He later reassures me that while life extension solutions have been slow coming they could be ready by 2060, which is "probably enough for you". (I’m 25.)
So what would he do with eternal life, I ask, imagining he might yearn to crack unsolved mathematics proofs. Not quite. "The most important thing is to enjoy it," he replies. During flights, he practises the languages he’s not yet fluent in by watching French, German or Chinese films.
As we talk, cryptocurrency is having something of a cultural shift. The idealistic early coders, who wanted blockchain to transfer power from corporations and governments to individuals, last year started getting overtaken by get-rich-quick schemers. Some ICOs were scams. Buterin watched in dismay as his blockchain was flooded by mercenaries making a fast buck.
"There’s projects that never had a soul, that are just like, ra-ra, price go up," he flaps his long hands, "Lambo[rghini], vrromm, buybuybuy now!" Then he blurts out a critique of the digital token, Tron, breaking the tension by laughing uproariously. Tron’s market valuation hit $17bn without any discernible product.
The outlandish valuations are, he says, "far ahead of what this space has actually accomplished for the world".
Even as we wait for delivery, the crypto markets are tanking. By the end of the day, ether will have crashed 30%t. This volatility would have traders sweating, but it’s nothing to crypto-veterans such as Buterin — he doesn’t even check his phone.
The boom may disillusion Buterin, but he has welcomed mainstream investment in blockchain. The Ethereum Enterprise Alliance (EEA) was founded in 2016 to test enterprise uses for the blockchain — members range from BP to JPMorgan. The EEA reflects Buterin’s changing mindset. As a teenager, he shared the rebellious crypto-community’s common attitude: "the system", ie governments, banks and major corporations, "is basically evil, and we needs [sic] to outright resist it and build a new thing" (Buterin has a childlike tic, incorrectly adding "s" to some verbs).
But he came to realise these people "aren’t that different from people anywhere else". Purists might call this betraying blockchain’s roots; Buterin paints it as pragmatism, coloured with anxiety about governments with "hundreds of billions of dollars of physical weaponry, plenty of prisons … increasing amounts of internet surveillance".
Buterin has cause to fret: he watched early bitcoiners who used bitcoin for drug trafficking get caught. He cites Ross Ulbricht, the impossibly young US libertarian who ran dark web market Silk Road, an illegal online marketplace for illicit substances and goods, largely on bitcoin. Ulbricht’s infamous decision to hire hit men rewrote the narrative of bitcoin, argues Buterin, turning a story about "possibly a civil disobedient martyr" to "actual criminal and a public enemy". Now in his early thirties, Ulbricht lost a five-year court battle in 2017 and faces life in prison.
"[E]ven if your goal is to overthrow parts of the establishment, you want to have and present an image of why this is driving human progress," he explains. "[The] Lord of the Rings and Star Wars could give people a very, very misleading impression of social conflict".
His reference to hobbits and jedis invoke a child’s morality, righteousness versus evil; Buterin has adjusted to a world without clear-cut villains and heroes.
So who’s the most significant person in his life? For once he’s silenced. "Hmmm." Pause. "It’s hard to think of one single person. Yeah." We’re saved by the delivery’s arrival.
Two women on sofas are tapping at sticker-covered laptops. The atmosphere is student house, pre-final exams. Buterin fetches plates and forks (but not knives). We unwrap spiced prawns and vegetable pad pak for him; absinthe green vegetable curry with brown rice for me.
I ask what he remembers about Russia, which he left aged six. Peeling the prawn shells with long, nail-bitten fingers, he recites facts about his hometown, Kolomna: population 140,000; 115km from Moscow. He visited Moscow and St Petersburg in 2017, meeting Vladimir Putin, and is talking to Russian officials about a cryptorouble project.
He has explained that he is establishment-friendly these days, but I have trouble understanding why he’d help an authoritarian government. He paraphrases Frederick Douglass, who was criticised for engaging with slaveholders but said: "I would unite with anyone to do right; and with nobody to do wrong".
He later confides he’s encouraging the Kremlin to deliver "crypto-y benefits for the people", but adds, despondently, that he’s "not sure how much of that is actually getting through".
Willingness to talk has propelled Buterin on a seemingly open-ended diplomacy tour. In the past month, he’s visited four countries: Thailand, Singapore, China and the US. He has no fixed address. "Right now I’m basically just floating everywhere," he says.
So, where does he leave his stuff while he’s travelling? He races from the room. Baffled, I fork at some aubergine. He returns with a bright pink duffel bag, overflowing with T-shirts. Doesn’t he own books? He gestures to his Android phone.
When his fortune grew from $1m to over $10m-$20m (for once he fudges the numbers), he didn’t feel "yay, I get more stuff; it’s more certainty that I won’t have to worry about money for a long time". He donates to the Gates Foundation, GiveDirectly, and De Grey’s anti-ageing SENS Research Foundation.
His most important influence, he says, is the internet, and last June it killed him off: a viral rumour that he was dead knocked $4bn in market cap off ether, revealing how integral cryptocurrency traders see Buterin to ethereum. "It’s like OK, wow, that’s weird," he recalls. "My family members were sending me WeChat messages saying, are you OK?"
I notice shadows under his piercing blue eyes. For all his public appearances, his celebrity does not sit easily.
"Last year it got to the point where [the fame] got more annoying than good," he says. He recalls a man trailing him around an aeroplane and through an airport, trying to talk to him.
Was this something he wanted, this leadership position? He doesn’t miss a beat. "No." So how did it happen? "Mmmm. ethereum got big." He hangs his head, like I’d scolded him. "[It] just so happened that ethereum evolved without, I guess, other figures quite as large as myself."
Buterin seems downcast. Attempting to lighten the mood, I ask where he’d like to be in five years’ time. "I have no idea," he sighs. "I generally don’t plan more than three months ahead, let alone five years."
It’s clear that ethereum started as a project, not a career plan. He ridicules the bitcoin millionaires who’ve ridden the crypto-tsunami to riches, flaunting it as investment prowess.
"It’s the luck of the draw, where everyone who won the draw seems to feel like they deserved it for being smarter," rants Buterin. He impersonates a bitcoin bull: "I was loyal and I was virtuous and I held through and therefore I deserve to have my five mansions and 23 lambos!" We laugh.
Having polished off the prawns, he picks up food granules with his index finger and describes walking through a rundown district in China recently. He fixates on the "scrappy grocery stores, with five-year-old kids helping mommy and daddy rearrange the water bottles". They reminded him that "these are the people you’re actually serving".
I can sense Buterin itching to get back online. He removes the plates and thanks me for coming. I step into the grey day, a good distance from anywhere and without having called a car. Since the tradition is that the FT pays, I left $45 in notes for Greco, but discovered belatedly I was $5 short. Don’t worry, Greco tells me later over e-mail. I can pay him the difference in ether.