I was inspired by the current Ethereal Art Grant to reflect on Ethereum’s dark side: those murky possibilities where the “snake eats its own tail”. That process led me to conceive of The Bottom Red Line, a blueprint for a viable smart-contract which, we believe, exposes serious moral deficiencies in the Ethereum protocol. Here I explain the idea and its implications, as well as possible solutions.
In the spirit of Ethereal, and alongside vapour-scape artist Patrick Savile, I have drawn up a schema (below) to be rendered as a rich depiction of the demon contract and its grotesque outcomes — a macabre, blockchain art piece for collectors to chart the contours of our scintillating journey through technological history. If you would like to commission the piece, please see the end of this article.
The Bottom Red Line: an ethical challenge to Ethereum’s governance paradigm
Ethereum provides a hugely extensible terrain for the implementation of cryptoeconomic logic. We hear a great deal about the innovation, the value and the freedoms this will bring us. What is less understood is the fact that unstoppable code can also be used to fulfil malevolent ends.
As the DAO hack showed, smart contract design can produce effects so egregious that the community is compelled to respond with a fork, for example. The fork that followed the DAO was a nuclear option only intended for extreme cases. The ensuing debates were rich and instructive but we were left without clear red lines that smart contracts should have to cross before such a fork would be contemplated again.
The Bottom Red Line diagramatically details an Ethereum smart contract which explicitly incentivises the creation of other smart contracts which are themselves sufficiently egregious to force a fork. Were this initial smart contract to be deployed, it would leverage features of Ethereum and associated blockchain services so as to motivate other developers to deploy new and beastly contracts with the objective of forcing a fork to halt such contracts. After the fork, the contract can be redeployed, achieving similar effects, until malevolent funders are satisfied, for example, that Ethereum has forked so much that it is no longer a threat to their preferred chain.
In this way, we suggest the moral vulnerability of Ethereum: either it is forced to hard fork repeatedly in response to a potentially endless stream of morally repugnant contracts, or it is destined to become a fertile ground for unaccountable, unstoppable evil.
We subsequently see how the incentive to earn profit, the bottom line, can be cryptoeconomically aligned with incentives to cause harm, crossing red lines.
Whilst I have considered this idea in some detail, including with informed peers, I welcome debate and criticism which may lead to refinements or refutations of it.
Nevertheless, I hope it can stimulate the Ethereum community to define the boundaries of acceptable conduct and address severe governance issues.
A whole class of problems
We present this as a substantive example of what we expect is an entire category of problematic blockchain phenomena. Recent weeks have seen renewed focus on deposits of illicit material in the Bitcoin blockchain. Other such problems are likely to come to light.
We suggest that it would be prudent of the Ethereum community to recognise the need to integrate graceful forms of on-chain governance to avert the existential threats that will come with the maturity of the ecosystem.
There already exists a significant body of enquiry considering the potential for blockchain-based AIs and other innovations with the capacity to spin out of control — the notion of Skynet was referenced in the earliest project outlines. We are also considering establishing a github-based grimoire of as-yet-unknown dark contracts as a resource for the collective understanding of what may come.
There is insufficient conversation around how, and whether, the Ethereum community proposes to handle this class of problems. Some purists may prefer to let the wild lands of the blockchain evolve with the freedom for anything at all to prosper. They may suggest that we take our efforts elsewhere, like the Dfinity project which presents pioneering remedies to what we describe. We insist that Ethereum is a global community with ramifications for all and it must deal with these matters, at least in some detail.
Pre-empting the problem
Whilst we consider The Bottom Red Line to be a perfectly plausible scenario to emerge, we think that key conditions of its existence are yet to be fulfilled. The requisite oracle services, for example, are not yet mature enough, though platforms like Gnosis and Augur move ever closer to enabling such programs to execute effectively.
We think that there is time for the community to discuss and develop governance systems that meet the challenges posed herein. Along with a fellow blockchain enquirer, I have begun work on an Ethereum Improvement Proposal (EIP) which seeks to define the parameters of the problem and possible solutions — we intend this as a tentative gambit and hope to incorporate the best, relevant thinking from across the community along the line. We are looking to publish that on behalf of Cryptical Studios in future.
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The Bottom Red Line for your collection?
Aside from our work to highlight and mitigate the issues arising from the piece, we are offering a rich and faithful interpretation of the Bottom Red Line schema as a limited-edition art piece for commission.
Whilst this is a serious issue, given the artistic provenance of the idea, we feel it is fitting to produce it with the technicolour tones in which it was initially envisaged.
Giving it physical form as a large-scale creation might increase visibility of this hypothetical demon, whether it comes to life or not.
The highest bidders of over 2eth sent to email@example.com will be included in the eventual, very limited run of the completed work.
It will be delivered to winning bidders as a full-colour, framed A1 print in Patrick Savile’s vapour-scape style. The work will be signed with a hashed reference of your choice alongside our own signatures, all logged on the blockchain:
e.g. 2490twsnyuqw902183 = keccak256(‘Bottom Red Line by xxxx and commissioned by 0xYourWalletAddress0N3tHeR3Um’) — you can use this to transfer ownership of the original piece.
Support this work
We are actively working to raise the understanding of such issues within the community and provide constructive, playful and exploratory resources to move debates forward. If you would like to support this work, you may make an expression of thanks at our Eth wallet here: 0xF5B0212CE5870Fb2dCF3C07E20F9FAE644534dDB