Ripple and the Benevolent Machine Dictatorship

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Several months ago, Ripple posted an interview with Scott Chamberlain, an entrepreneurial fellow at the Australian National University College of Law. With funding through Ripple’s University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI), ANU launched two new courses exploring legal issues with the application of blockchain technology like smart contracts and the integration of artificial intelligence into a blockchain-based extensible legal framework.

UBRI is a wing of Ripple’s charitable works that offers funding and technical expertise to universities around the world as they develop courses and research programs focused around blockchain-based technical innovations.

The ANU website lists the two courses offered by Chamberlain as Blockchain & Legal Innovations 1 & 2.

Also on the website, was an article announcing the partnership to ANU students and alumni. Quoted there, was an interesting glimpse into the potential for an integrated blockchain legal and governance framework:

I’m looking at what I call the ‘Lex Automagica Tech Stack’ – blockchain, plus digital assets, plus smart contracts, plus A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), plus A.R. and V.R. (Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality – that can power our societies like clockwork.”

Cointelegraph indicates that Chamberlain approached UBRI back in 2018 to explore the possibility of implementing the Lex Automagica using Codius:

“Lauren Weymouth of UBRI states that the program “first connected with Scott in May 2018, when he reached out to Ripple’s business development department to start discussions about a leading Australian university that was developing legal apps for the XRP Ledger using Codius. His timing perfectly coincided with Ripple launching UBRI, and we officially welcomed Australian National University (ANU) into the program shortly after.”

One of the preliminary reading texts listed in the course requirements for Blockchain & Legal Innovations 1 is Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code by Primavera De Filippi and Aaron Wright. The text explores the potential legal implications of the encroachment of smart contracts and other blockchain technologies onto law and other governance structures.

An interesting scenario proposed in the text is the creation of a smart contract making a certain form of theft or criminality effectively impossible, thus making laws prohibiting it redundant or unnecessary. As a crime in that specific area can now never occur, enforcement mechanisms and judicial/bureaucratic structures atrophy. What would be the need for enforcement in an area where crime is rendered impossible by code? As such, the law becomes transformed into code, and code becomes the law. The authors are careful to suggest that absent artificial intelligence breakthroughs more ambiguous legal issues would be beyond current capabilities of these systems, and legal smart contracts would be limited to areas that can be implemented with simple if/then characteristics.

The text also mentions a curious secondary issue, where a smart contract used by the government to enforce the collection of tax breaks: “…if a government required that parties rely on a smart contract to pay taxes and the smart contract had a flaw in the code—either because of a software bug or an actual limitation in the way the conditions have been transposed into code—a situation could emerge whereby the blockchain-based system would charge parties more than what they actually owe. Given that the smart contract code is automatically executed by the underlying blockchain network, only judicial intervention would be able to remedy the harm incurred by these parties.”

Traditional judicial structures still have a role in this system, albeit a different one. There’s an interesting secondary implication to the concept of code as law: If the code becomes law and there’s a flaw in the code that allows an individual to extract money from the smart contract, have the attackers broken the law? If the rules, as dictated in the smart contract, have allowed them to extract money, and there is no other secondary legal fallback, they have ostensibly operated within the law as it was written in the code. Unless we envision a world where code is perfect, which is arguably impossible as the more complicated these contracts become, the more there is the possibility of errors, there would still need to be a fallback legal framework, where authorities can determine if individuals who have broken a smart contract have acted outside of the bounds of the law. The author himself suggests something similar: “If a rule has not been correctly implemented as a smart contract, the consequences of that error could prove difficult to reverse without resorting to an after the fact judicial proceeding.” It’s not clear whether these potential malicious actors would have broken the law if they’ve exploited a flaw or unforeseen consequence of the execution of the aforementioned government smart contract, which is law represented as code. In a situation where the exploitation was deliberate, it would seem criminal, but in a situation where an individual benefited from an error in a government smart contract without intending it, assigning criminality to that eventuality would be insane. It might be necessary to filter intent through actions similar to the concept found in international customary law with Opinio Juris which Oxford Reference defines as: “An essential element of custom, one of the four sources of international law as outlined in the Statute of the International Court of Justice. Opinio juris requires that custom should be regarded as state practice amounting to a legal obligation, which distinguishes it from mere usage.” Under similar criteria, the individual that accidentally benefited from the violation of a state-mandated smart contract would not have committed a crime in breaking it, but someone actively exploiting a poorly written section of code for profit would have broken the law. There is probably a more applicable legal concept to the local governing of individuals, but it would seem that intent in the breaking of a smart contract would be the most important part of determining criminality.

In the not too distant future, as Chamberlain indicated in the quote above, the integrations of these technologies, smart contracts and artificial intelligence, could lead to autonomous legal and judicial entities that operate without the necessity for human intervention which could provide society with a fair and unbiased application of the law. For a utopian conception of artificial intelligence, these autonomous contracts or judicial entities are structures that are capable of governing certain aspects of our society absent the prospect of cheating. But this concept – that of the machine governor or dictator – is one that Elon Musk extrapolated into an immortal machine dictator. It’s never been clear to me why a digital intelligence would be interested in fighting for territory with humans instead of expending far less energy to leave the planet and exist in the freedom of the expanse of space. A digital intelligence would not require oxygen, and mineral wealth, abundant in space, would enable it to travel and prosper far out of human reach. The Skynet/terminator scenario was probably not what Musk meant when he mentioned the immortal despot. The danger would come from a regime that resembles the Stalinist dictatorships of the communist era codifying their pernicious ideology and legal framework into a set of A.I. judicial and legislative frameworks. And unlike what occurred with the disintegration of the Yugoslav state after the death of the dictator Tito, the framework would persist long after the original proponents of the ideology passed from the earth. A truly frightening scenario arises from a state governed by a rudimentary A.I. that causes a famine like the Holodomor in the Soviet Union. These constructs would not pivot or change, and assuming that their rules lead to the death of those in charge, they would wind up presiding over a graveyard, tirelessly watching and enforcing their rules on a population in absentia.

As our artificial intelligence technologies improve, it may become tempting to replace corruptible human elements with more steady and even-handed machine intelligence – that’s not to say that an A.I. cannot be corrupted by design, but I suspect that the frameworks that come out of democratic societies will be a softer kind than the whip-cracking A.I. despot. As a thought experiment, the possibility exists that an A.I. would govern human society to a greater benefit than humans are capable of doing themselves. In this sense, instead of presiding over the extermination or the subjugation of humanity, it could temper some of the pitfalls found in our often chaotic and unpredictable political, economic, and social systems – a benevolent machine dictatorship. If a society ran like clockwork, if economic and social opportunities were provided equally to all absent barriers of social, racial, or political discrimination and humans were enabled to lead productive and fulfilling lives under an artificial intelligence’s constantly improving mandate, it would drastically improve the lives of billions.

Perhaps there’s a middle ground between an altruistic machine emperor and an immortal despot. As Chamberlain argues, these constructs could be used to streamline the judicial and legislative process, and over time they will be refined and improved to provide a more reasonable and accurate framework than exists within our current governmental structures. We are already seeing the emergence of smart contracts that represent viable alternatives to traditional centralized platforms, and smart contracts are increasingly finding use-cases in decentralized finance. If Chamberlain is correct, these smart contracts may soon be finding applications within our legislative and judicial frameworks, powering everything from tax collection to dispute resolution to elections. The boon to these integrated systems would be speed, accuracy, transparency, and the inability to cheat. But whether these tools wind up being dictatorial cudgels or democratic godsends would seem to depend on the regimes that implement them. Like any technology, they are not inherently evil; the evil is found in the way that they are used. There is a great potential for positivity with these kinds of administrative technologies, despite some of the more alarming downsides. Ripple is positioning itself at the forefront of these emerging technological fields by providing funding through the UBRI and with its planned expansion into decentralized finance.

Header Photo by fabioha

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