Thursday, October 29, 2015

Trust at the base of humanity

Note: These are my personal views and not those of my employers, Tata Consultancy  Services
Bitcoin is a way of transferring value between a nodes of a network whose trust for each other is not based on any third-party. Bitcoin and its progeny Blockchain are being proposed as technologies to organize personal and professional relationships between humans, multi-human units and things (i.e. between people/firm/thing nodes of the Internet). There are undeniably advantages of doing this, but what are the implications of this?

Tim Swanson provides his views regarding the implications in this video which ought to be mandatory viewing for every senior leader making BIG statements at present. Tim goes on to in this one to articulate the value of permissioned distributed ledgers. I want to join my voice to Tim's voice of caution. Humanity is presently riding a tiger called technology and the tiger is running into a deep and dark jungle. If we do not make right choices about how we organize the affairs of humanity, we may reduce the degrees of freedom (in an Amartya Sen sense) that our progeny will have.

Essentially bitcoin and blockchain are technologies which maintain a distributed digital ledger keeping track of value exchanges between a network where the trust between nodes does not depend on any third-party. While permissioned distributed digital ledgers are technologies which maintain a distributed digital ledger keeping track of value exchange between a network where the trust between nodes depends on a trusted third party.

Anyone who has been reasonably observant about the crisis of trust on today's Internet itself will share my worry about how this crisis will grow in a world where the existence of human trust based trusted party is at the centre vanishes. When it is possible to achieve similar objectives using permissioned distributed ledgers, is it reasonable to trust computers/things more than humans by putting bitcoin/blockchain at the base? My point goes beyond the lacunae pointed out by Tim in terms of the vulnerability of "mining". Even if an option better than "mining" were to be invented by another ghost like Satoshi Nakamoto, my point is that in the final analysis, we should have trust between humans at the core rather than some abstract mechanism invented especially by a ghost. Please note that I  am concerned what is at the core. As  long as human trust is at the core of our key systems and processes, I am ok with the co-existence of the two options.

As AI based computers/things learn to pass the Turing test, which is likely to happen sooner than all of us think, "physical" face-to-face trust between human's is likely to protect us from being overrun by computers/things. Of course, unless we somehow find a way of controlling the technology tiger and find our way out of the jungle that a million uncontrolled empire-building humans are excited about being in, this possibility will also be lost as technology eliminates that final reliable basis of human trust.

I have written multiple articles on LinkedIn and Blogger since mid-2013 as have many others. I am also connected to a few of these people who share my concerns. But till the key leaders manage to look beyond the tip of their noses, we can only hope and pray. 


Pratap Tambay