Machine learning, a frontier technology that thoroughly captured the collective consciousness of tech enthusiasts this year, is as fascinating as it is misunderstood by the general public. The Neuromation ICO seems to be an unfortunate case study in the latter dynamic.
As with most concepts in high technology, this leaves a rift between the technologists that work with machine learning, and the term’s connotation in popular media and business circles.
While it doesn’t trade as well as terms like “Blockchain” and “VR,” machine learning and related concepts (AI, Neural networks, Computer Vision, etc.) have earned their place in the buzzword pantheon of late.
Announcing an AI project won’t double your penny stock or save your century-old film company, but it’s still great marketing. Which brings us to Neuromation — an “AI platform and marketplace” with a $50 million USD ICO for its ERC20 token.
Ostensibly users will buy and sell ML tools and models for ethereum-based tokens, to be cashed out into other crypto later. The core concept of their business model isn’t actually that bad. There are currently sites that do the same thing, like Algorithmia.
The problem is that there are other sites that do the same thing, like Algorithmia. What’s more, the other sites don’t expose people to the risk profile and disadvantages of the ERC20 token ecosystem.
Digging Deeper Into Neuromation
To compete in an established market, you can’t actively make your product worse than everything else currently available, which is exactly what the minds behind Neuromation have seemingly done.
Instead of a set rate for an algorithm or dataset, users are exposed to price swings caused by speculative trading, service outages whenever the Ethereum network becomes congested, and the ever present incentive for hackers to drain the platform of value.
To be fair, the incorporation of AI into their elevator pitch could be a lot dumber. They aren’t trying to bolt high-performance computing (HPC) onto the EVM (Ethereum Virtual Machine) like Golem is, and they aren’t trying to host anything on the Ethereum blockchain either. Which, even if you believe in Ethereum’s suite of technologies, begs the question — if the only thing that involves a blockchain in Neuromation is the token, why is the token even needed?
The answer to that question, of course, is that the token is needed to raise a ridiculous amount of capital for a platform that doesn’t actually innovate. There’s no partnership with an existing developer or company to bring exclusive models onto their marketplace, there’s no standout feature that makes Neuromation desireable for buyers or sellers over established platforms, and there’s no content at launch that isn’t available free on GitHub or elsewhere.
That’s right, all their launch content seems to be datasets that you can download free elsewhere and demos your can clone from GitHub, and they’re charging around a dollar each in tokens for them.
I reached out to the company about all of these issues, but they cut correspondence as soon as the tone of the questions shifted to critical.
So, just to recap, we’re looking at a $50 million dollar ICO to crowdfund a site where you can pay for open projects copied from GitHub while exposing yourself to potential theft and regulation risk (when the gas fees aren’t too high, anyway.) I’d call the project misguided, but that would assume that it wasn’t a completely transparent cynical cash grab/marketing exercise, which by all outward appearances, Neuromation seems to be.
Neuromation, at its core, isn’t a blockchain or AI platform, nor is it disruptive, useful, or necessary. What it is though, is an example of everything wrong with business culture, crypto, and the tech industry. They have combined a “utility” ICO with a popular class of tech buzzwords under the (entirely correct) assumption that they could get low information and/or indigent investors to dump money into it.
And they’re probably going to get away with it.
The space is poorly regulated, and more importantly, extremely accessible to people who want to part with their money. Anyone with a web browser and a credit card can buy into these dubious projects, and any sociopath with a tech fetish that sees dollars signs can get in on the grift.
Everything that makes the growth of crypto as a whole unsustainable, from the digital beanie babies to the selling false dreams to the displaced masses looking for a solution to institutional corruption, are typified by projects like Neuromation. There’s no utility here, no problems being solved, no innovation. Those things are difficult, and gradual. Any line similar to Neuromation’s being towed to push an ERC20 token should raise red flags.
I’ve tinkered with neural networks before, and I cant stress this enough: if you see something you want to use on Neuromation, just search it on GitHub or Google. Chances are it’s free! For those interested in learning about building your own neural nets and machine learning in general, I recommend taking a look at the Torch documentation and the many examples of its use found here.
What do you think? Does Neuromation set off any red flags for you? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
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