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Blockchain Thinkers and Smart Contracts to take over the World?
Melanie Swan   Mar 10, 2015   Broader Perspective  

Automatically-executing smart contracts and their impact on society has been contemplated in many different contemporary science fiction works like Daemon (Suarez), and Accelerando and Glasshouse (Stross). The interesting point is that artificial autonomous agents are becoming increasingly full-fledged participants in the real-life contemporary world.

There are many forms of artificial intelligence in development, and also the advent of new kinds of information technology like blockchains.

Blockchains could be an explosive operational venue for new kinds of autonomous agents like distributed autonomous corporations (DACs), a long-envisioned concept in computing and science fiction. Blockchains are a universal permanent public transaction ledger where smart contracts can be encoded to conduct certain activities in the future.

For example, a smart contract could be used to specify a bet between two parties about the maximum temperature tomorrow. The smart contract, itself being online, will automatically check the temperature tomorrow per a pre-specified information oracle (like an Internet-based weather site) and pay out the proceeds to the winning party. Similarly, more complicated arrangements like mortgages (with interest rate resets) and wills (payout per a person’s death) could be encoded in smart contracts.

Far more complicated smart contracts could also be specified, for example for DACs where all corporate documents are encoded to blockchains. This would include the operating charter, governance rules, financial statements, client contracts, licenses, and other documents for orchestrating all manner of corporate conduct.

‚ÄčA DAC would engage in the full suite of activities conducted by any physical-world corporation, except that all operations would be triggered to execute automatically per blockchain-based smart contracts. Since all of the DAC’s activities are blockchain-registered transactions, its operations are transparent and publically-inspectable on demand at any moment. Other advanced entities could include Blockchain Thinkers and fully-autonomous Blockchain AIs.

Smart-contract entities are a new concept that is not presently part of everyday human life, but is contemplated in science fiction works such as Daemon (Suarez), Accelerando and Glasshouse (Stross), and the Golden Age trilogy and Hermetic Millennia (John C. Wright). These narratives provide various portrayals of what life might be like with humans and autonomous corporations living in coexistence.

On one hand, there are many potential efficiency and transparency benefits that facilitate societal interaction as agent motives and activities can be observed more closely and constitute a truer measure of reputation. On the other hand, DACs are a monolithic code entity that may execute unstoppably despite changing world conditions. Code has always been law (inexorably-executing), but the context for human interaction with such code has been more limited.

In the current connected world, humans may be increasingly living side-by-side with different gradations of code-based sentient entities such as personalized robots, artificial companions, Internet-of-Things smarthome networks, self-driving connected cars, and Blockchain Thinkers.  

Melanie Swan, MBA, is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. Ms. Swan, principal of the MS Futures Group, is a philosopher, science and technology futurist, and options trader.



COMMENTS

Contracts that can’t possibly be set aside can be very dangerous. It means, for instance, that bankruptcy is impossible. Look at Argentina, and at Americans with student loans, to see how harmful that is.

I think a smart contract includes conditions under which it can be set aside.

One might hope that it does. However, the idea of bankruptcy law is that it can override contracts when if they were written without providing for bankruptcy.  Human judges decide how to modify the contracts rather than letting rigid programs decide.

I also prefer important decisions to be made by flexible human judges rather than rigid programs (assuming of course that the human judges are honest, which isn’t always the case). At the same time, automation is more efficient, faster and cheaper.

I guess workable smart contracts will include human judges for dispute resolution, just like escrow payments. So if you and I sign a smart contract that executes automatically, there are two possibilities: one, we both accept the results, in which case the judge is not called; two, one of us lodges a complain, in which case the execution of the contract is halted (for example the payment is kept in escrow) until the judge decides.

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