Love, The End of the World, and The Benefits of Verifiable Computing

Humans are a strange bunch. Faced with existential angst about time, life, death and our place in an inherently indifferent universe, we have an intense desire to release our minds from these shackles. As the peaceful image above shows us, we want to share a connection: that feeling that whatever is happening in my mind is whatever is happening in yours and that would end up make everything okay.

In that embrace, foreheads touching in silence and understanding, we feel like we are timeless. Yes, time will go on after this, death will happen, new lives will be begin and end and the universe will merrily march on without us. But in those moments when we really connect with people, a switch is flipped and we are okay with it.

One of my favourite scenes reflecting this is the final scene of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Nothing quite captures that angst and deep connection like that scene (Spoiler Alert).

This desire has manifested in many different ways besides the embrace of two lovers. We invented language. We invented stories about our existence, regaling them around camp fires. We invented art, where understanding others through a cultural meme is sort like a proof-of-work for connection. If I like a piece and someone else likes it as well, it speaks to what the events in our lives and the roads we unknowingly shared to be able to come together and appreciate that cultural meme. We invented different media. We invented the Internet, Web & Social Networks, and we are upon the cusp of a new frontier with the likes of VR & AR.

All of these point to this one desire: To feel closer and collapse time and space. Every new technology that has come along has allowed us to create a greater source of shared truth, amongst greater numbers of people. We are not only growing closer as individuals, but as strangers, as well. With every new step forward the relationships we have with other people change. For example, the view of the Earth from the moon and the pale blue dot from Carl Sagan emphasizes a connection with everyone on this planet, allowing us to realise that perhaps all the pettiness of war and the destruction we are wrecking onto our planet is deeply tragic. And that we should strive to think differently about the people and places around us.

Because of technology, I can connect with an ever increasing, wider circle of people. It’s not just because technology allows me to get there, but also because it reduces the need for me to distrust others.

The ability to use technology in order to more easily connect and engage with others has always been our domain. We are biological wetware. As such, we not only crave to share connection with people, but we also understand the benefits of it: Increased trust. Increased understanding. Increased prosperity. Increased happiness. In a world where scarcity and survival becomes less important, our goals shift more to cooperation rather than competition.

In the next decade, our tandem cultural evolution with technology is going to take a very interesting turn, both in our relationship with it and in the relationship of programs with other programs.

Love In The Time of AI

Recently, movies like Her and Ex Machina have explored what becomes of our innate biological desire to connect when it is coupled with technology.

Still from the film Her.

In Her a man falls in love with a new operating system, sharing deep moments we come to expect of people: that of loving another. Similarly, in an episode of Black Mirror, a person is recreated as an AI by seeding it with social media posts of the person. It’s not farfetched to imagine either scenario existing in the future.

Still from the film Ex Machina.

Our desire to trump our biology and create a shared source of truth and connection has led us here and, in the immediate future, we understand the implications of what we are building with this technology: people will fall in love with their AI. For us, it’s not just about connecting, it’s also about prospering through increased coordination.

So, the more interesting question becomes: What happens if we create a shared source of truth and a more common language for computers? We have. And I don’t quite think we realise what we are in for.

Love In The Age of The Ethereum World Computer: A Verifiable Shared Truth of Computing

It’s doubtful that programs will develop the desire to connect for the sake of it (like we do), unless we program them to do it. However, the benefits of knowing that a computation was verifiably done is like inventing religion for programs. Like the biological desire to know what’s going on in others’ minds, with verifiable computing protocols, a program will know the minds of other programs. Except, unlike biology, where it is imperfect, it will know exactly the state and processing capability. There’s no longer this idea of servers of data and logic connected disparately through the network. Think of perfect cooperation.

As Venkatesh Rao puts it, computers verifiably talking to each other without using human language and giving them the agency to do so without humans, is the “mother of all disruptions.”

We are at the cusp of this revolution, and I’d like to share some thoughts on what this future will look like.

One of the best bets to to bring this to fruition is Ethereum.

Ethereum, a world computer, went live on July 30, 2015 and uses blockchain technology to allow code to be executed exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third party interference. Born from the blockchain, the same technology underlying Bitcoin, it generalised the protocol. As my colleague Niran Babalola eloquently puts it:

“I explain blockchains as peer-to-peer cloud computers that collectively enforce a set of rules on a historical record that they create together. If the rules meet your needs, you can use the blockchain’s history as the source of truth for any information you want because no one can break those rules. Bitcoin’s rules define a currency: how are new tokens produced, how many are allowed, how they can be transferred from one person to another, etc. Ethereum’s rules define a process for defining new rules. This makes it a universal blockchain where rules for any interaction can be defined, and anyone can choose whether to treat its historical record as their source of truth.”

The most important line in this quote is the one where you have a ruleset that defines how to set new rules. Quoting Wikipedia this process sounds quite familiar: “when used as a general concept, “language” may refer to the cognitive ability to learn and use systems of complex communication, or to describe the set of rules that makes up these systems, or the set of utterances that can be produced from those rules.”

A specific program will know with 100% certainty that if it uses Ethereum, it will execute exactly as it is written. One of the results of the development of human language was the ability for humans to form the theory of other minds and a shared intentionality. With blockchain technology a program can also now “know” the mind of another “program” because it verifiably executes in the same environment.

Instead of this hodge-podge world of blackboxed code & silo-ed information, using REST-ful APIs to pass around information, each program has a native API to communicate with another program. And each program has a guarantee that whatever it wants to retrieve has been verifiably executed. It creates an innate understanding.

Venkatesh Rao starts to elaborate on what this could potentially entail:

“For the first 150 years after the industrial revolution, machines and organizations had to make do with human language (and employ human translators) for their thinking and communication needs.

Now they’ve found a technology that serves them better, and they’re switching.”

Programs can become autonomous economic agents & create/form their own organisations . We’ll see whole new sections of market develop: businesses, people and machines. Five new markets will arrive: B2M, M2B, C2M, M2C, M2M. Sander Duivestein made an infographic (below) that captures this.

A lot about the world economy could change. We’ll see new markets arise where no human will be replaced, but, much more simply, where no human would ever fit in the first place.

Where’s My Mind?

I guess that leave us humans between a rock and a hard place. We suddenly look slow, dumb, fallible and almost pitiful. Our wetware will make us fall in love with AI (AlphaGo is pretty sexy if you ask me). A funky feedback loop gone awry, whilst the perfect communication between machines spawns a new economy we aren’t a part of. Of course, (hopefully) it’s all beneficial for us and we don’t have to worry about it.

We’ll still have our human language though, perhaps perfect for us in its imperfection as we continue to flounder about in our existential angst. One thing is for certain: whatever is to come, it will be interesting. During the recent AlphaGo vs Lee Se Dol Go games, commentators kept describing some of AlphaGo’s moves as “beautiful,” as if it had discovered new abstractions in the game of Go, that hasn’t been seen before. This new economy filled with AI could open up new ways to view the world, and that’s an interesting and exciting idea.

The philosopher Speed Levitch has a grand saying, taken from the movie Waking Life: “On really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion.” Perhaps from here on out, we can change the language somewhat:

“On really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my computation.”

by Simon de la Rouviere, Engineer of Societies at ConsenSys