As we’re entering another bear market, with dropping prices and rising crypto skepticism, it is perhaps a good time to ask: what is the long-term potential of crypto technologies anyways?
Long-term, I would argue, it may be the most important technology stack ever invented. That’s because it allows civilization to do three things:
In short, cryptocommerce supports intelligent voluntary cooperation.
To unpack these benefit let’s take each at at time:
1. Improve cooperation
As civilization, we have come a long way; starting with simple individual exchanges, we invented money as a medium of exchange, added composable property rights, and created complex contracts, culminating in the sophisticated institutional arrangements through which humans cooperate today.
Much of civilization’s success is based on these technologies of cooperation; together, we were able to drive down violence and poverty, and increase most factors we care about, from health, to education.For instance, the graph below, taken from Our World in Data, shows the global decline in extreme poverty from 1820 to 2015; after 1980 the rate of decline increases dramatically and continues.
Many imperfections remain; starting with obvious collective action problems like pollution, institutional pathologies like corruption, not to mention the many search costs, bargaining costs, and enforcement costs that damper our civilizational ascend. We are far from cooperating with the world in all of our preferred ways.
Then crypto happened. Cryptographically embodied transactions allow us to reinvent existing institutions in cyberspace at lower cost, with less friction, and less corruption. They also allow us to invent and experiment with entirely novel arrangements.
Crypto-enabled commerce, i.e. cryptocommerce is broader than simple crypto currencies alone. It includes novel financial arrangements (DeFi), innovative approaches to improve incentives in science (DeSci), and decentralized ways of coming together as societies (DeSoc). Prediction markets improve our information ecology, dominant assurance contracts can help solve collective action problems, NFTs engineer property rights, network States compete with nation states, social networks get redecentralized, and entire industries get DAO-ified,
Gradually, crypto is waking up to its tremendous potential to speed up civilizational progress by opening up the menu of choice options for cooperation. Most experiments will fail but we only need a few successful ones to revolutionize entire industries. Whenever you have a quantitative shift that large, the change can better be described as a shift in quality.
2. Secure cooperation
So far, so rosy. But crypto could, and must, do so much more. If we want to have any future at all, there are a variety of risks civilization has to learn to adapt to. Nuclear risks, (engineered) pandemics, automated weapons, and computer vulnerabilities are only a few of the risks that could shake the very foundations our society is built on. Other, more subtle risks include permanent lock-in into totalitarian dynamics, enabled by surveillance and automated enforcement. What role could the emerging web3 ecosystem possibly play here? Cryptocommerce technologies, such as the blockchain, are ultimately based on cryptography. These foundations aren’t just useful to improve cooperation, but they can serve as building blocks to secure and protect civilization. Promising crypto and security technologies include SeL4, open robotics, zero-knowledge proofs, and transparent sousveillance. There are many more on the horizon.
The crucial feature of these technologies is that they allow security from external attackers without being vulnerable to internal abuse. While legacy systems need you to trust that the “good guys” remain good, with decentralized approaches to encryption and security, anyone can check that the alleged protection fabric is, in fact, operating according to its stated specifications. If we gradually replace our existing insecure foundations with secure technological infrastructure, we may be able to perform a genetic takeover, i.e. growing a novel secure system inside the insecure host, until it can outcompete it. In this image, borrowed from biology, a phenotype, highlighted in green evolves through a new genotypic representation, G2, gradually emerging within an older one, G1.
3. Intelligize cooperation
Let’s imagine we have improved cooperation across civilization and secured it against threats. At this point, we will be in a position to leverage crypto to take one final step. This involves extending our networks of cooperation to welcome artificial intelligences.
From what is becoming increasingly obvious from compounding AI breakthroughs, advanced artificially intelligent systems are coming. As it rises, there is no reason to believe the level of artificial intelligence will halt at human intelligence. Historic nightmares with powerful centralized agents suggest that it’s unlikely that one powerful artificial intelligence would reliably uphold human interests. How do humans survive such a world?
By revisiting human cooperative institutions that have been stable for hundreds of years, we can learn a lot. One protective pattern that repeats itself across the US constitution, international treaties and market institutions is that multiple actors hold each other in check. The US legislature restrains the judiciary, smaller nations band together into collective security treaties to compensate for power of larger nations, and smaller companies collaborate to defend their niche against monopoly players. All of these systems fend against threats arising from powerful actors through a system of checks and balances across multiple players.
Looking ahead, any structure that is supposed to constrain future artificial intelligences would benefit from continuing this dynamic. Human and artificial entities have many differences. But they also have a few similarities we can leverage when designing such systems. Both human and AI entities rely on cooperative architectures, from individual computational objects cooperating for larger problem-solving through APIS, or humans cooperating for problem-solving through institutions. To the extent that they allow the creation of software native institutions, cryptocommerce technologies can build architectures that constrain and bridge between human and artificial cooperative agents.
Private ML, enabled by federated learning and differential privacy could help decentralize power away from powerful legacy centralized data brokers by making it possible for individuals to cooperate without losing data sovereignty. On the flipside, blockchain-enabled transparency and principal agent approaches could make personal AI assistants accountable to humans.
We haven’t even approached early days of exploring the required technology stack yet. But once we do, we have a lot to look forward to. In some sense our civilization is already a superintelligence that, composed of both human and artificial entities, gets better at problem solving through cooperation.
All we need to do is amplify this dynamic – without causing threats that can destroy the very foundations of civilization. That’s a tall order. But that’s what it could mean for the existing crypto ecosystem to mature, and grow into its full potential. Cryptocommerce could unlock intelligent voluntary cooperation.
If we’re successful, what’s possible in future rounds of play?
Throughout thousands of years of civilizational evolution, we have, gradually, become better at cooperating for mutual benefit without fighting each other. Potential wins from AI, automation, and other technologies that stand to be unlocked by cooperating will make adversarial moves even more risky. With cryptocommerce technology we can improve, secure, and intelligize cooperation, to unlock futures unimaginable to current players.
We take a stab at designing such a strategy in depth in Gaming the Future; a free substack book and book club. It comes with gitcoin bounties and guest presentations form technologists, such as Balaji Srinivasan, 1729, Arthur Breitman, Tezos, Glen Weyl, RadicalXChange, Tyler Golato, VitaDAO, Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, and many others, whose work is featured throughout the post.
About the author:
Allison Duettmann is the president of Foresight Institute, a 38-year-strong institute tosupport the beneficial development of high-impact technology to make great futures more likely. She leads the Intelligent Cooperation, Molecular Machines, Health Extension, Neurotech and Space programs, shares Foresight’s work with the public, e.g. at the Wall Street Journal, SXSW, O’Reilly AI, WEF, The Partnership on AI, Effective Altruism Global, TEDx. She co-edited the book Superintelligence: Coordination & Strategy, and co-authored Gaming the Future: Intelligent Voluntary Cooperation. She holds an MS in Philosophy & Public Policy from the London School of Economics, focusing on AI Safety, and a BA in Philosophy, Politics, Economics from York University.