Blockchain does not kill people, but smart contracts can, says the law professor


By now we should feel quite familiar with artificial intelligence. Science fiction has shown us what happens when robots are endowed with human intelligence. In general, it does not end well, b ut what about the "intelligence" of automated blockchain networks?

Smart contracts, like those that feed the Ethereum ecosystem, can be seen as a simple form of artificial intelligence, and an academic believes that we are giving them too much responsibility.

Adam Kolber, a professor at the Brooklyn Law School, shared a chilling vision of a not-too-distant future, in which humans live under the threat of blockchain-lords. He also coined a new term – "artificial responsibility" –
in reference to the enormous amount of control we assign to intelligent contract systems.

Artificial responsibility is related to artificial intelligence because we might be inclined to give more control to the smarter machines. But even unintelligent machines can be dangerous when they have a lot of responsibilities. And here is the connection to Bitcoin and blockchain more generally.

Although bitcoin enabling blockchain technology is low on the artificial intelligence scale (so low is generally not considered as artificially intelligent), it is still surprisingly high on the scale of artificial responsibility.

Smart contracts can be quite powerful. Take for example the concept of distributed autonomous organizations (DAO). A DAO is a decentralized investment company that allows outsiders to finance venture capital proposals via a voting system, without central authority. Essentially, it is a blockchain-driven machine that controls the investment of a large group of people.

Kolber explains how DAOs can be really nightmarish stuff:

A bug [in “TheDAO”] has been exploited to drain more than $ 50 million in value. And here we can see our willingness to equip the blockchains of artificial responsibility: despite the loss of funds, there was no simple mechanism and certainly no central authority that could recover the money. It would take a substantial agreement between the community that manages the blockchain platform used by TheDAO to mitigate the damage.

[…] So not only is it difficult to revoke the control given to a DAO, many people prefer not to do so in principle. Some purists denounced efforts to mitigate the exploit of ADO, claiming that the alleged hacker simply withdrew money in accordance with the agreed contractual terms of the organization in the form of computer code.

That's all right, for now, since the most complex tasks currently delegated to smart contracts mainly concern finances. The real threat will come when our new "intelligence" of the smart contract will begin to interact with "the Internet of Things". Eventually, it will unleash itself on a world of hyper-connected devices, with the potential to cause collateral damage.

"[…] The biggest threat of machines may not be their general intelligence, but their incompetence.In the future, smart blockchain contracts could interact with an artificially intelligent network of things," warned Kolber. "Doing this will create new risks, as the behavior of the machine becomes more difficult to predict. Now that people can hack things like insulin pumps, the cost of coding errors could be more than financial."

time, the hacks that led to substantial losses of money were rare. Now they are so common that they do not deserve mention. While the blockchain industry manages to expand beyond the fintech, we only hope that we are not as desensitized to other disasters caused by "smart" shit contracts.

Published 4 September 2018 – 13:04 UTC

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