined into a language-driven image generator. Researchers scraped the internet for all images that had adjacent text, such as captions, and used billions of these examples to connect visual forms to words, and words to forms. With this new combination, human users could enter a string of words—the prompt—that described the image they sought, and the prompt would generate an image based on those words.

The Hunt for the Dark Web’s Biggest Kingpin, Part 4: Face to Face

The Hunt for the Dark Web’s Biggest Kingpin, Part 4: Face to Face

The FBI agent, thinking quickly, avoided eye contact with Cazes and walked directly past him to the door. In the seconds it took for Cazes to cross the room, seemingly in slow motion, thoughts raced through Rabenn’s mind: How did Cazes know who they were? Or that they were on his trail? Or which hotel they were staying at in Bangkok? Had there been a leak? Had they been meeting too conspicuously, blowing their opsec? Had this criminal mastermind outsmarted them?

In mere moments, Rabenn expected Cazes to sit down next to them at their table, smug expression on his face, and say, as he imagined it, “Fuck you guys, I know you’re here, and you’re not going to get anything.”

Rabenn realized he had no idea how he would respond. They could arrest Cazes on the spot, but they’d lose all hope of getting access to his laptop or any smoking-gun evidence of his control of AlphaBay. Just as they were on the cusp of victory, it seemed their plan had failed.

“Oh, shit,” Rabenn silently concluded, in a state of blank panic. “This thing’s over.”

Then, when Cazes was about 5 feet away from their table, he turned and sat down at the table next to them, across from a pair of Israeli businessmen wearing suits and yarmulkes.

The Americans looked at each other in confusion. After a moment, the FBI agent returned and sat down casually. He and Miller began silently signaling to the rest of the table that everyone else should leave.

Rabenn, recovering his composure, allowed the thought to cross his mind that perhaps all was not lost—that this was simply the most stunning coincidence of his life.

Doing their best to act naturally, the prosecutors cleared out and walked up the curved staircase to the mezzanine floor of the hotel, while the FBI agent and Miller hung back to eavesdrop on Cazes’ conversation at the neighboring table. On the floor above, Rabenn and Hemesath shared a moment of wide-eyed relief. Text messages from the FBI and DEA agents still at the table began to roll in, reporting on Cazes’ meeting: He was talking with the Israelis about one of his real estate investment deals in the Caribbean.

As their panic subsided, they now saw that a group of Thai undercover police—including the team leader, Colonel Pisal Erb-Arb, in plain clothes—had stationed themselves around another table across the hotel lounge from Cazes and were discreetly watching him, even stealthily taking photos of each other that captured Cazes in the background. The AlphaBay founder gave no sign of having spotted them.

As Rabenn and Hemesath silently rejoiced, the FBI agent joined them on the mezzanine floor and pulled out his phone. He started Googling, trying to calculate the odds of what had just happened. How many hotels were there in Bangkok, anyway? He quickly showed them the answer: There were thousands.

In a euphoric daze, the two prosecutors marveled at their bizarre near-collision—but not for long. In two days, they knew their team would be encountering Cazes face-to-face again, this time in the most elaborate arrest they had ever attempted.

Continued next week: The day of the takedown arrives. Operation Bayonet reaches its kinetic climax. And then the case takes a tragic twist.

This story is excerpted from the book Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency, available now from Doubleday.

If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more.

Chapter illustrations: Reymundo Perez III

Photo source: Getty Images

This article appears in the December 2022/January 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

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Can Democracy Include a World Beyond Humans?

Can Democracy Include a World Beyond Humans?

There was once an orangutan named Ken Allen at the San Diego Zoo who was notorious for carrying out complex escape plans. He found every nut and bolt in his cage and unscrewed them; in his open enclosure he threw rocks and feces at visitors. On one occasion, he constructed a ladder out of some fallen branches, carefully testing his weight on the rungs. After that, the zoo raised his enclosure walls and smoothed them to remove handholds.

Hoping to distract Ken, the zoo introduced some female orangutans. But Ken enlisted them as accomplices: While he distracted the zookeepers, his fellow inmate Vicki pried open a window. One time, Ken was caught waist-deep in water in the enclosure’s moat, attempting to inch up the sides, despite the fact that orangutans are believed to be intensely hydrophobic. As for the electrified wires on top of the enclosure walls, Ken tested them repeatedly, and one day, during a maintenance break, he tried to hop out.

Animal escape attempts often make novelty news headlines, but these are not mindless acts of sabotage or curiosity; rather, they are forms of active and knowing resistance to the conditions forced upon them by humans. Animal acts of resistance in captivity mirror those of humans: They ignore commands, slow down, refuse to work, break equipment, damage enclosures, fight, and abscond. Their actions are a struggle against exploitation—as such, they constitute political activity.

Politics, at heart, is the science and art of making decisions. We commonly think of politics as the stuff done by politicians and activists within the framework of national and local government—but really it is the mundane, everyday business of communal organization. Any time two or more people make an agreement or come to a decision, politics is at work. For humans, politics plays out in all kinds of ways: in parliaments, at the ballot box, in our daily decisions about how we want to live. Every choice we make that affects others is itself political. This obviously includes voting, but it also includes the things we make and design; our relationships with our partners and neighbors; what we consume, act upon, share, and refuse. Even if we say that we want nothing to do with politics, we don’t really have that option—politics affects almost every aspect of our lives, whether we want it to or not. By definition, it is the process by which almost anything at all gets done. In this sense, politics, when organized, is also a kind of technology: the framework of communication and processing that governs everyday interaction and possibility.

This understanding of politics also means that our decisionmaking processes must extend beyond our own human lives: to nonhuman animals, to the planet, and in the very near future to autonomous AI. I call this a “more-than-human” politics, drawing from ecologist and philosopher David Abram’s concept of a more-than-human world, a way of thinking that fully acknowledges and engages with all living beings and ecological systems. A more-than-human political system can take many forms. Among humans, most political interactions are legislative and judicial, but we have much to learn from the myriad ways animals act politically among themselves.

Animals do politics practically; this is true for individual animals, as in the case of Ken Allen, but it is especially important for animal social groups. Social cohesion is critical to collective survival, and so all social animals practice some kind of consensus decisionmaking, particularly around migration and selecting feeding sites. Just as in human society, this can lead to conflicts of interests between group members. (Most of us are familiar with the horror of getting a group of people to agree on a restaurant.) The answer to this problem in the animal world is rarely, if ever, despotism; far more frequently, it involves democratic process.

A few remarkable examples: Red deer, who live in large herds and frequently stop to rest and ruminate, will start to move off from a rest area once 60 percent of adults stand up; they literally vote with their feet. The same goes for buffalo, although the signs are more subtle: The female members of the herd indicate their preferred direction of travel by standing up, staring in one direction, and lying down again. Birds, too, display complex decisionmaking behavior. By attaching small GPS loggers to pigeons, scientists have learned that decisions about when and where to fly are shared by all members of a flock.

Perhaps the greatest exponent of animal equality is the honeybee. Honeybees have their own distinct history, first as thoughtful pastoralists and pacifists—all bees are descended from one species of wasp that decided to go vegetarian some 100 million years ago—and secondly as highly organized, communicative, and consensus-building communities. Their storied commitment to social life is enshrined in the beekeeper’s proverb, which might double as a political slogan: “Una apis, nulla apis,” meaning “one bee is no bee.”

Honeybees perform one of the greatest spectacles of democracy-in-practice, known as the “waggle dance.” The waggle dance was first described scientifically in 1944, by Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch, as a means by which forager bees share the locations of nearby pollen sources. A few years later, one of Frisch’s graduate students, Martin Lindauer, noticed a swarm of bees hanging from a tree. Their behavior indicated that they were searching for a new home. But he also noticed that some of these bees were performing waggle dances, and that unlike pollen-dusted foragers, these bees were covered in soot and brick dust, earth and flour. These weren’t foragers, Lindauer realized; they were scouts.

The End of Alcohol

The End of Alcohol

For years, too, there’s been a stampede of self-help books by alcohol skeptics, most of them women, many of whom once had trouble drinking not the third bottle. These books have included My Unfurling, by Lisa May Bennett; Her Best-Kept Secret, by Gabrielle Glaser; This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace; The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, by Catherine Gray; Mindful Drinking, by Rosamund Dean; Drink?, by David Nutt; Sober Curious, by Ruby Warrington; and Quit Like a Woman, by Holly Whitaker. The subtitles run together, but they make big promises. If they follow the instructions, readers of these books—and listeners to adjacent and spin-off podcasts, including Recovery Happy Hour and Edit Podcast—will break up with alcohol, emerge from the grip of anxiety, radically defy patriarchy and capitalism, and become happy, healthy, and even wealthy. As 12-steppers will tell you, traditional recovery from alcoholism guarantees none of these marvels.

Some of the intoxication with nonintoxication may be more than a pose. People really do seem to be cutting back on drinking. According to Gallup, in 2019, 65 percent of American adults drank alcohol; in 2021, even after the claustrophobia and worry of the plague years, that number went down to 60 percent. What’s more, Americans went from (an avowed) four alcoholic drinks weekly in 2019 to 3.6 in 2021.

To cater to these newly temperate types—that is, to get those who decline to consume to keep consuming—sober-friendly bars have shot up like crocuses in New York, Denver, Miami, Austin, and San Francisco. Some of these places serve no booze at all. Others feature extravagant mocktails alongside full bars. At these places, someone with a drink the color of rust or algae can generally pass as a habitué. Amid chic decor, mixologists lace soft drinks with sophistication-signifiers and wallet-declutterers like orgeat, tobacco syrup, and chinotto orange.

In the last year, household-name mocktail moguls including Blake Lively, Bella Hadid, and Katy Perry have introduced their nonalcoholic beverages in collectible, high-design containers. The promises made by these drinks, which are largely water and tea plus high style, complement the ones made on the covers of sobriety books. Several available on Amazon, including Tranquini and Recess, come with herbal adaptogens, the latest wide-spectrum panacea for stress, in place of alcohol, the best wide-spectrum panacea for stress. Töst, one sober beverage brand, offers a “grown-up, complex” fake wine, while another called Seedlip distills plants to make a “flavorful, sophisticated, adult option.” Maybe sobers do fear being perceived as babies.

Just the way Big Food engendered Big Diet, Big Alcohol seems well on its way to engendering a new market sector with Big Sobriety. That could mean hefty payouts for opportunists who are more entrepreneurial than sober. Already, an 8-ounce can of Katy Perry’s De Soi Purple Lune drink, a fizzy tea with rose and myrrh that comes with outlandish health claims about balance and stress relief, can be yours for $6. This is nearly five times the price of a can of Bud.