The instant we are born, we are unwittingly ‘communicating’ but also inherently under observation. Initially under the loving eyes of our parents, swiftly followed by a medical inspection of the midwife followed by a parade of relatives proudly contemplating the new family member. Humans thrive off observation and meticulous pattern matching — whether it is a trade based on the numbers we see on a screen or a food order driven by the smell that has hit our nose — every rational decision is taken based off data inputs we’ve subconsciously logged in our mind. It is interwoven into the very fabric of our existence.
Equally, our peers, family members and even random strangers are continuously scrutinising us and reacting to our actions. Humans grow up being observed and monitored by everyone around them. It has always been acceptable, but also manageable. People key off a few core observations and try to be useful with them. These information exchanges underpin our agreements or contracts with the world. Quoting Peter Diamandis, “Every second of every day, our senses bring in way [more] data than we can possibly process in our brains”. It was impossible for anyone to act on all the available data, but that was fine while the actors on this stage operated at a human level, on an equal footing
Until the machines came in. Always running. Always recording. Always watching.
“Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells
At first it even felt like a magical blessing: I’d be recommended movies that I might like and restaurant suggestions become more and more accurate. However at one point they became too accurate. It becomes worrying when Amazon knows to recommend a book I discussed with my wife last night, when Apple knows my physical condition better than I do and when Netflix decides my future tastes in TV shows for me. We’re being continuously mined for information, our behaviour is tracked, and we become the product of highest value. The (unintended) consequence is that people & corporations that you don’t know are making their money by simply selling your data, and controlling your privacy. When looking at Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Apple — these companies have amassed trillions of dollars of market value by using software they don’t own and data that is ours.
It is evident that the world feels this trend has swung too far. The first steps in the opposite direction have been taken: The European Court enforced the General Data Protection Regulation, companies like Blockstack have built a fully user owned identity system, Status.im is providing an end to end encrypted & decentralised messaging service that cannot be censored or stopped. We are looking for new platforms and marketplaces, that are fundamentally rebuilt from the bottom up with a different set of incentive systems. Incentive models that favour the individual in terms of privacy and data ownership. This is why we’ve decided to back Orchid from its earliest inception point.
We believe private data ownership and public data access to be amongst the most fundamental of individual rights. Governments are still censoring basic information from billions of people, corporations are increasing their data tracking capabilities on a daily basis and individuals are quickly becoming the product of this operation. At the center of this problem we find an increasing split in society when it comes to the rights of the sovereign individual.
This is not simply a tussle over abstract rights of a global citizen. The application of AI beyond countless ‘MAdTech’ recommendation engines into the medicine, materials science, loans and so many more, is reliant on continuous access to large, pertinent, labelled data sets. If we can improve user comfort, empowerment and privacy we can deliver more and better data, not less. This will allow the crowd to collaborate to their collective benefit like never before. The data fingerprints exposed in this way will be the petri dish upon which safe AI experimentation can flourish.
As this debate grows worldwide, it is becoming clear that we face a challenge in the way the internet currently operates, where large parts of our infrastructure are centralised around a few actors (e.g. internet service providers), while a debate rages over net neutrality and data ownership. Orchid is building a distributed overlay network for secure anonymous internet access. Orchid will allow users to access the internet in full privacy, or even anonymity. Orchid will allow access to the internet from behind restrictive firewalls. At the same time Orchid is building a fundamentally important incentives layer that rewards users for contributing bandwidth and disseminating information about the topology of the network. Orchid will be what Tor never became for the masses. Orchid is another step in the direction of The Sovereign Individual.
The Orchid team is led by Steve Waterhouse, whom I first met in 1991 when he and I were reading engineering at Cambridge. He went on to secure his MPhil and PhD in Machine Learning after which he moved to California to build a number of successful ventures including the Honeycomb product for Sun and RPX Corp while advising me on the companies I built from London. Years later, in 2013, he co-founded and led the cryptocurrency effort for Fortress and Pantera Capital, where he asked me to lead the due diligence process into Bitstamp. Helping Pantera complete their $10m Series A investment in Bitstamp, the biggest in Europe and 3rd in the world at that time, was one of my first steps into the blockchain universe. Thank you Steve! Incidentally, investing into Orchid is one of the first steps of a new initiative in this space, through which we hope to help build a fairer future; a more empowered future; a more delicious future. A future that we own as individuals.