In part one of this series, Ryan Walker discussed blockchain technology, decentralized autonomy, and the concept of singularity in relation to Terence McKenna's timewave novelty theory. Part two looks more closely at the concept of decentralized autonomy in nature, presents Bitcoin as the first decentralized autonomous organization, and makes the case that the concept will serve as a catalyst towards reaching singularity.
It is 10:56 p.m. (EDT) on July 20, 1969, and across the globe millions of families huddle in front of their television sets. As Neil Armstrong takes his first steps on the moon, a generation serves witness to one of the most monumental achievements in human history.
Graphic 1.0 Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 space mission. The live broadcast is believed to have been viewed by over 600 million people.
While the significance of putting a man on the moon is obvious, what is often lost is an appreciation for the enormity of prior achievements and the conditions required to make it possible. The establishment of the nation-state as a societal structure unleashed the untapped potential of collectively incentivized human action. Had it not been for its existence, how many more centuries may have been required for mankind to reach such literal and figurative heights? Akin to the establishment of the nation-state, the ascension of decentralized autonomy may further catalyze collective human action to even greater levels of achievement, including the reaches of singularity.
One Small Step for Man
When considering the full spectrum of human innovation, it is awe-inspiring that a species that began to use tools between 2.6 and 3.4 million years ago reached the moon so quickly. Equally impressive is the realization that the fundamental understandings that made it feasible had their beginnings a mere 3,600 years ago. (Astronomy's first recordings in Ancient Babylonia are dated 1600 BC. Physics' beginnings in Ancient Greece are dated 650 BC.) This is to say that the majority of the innovative and technological contributions that enabled the moon landing occurred in the final 0.13% of a 2.6-million-year timeframe. Graphic 2.0 gives further context to the escalating timeframe by which the innovations of mankind have occurred.
Graphic 2.0 An exponentially scaled timeline of significant human eras and innovative achievements. The arrows below the timeline display various social structures as they arose during the same time period.
Underlying all of mankind's accomplishments and innovations lies a variable that made them possible, that of societal structure. While innovation would have likely occurred otherwise, the various social structures humanity has operated within over several millennia have significantly impacted the speed by which they have been achieved. These structures have evolved and competed from the beginnings of hunter-gatherers, to tribalism, chiefdoms, and empires - resulting in the modern government of nation-states we experience today. Modern structures have provided more complete and distributed fulfillment of fundamental human needs, academic institutions for consistent knowledge sharing, and development and the creation of economic and nationalistic incentives for innovations in all facets of social and technological science. For example, the structures of tribalism and kingdoms are less accepting of free thought, as their existence is dependent upon strict conformity to ideas and ways of being. Had it not been for the conditions made possible by the nation-state, reaching the moon in 1969 would not have been possible. It required not only the technological know-how, but also a tremendous degree of organization and resources. Beyond these requirements was the added need of a motivational incentive, which can be accredited to the nationalistic fervor of competing nation-states provided by the Space Race between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.
- John F. Kennedy (May 25, 1961)
Regardless of the improvement upon their predecessors, with each new social structure came inherent limitations. Stated in context - the world's largest tribes, despite having more utility than that of nomadic hunter-gatherers, would likely require more than 3,600 years to reach the moon. I would challenge anyone to find a rediscovered lost tribe that had been largely ignored as a dark horse competitor to the space race of the 1960s.
Despite the monumental achievements of nation-states, objective observation reveals that their behavior on a macro scale remains strikingly similar to that of primitive tribalism, as both display strong degrees of conformity, and most often act in independent self-interest. Such divided incentives among increasingly complex and independent bodies provoke notably negative externalities, including but not limited to the following:
- Indifference due to increasing degrees of disassociation and complexity
- Waste and inefficiency due to conflicting incentives and competition
- Lack of concern and accountability for environmental and societal damage
- Distrust due to inadequate transparency or even deception
As of September 2014 the world included between 191 and 196 recognized nations.* Despite the fact that these divisions are representative of the perceived differences between populations (cultural, religious, political, geographic, etc.) the interconnectedness of the globe via technology and an increasingly peer-to-peer landscape is evidence that the significance of such structures is weakening. The modern nation-state is functional but imperfect. In the same way that modern nation-states have enabled humans to achieve progress at an increasing rate over previous social structures, decentralized autonomy may provide a potential complement or alternative to existing social systems that may eventually temper the human potential further through refined incentive structures. It is unlikely that mankind's earliest tribes, despite harnessing the use of tools and fire, could have ever imagined the complex structure of modern society and the scale of its potential. In this same way, modern humanity may be no different then our primitive ancestors in that we cannot fully imagine a future of decentralized autonomy beyond our existing paradigm and the associated human potential it might unleash.
Decentralized Autonomy in Nature and Bitcoin
Mankind's greatest achievements and inspirations have oft been rooted in the observation of the natural universe. In fact, decentralized systems were observed in nature prior to the advent of the blockchain. Insect colonies are most frequently referred to when describing a natural phenomenon where actors use local information to act on more complex global behavior. This description is so fitting that Andreas Antonopoulos chose to grace the cover of his book Mastering Bitcoin with leafcutter ants.
Nature demonstrates that de-centralized systems can be resilient and can produce emergent complexity and sophistication without the need for a central authority, hierarchy or complex parts.
- Andreas Antonopoulos (Mastering Bitcoin, 2014)
Satoshi Nakamoto's 2009 release of the Bitcoin protocol represents the first successful** man-made decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) in our history. Its success is unrelated to highly visible price spikes or speculative gains in value, rather that the core protocol has provided a proven incentive structure for independent actors to participate within the network based upon their own rational self-interest, with no central authority. Actors include miners, users, nodes, and peripheral organizations that have all chosen to take part in this autonomous organization, and as a result humanity is reaping the benefits of not only a new medium of exchange and value, but an innovative form of cryptographic consensus and security that will catalyze countless innovations.
It is within such incentive schemes that decentralized autonomy becomes a reality. Furthermore, it is through the experiments of such schemes that we may eventually learn to incentivize the actions of the individual to benefit the collective whole as efficiently and effectively as possible by applying them to such challenges as the conservation of our environment, social welfare, health, and most importantly peace.
Graphic 3.0 Leafcutter ant colonies are common examples of naturally occurring decentralized systems. Pictured above is the species atta cephalotes.
Experiments in Decentralization and the Singularity
Despite its early success, it is important to recognize that Bitcoin itself remains an experiment. There are no guarantees that the existing incentive structure provided by the core protocol will hold water in the long term. Notable debates on this topic include the incentives for miners (block issuance) and node participation (network security and distribution). In this way, all future decentralized autonomous systems will be experiments.
Ideally, I would be able to tell you that humanity could be XX% more productive or XX% more innovative if we operated with the support of a sophisticated decentralized autonomous framework. The reality is that I have no way of measuring what humanity's untapped potential currently is as a result of operating within our existing social structures. Thus, the decentralized autonomous organizations and corporations of the future will be, like all previous social structures, experiments in our history. My prediction is that many DOAs will arise, and the vast majority will fail, but over time some experiments, like all innovations, will improve and further hone the incentives that are essential to encouraging participation.
Furthermore, it is important to also point out that the concept of decentralized autonomy is such that it could coexist within the existing framework. Despite evangelical proponents calling for revolution of the existing social frameworks of tribalism and nation-states, decentralized autonomy is such that it could gradually outgrow existing structures, rendering them obsolete entirely in a far more subtle evolution. One might consider the possibility of decentralized autonomous nations one day, but if the incentive structures of decentralized autonomy became effective enough, would more than one nation even be necessary? Could there really be a future with a single galvanized social structure?
One possibility is that decentralized autonomy is a complete failure, where it recedes from the human dialogue. Alternatively, there is also the possibility that it succeeds in releasing a previously unrecognized deficit in human potential, which when combined with our technological progress catapults us further toward the realm of singularity in the same way that the nation-state provided the necessary resources and incentives to reach the moon.
Decentralized Autonomous Human Beings
A favorite talking point for singularity enthusiasts is that of prolonging human life - moreover prolonging life in the form of permanent prosthesis and the digitized mind. The content of Ray Kurzweil's bestseller The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology describes the potential of humanity to bridge the divide between our biological self and the technologies of our own creation. Talks on the subject such as Dr. Jonathan White's Tedx Talk often describe the post-human experience in the context of a regenerative clone-like body or robotic device, with generalized references to transcendence into a collective consciousness. Contextual applications might include keeping a digitized backup of one's mind so that if the body were harmed, it could be rebooted into a new host. I would argue that within this context, the application of advanced blockchain technology could serve host to the potential post-humans of the future. With that, I would like to coin the term Decentralized Autonomous Human Being (DAHB).
Graphic 4.0 The potential home address of a post-biological decentralized autonomous human being, maybe even me. I used to live in Denver, but now I live on the blockchain. Stop by any time - I will quite literally always be there, even when I'm simultaneously in my robot body.
The implications of a future where DAHBs coexist on a blockchain are significant. Kurzweil estimates that computing power may match the human mind by 2020 and that artificial intelligence (AI) may become a reality as early as 2045. Imagine a scenario where in 2050 our minds can be digitized and stored on an advanced blockchain. It brings to mind a host of remarkable questions:
- Would we now be able to process information and thought on computers far more powerful than our own minds?
- Would we be able to hold multiple conversations at once as a result of distributed consciousness, and instantaneously incorporate information learned in the background, or from the various conversations we are having at once?
- Would a blockchain of coexisting DAHBs eventually learn to act as a collective form of human consciousness (hive mind)?
- Would we incorporate artificial intelligence to act among us as decentralized autonomous agents?
Today the blockchain represents a novel solution for decentralized consensus and trust. In the context of the singularity and post-human existence, it is not impossible to imagine that a blockchain might serve as an eventual host to a collectively distributed human consciousness. It would be funny if it ended up on Doge. In any case, if such options were available, I think I would still like the robotic body option too, but that's just me.
- The recognized number of nations within the world varies based on modern events and conditions. Taiwan, for example, adds variation to this number based on where you look.
** It should be noted that Bitcoin cannot be considered completely autonomous, as updates to the core protocol are still made possible through the Bitcoin Improvement Proposal (BIP) process.
References & Citations:
Graphic 3.0 - Leafcutter Ant: This image is a work of a United States Department of Agriculture employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the US federal government, the image is in the public domain.