Blockchain, Digital Governance, Tech and Business

Libra: Facebook’s promising attempt to create the Internet of Value

Facebook’s Project Libra was made public yesterday. It carefully addresses all the main flaws of current cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum by starting with a less decentralized model. It begins with transactions and will extend to also deliver the store of value and smart contract use cases. Facebook has also proactively addressed the dominance and privacy concerns lately associated with it. Libra could allow Facebook to add full and extensible financial services capabilities to its properties, creating an “Internet of Value” which Facebook will steer.

What is Libra?

Project Libra’s whitepaper was published yesterday (June 18th) causing a significant splash. Libra is a foundation backed by ~25 high profile organizations (from Visa to Uber) which will put out a decentralized database for transacting on programmable financial assets. The starting point is financial transactions through Libra coin, a stable coin fully backed by a basket of currencies and treasuries. The end game is fully programmable decentralized digital assets through the Libra decentralized database and the Jump programming language. The testnet “Libra Core” is already out for testing, and the live service will be operational in 2020.

So Facebook has put out another cryptocurrency into a crowded market of thousands of cryptocurrencies without significant adoption. Is it different to the others? Can Libra work where countless others have failed?

Can Libra become the crypto killer app?

After substantial hype in 2017, cryptocurrencies failed to live to their transformative potential in 2018 and 2019. The “Internet of Value” is not taking off even if crypto prices as on the rise again. A host of problems have plagued the key cryptocurrencies, with no solution in sight. First, lack of adoption because of missing use cases and a daunting UX for non-technical users. Second, high volatility making crypto mainly a speculative domain, increasingly regulated by the likes of the SEC. Third, the environmental and energy cost of proof-of-work. Fourth, lack of legitimacy and support by large institutions. Finally, complex governance that has prevented Bitcoin and Ethereum from adapting to user needs like transaction volume and fast transaction finality.

Libra’s design choices carefully address each of these problems making it a promising attempt at driving crypto mass adoption and creating the Internet of Value:

  • Adoption. Facebook is focusing first on the everyday problem of payments, with fancier use cases as future extensions. It is hiding the complexity of crypto by integrating the functionality in its own apps, and those of other Libra Founding members. It is also jumpstarting adoption by going for a huge global audience of users in those apps.
  • Volatility and financial security status. Libra is a fully backed stable coin based on a basket of currencies and treasuries. This will be potentially more stable than any of the current fiat currencies, providing a global and safe store of value. At the same time, this minimizes the risk of the SEC considering Libra a financial security, as there is no expectation of Libra appreciation, even if the project’s adoption is massive.
  • Energy cost. Facebook has chosen a less decentralized consensus protocol based on a limited number of validators. This eliminates energy consumption as an issue. While it might be ideologically less appealing to crypto fans, the Founding members are credible institutions that should instil trust in mass market audiences. Over time it will evolve to proof of stake as Ethereum is doing, satisfying decentralization without incurring excessive energy consumption.
  • Legitimacy. The combination of a stable coin that eliminates speculation and the highly reputable founding members creates instant legitimacy. The way the system works it should be easy for Facebook to continue to extend Libra’s validator base as the downside of not participating is significant especially with FOMO (fear of missing out), while the cost is limited.
  • Governance. Libra’s roadmap already incorporates all enhancements that Bitcoin and Ethereum wish they could incorporate, with a well thought out technical design that seems state-of-the-art. It starts with 1000 transactions per second in the main chain and 10-second finality, ready for real-world usage and easily extensible. At the same time governance through a set of business-oriented entities will ensure it quickly aligns to user needs

Overall Facebook has done a thorough job at addressing current crypto pitfalls credibly, to create a potential killer app for crypto adoption. In order to do this, it has reduced the decentralized ideological purity of other crypto attempts, something that governments and the mass market will probably see in a positive or neutral light. Only time will tell, but Libra could take to the mass market the key use cases of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other top cryptocurrencies creating the decentralized “Internet of Value”.

However, Facebook is under a lot of pressure lately. Will governments allow Facebook to take over financial services and access that data? Will Facebook’s reputation allow it to launch this effort?

Will Facebook be allowed to carry out Libra?

Facebook is currently under significant public scrutiny both in terms of its market dominance and due to privacy concerns. Libra’s design addresses both issues proactively, while at the same time creating some opportunity for defending the integration of the top Facebook properties.

In terms of market dominance, while Libra has been conceived and driven by Facebook it is a Swiss foundation with a broad set of founding institutions. It cannot be said that it is under Facebook’s control or part of Facebook. In a way, Facebook has proactively open sourced Libra with many credible partners to avoid any concern of market dominance. Thus the financial infrastructure it creates is open for anyone to use

In terms of privacy, all of Libra’s transactions will be based on public key cryptography making users anonymous except for the validator that offers the user the interface. Thus, Facebook will not have any privileged access to Libra transaction information beyond that of any of the other founding members. On top of that, Facebook has committed not to use the information from the financial transactions in which it acts as an interface for advertising purposes.

On top of this, Facebook’s wallet Calibra, could potentially be the glue that makes Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram difficult to untangle. Or at least keeps them connected even in a break-up scenario.

So Facebook is trying to create the decentralized “Internet of Value” crypto enthusiasts have talked about, and has open sourced it to make it politically viable. Can Facebook make money out of this?

How can Facebook profit from Libra?

Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba represent clear evolution models for Facebook. The Chinese internet giants have been allowed by regulation to take over more and more of the financial services sector in China through technology. Facebook could find a large profit pool to finance its new privacy-oriented social and communication networks vision in this model.

With Libra Facebook is trying to create an open-sourced Internet of Value that anyone can access. Facebook will not be able to make money from the underlying infrastructure. However, the Internet of Value it has designed is uniquely suited for its own properties. Whatsapp, Messenger, Facebook and Instagram are all uniquely suited to integrate financial services and profit from it. The relatively high entry barrier to participation (~10 million USD according to the press) will limit the number of startups that can enter, at least initially. Giving Facebook a headstart that will be difficult to recoup. The other founding members, while credible institutions don’t have the deep pockets, technical expertise and unrivalled user reach that Facebook has.

So Facebook is attempting to create an open sourced financial piping for the Internet of Value. If history is any guide it should be able to profit from it by building over-the-top applications on top, much as it has done with internet connectivity. This time it has the added advantage of having shaped the ecosystem from the start, probably designing it to maximize its potential to profit and alignment with its vision and values.

Libra could be one of those industry shaping moments like Android was. Of course, it can also become Google + or Apple Newton just to name a few failed attempts at making a dent on the universe. However, one can’t fail to be impressed by the thoughtfulness and comprehensiveness of Facebook’s Libra which brings together strategy, technology and finance to create something potentially transformative for the world and lucrative for Facebook. At the same time, we were already worried by the Big Tech firm dominance and Blockchain was the magic sword that was going to slay the dragons. If Facebook’s attempt to repurpose the sword works the dragons might get even bigger and more powerful.

Bioprogramming, Blockchain, Digital Governance, Energy and Transportation, integrated reality, Inteligent Processes, Neurogamification, Tech and Business

Beyond Digital: 6 Exponential Revolutions – The Book

I have put together my explorations of Exponential Technologies in my new book “Beyond Digital: Six Exponential Revolutions that are changing our world” (en castellano “Más Allá de Digital: Seis Revoluciones Exponenciales que están cambiando el mundo”) which you can find on Amazon both in physical and digital format.

The book is my attempt to give anyone who wants to understand what is happening a window on six new waves of change that are coming our way through an accessible understanding of the technological underpinnings and plenty of real-world examples. The six technological revolutions I cover are:

  1. Intelligent Processes. The application of AI to information processing and the transformation it will represent in software, business, and government processes. How many processes that now require human intervention will be digitalized through AI allowing cheaper, faster and higher quality outcomes. This could be the end of drudge work and lousy customer experience but might bring significant technological unemployment and inequality
  2. Integrated Reality. How IoT, Virtual and Augmented Reality, Robots and 3D printing are blurring the lines between the physical and digital worlds. Allowing us to interact with the physical world with the same ease we do in digital, and to embody ourselves in the digital world with the same subjective experience as in the physical world. This will bend our physical world even more to our will but could create alienation and escapism as in Ready Player One or a techno-controlled police state that makes 1984 seem liberal.
  3. The New Energy and Transportation Matrix. How solar, electric and autonomous technologies will change how we produce energy and transport ourselves. Potentially bringing an age of free and clean energy and swift and secure transportation. We could potentially be able to overcome global warming, ecological impact and the toll on human lives and time that our current transportation system takes. At the same time, this new matrix will tear down the energy and transportation infrastructure jobs on which many of us depend.
  4. Digital Governance. How Blockchain technologies together with cryptography and the cloud are ushering a new age of financial markets, trust, and law. Digitising money, trust, contracts and the law to give them the same digital speed and quality we have grown used to in the digital world. Still in its early stages, it holds the promise to make our world freer and fairer, with the parallel dangers a bug or a virus could have if computer code runs our financial, legal, and even democratic systems.
  5. Bioprogramming. Understanding the code in which life has been written and learning to manipulate it is given us surprising power and flexibility in using and changing life for our own purposes. The ability to edit, program and even build from scratch living organisms, allows us to change living beings like we change computer programs. With amazing potential in terms of healthcare, human augmentation, and biofabrication, but unexpected risks as we play Mother Nature at an accelerated rate.
  6. Neuroprogramming. Our understanding of neurobiology and neuroeconomics is decoding how our brain, the most complex structure we know of in the Universe, operates and thinks. Being able to understand our neural circuits is giving us new paths in creating technology that replicates the best design principles of our brain and interacts with it effectively. It will be used to further accelerate our technology, augment human capabilities and cure the human suffering linked to brain disease, at the same time it has the potential to take digital manipulation even further robbing us of free choice.

The book would not have been possible with the help of my wife, my family, my friends, my colleagues in Deloitte and McKinsey, the readers of my blog and some dear readers of the beta version of the book who painstakingly read and help me improve the English and Spanish versions of the book. I am really grateful to all of them. As Mario Vargas Llosa says: “Escribir no es un pasatiempo, un deporte. Es una servidumbre que hace de sus víctimas unos esclavos” (“Writing is not a hobby or a sport. It is a bondage that makes slaves out of its victims”). That bondage is mostly born by those around as the slave happily bangs on the keyboard.

Digital Governance, Inteligent Processes, Tech and Business

Digital: From Neurons to Transistors

Digital captures the transition we are embarked on from neurons to transistors as the dominant substrate of information processing.

Neurons are exquisite creations of natural evolution. They have achieved through self-organization and evolution many of the properties we have managed to engineer in electrical systems such as logical operations, signal regeneration for information transmission or 1/0 information processing. When combined together in the circuits that constitute the human brain they allow amazing complexity and functionality. The roughly 100 billion neurons in a human brain form well over 100 trillion connections leading to consciousness, creativity, moral judgment and much more.

They have also led to transistors, an information processing system that has managed to replicate many of the properties of neurons while being approximately 10 million times faster. A neuron typically fires in the millisecond range (1000 Hz of frequency), while transistors operate comfortably in the nano to picoseconds (1-100 GHz range).

10 million times speed advantage makes transistor dominate neurons as an information processing medium, even if they are still capable of less complexity and require more energy than a brain. That is why we have seen the progressive substitution of neurons for transistors in many information processing tasks. This is fundamentally different from technologies like writing that extend neurons. It is only comparable to the use of the steam engine, electricity and internal combustion to substitute muscles.

This absurdly great speed advantage allows the Digital Paradox. When neurons are substituted by transistors in a process you get lower cost, higher quality and higher speedwithout trade-offs. Thus there is no going back, once we have engineered sufficient complexity in transistors to tackle a process there is no reason to use neurons anymore. Of course, neurons and transistors are often combined. Neurons still dominate for some tasks and they benefit greatly by being supported by transistors.

What we now call generically “Digital” is one more stage in this gradual substitution of neurons by transistors. In that sense, those who claim that Digital is not new are right. At the same time, the processes that are now being substituted have a wider impact, so the use of a new term is understandable. Finally, we can expect the substitution to continue after the term digital has faded from use. In that sense, there is a lot that will happen Beyond Digital.

Early stages of substitution

Transistors and their earlier cousins vacuum tubes started by substituting neurons in areas in which their advantage was greatest: complex brute force calculations and extensive data collection and archiving. This was epitomized by calculating missile trajectories and code-breaking during World War II and tabulating census data since the early 20th century.

Over time, this extended to databases to store large amounts of information for almost any purpose and programming repetitive management of information. This enabled important advances but still had limited impact in most people’s lives. Only very specialized functions like detailed memory, long relegated to writing, and rote calculation, the domain of only a minuscule fraction of the workforce, were affected.

The next step was to use these technologies to manage economic flows, inventory, and accounting within organizations. So-called Enterprise-Resource-Planning or ERP systems allowed to substitute complex neuron+writing processing systems which were at the limit of their capacity. This substituted some human jobs, but mainly made possible a level of complexity and performance that was not attainable before.

Substitution only started to penetrate the popular conscience with Personal Computers (PCs). PCs first allowed individuals to start leveraging the power of transistors for tasks such as creating documents, doing their accounting or entertainment.

Finally, the internet allowed to move most information transmission from neurons to transistors. We went from person to person telephone calls and printing encyclopedias, to email, web pages, and Wikipedia.

In this first stage, transistors were substituting mostly written records and some specialized jobs such as persons performing calculations, record keeping or information transmission. They were also enabling new activities like complex ERPs, computer games or electronic chats that were not possible before. In that sense, the transition was mostly additive for humans.

Digital: Mainstream substitution

The use of Digital coincides with when many mainstream neuron-based processes have started to be affected by transistors. This greater disruption of the supremacy of neurons is being felt beyond specialized roles and starts to become widespread. It also starts to be more substitutive, with transistor-based information processing being able to completely replace neurons in areas in which we thought neurons were reasonably well adapted to perform.

First went media and advertising. We used to have an industry that created, edited, curated and distributed news and delivered advertising on top of that. Most of these functions in the value chain have been taken over by transistors either in part or in full.

Then eCommerce and eServices moved to transistors the age-old process of selling and distributing products to humans. The buying has still stayed in human hands for now, but you are close to being able to buy a book from Amazon without any human touching it from the printing to the delivery. On the eServices side, no one goes to the bank teller anymore if it can be done instantly on the Internet.

Then the Cloud took the management of computers to transistors themselves. Instead of depending on neurons for deployment, scaling, and management of server capacity, services like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure give transistors the capacity to manage themselves for the most part.

Our social lives and gossip might have seemed totally suited for neurons. However, services like Facebook, Whatsapp or LinkedIn have allowed transistors to manage a large part of them at much higher speeds.

Smartphones made transistors much more mobile and accessible, making them readily available in any context and any moment. Smartphones have started substituting tasks our brains used to be able to perform with neurons, like remembering phone numbers, navigating through a city o knowing where we have to go next.

Finally, platforms and marketplaces like Airbnb and Uber turned to transistors for tasks that were totally in the hands of neurons like getting hold of a cab or renting an apartment.

This encroachment of transistors on the daily tasks of neurons has woken all of us up to change. Now it is not just obscure professions or processes but a big chunk of our daily life that is being handed over to transistors. It creates mixed feelings for us. On the one hand, we love the Digital Paradox and its improvement of speed, quality, and cost. It would be difficult to convince us to forsake Amazon or to return to the bank branch. On the other side, transistors substituting neurons have left many humans without jobs and are causing social disruption. Transistors are also speeding up the world towards their native speed, which is inaccessible to humans. There are almost no more human stock traders because they cannot compete with the 10 million faster speeds of transistors.

Beyond Digital: Transistors take over

The final stages of the transition can be mapped to how core functions of the human brain might become substitutable by transistors. The process is already well underway with some question marks around the reach of transistors. In any case, we can expect it to continue accelerating speed taking us to the limits of what can be endurable for our sluggish neuron-based brains.

Substituting the sensory cortex. Machine vision, Enhanced Reality, Text-to-Speech, Natural Language Processing and Chatbots are just some of the technologies that are putting in question the neuron’s dominance in sight, sound, and language. Approximately ~15-25% of the brain is devoted to processing sensory signals and language at various levels. Transistors are getting very good at it, and have recently become able to recognize many items in images and process and create language effectively.

Substituting the motor cortex. The same with unscripted and adaptive movement. Robots are increasingly powerful and they are able to cook pizzas, walk through a forest and help you in a retail store. Autonomous driving promises for transistors to be able to navigate a vehicle, one of the most demanding motor-sensory tasks we humans undertake.

Substituting non-routine cognitive and information processing. We have seen basic calculation and data processing be taken over by transistors, now we are starting to see “frontal lobe” tasks go over to transistors. Chess, Go and Jeopardy are games in which AIs have already bested human champions. Other more professional fields like medicine, education or law are already seeing transistors start to encroach on neurons with Artificial Intelligence in which transistors mimic “neural networks”.

Encoding morality, justice, and cooperation. Another set capabilities which represent some of the highest complexity of the human brain and the frontal lobe are moral judgments and our capacity for cooperation. Blockchain promises to be able to encode morality, justice, and cooperation digitally and make it work automatically through “smart contracts”.

Connecting brains with transistors. Finally, we are seeing neurons get increasingly connected to transistors. There are now examples of humans interfacing with transistors directly with the brain. This could bring a time of integration in which neurons take care of non-time sensitive tasks while in continuous interaction with transistors that move at much higher speeds.

Will all this substitution leave anything to neurons? There are capabilities like empathy, creating goalscreativitycompassion or teaching humans that might be beyond the reach of transistors. On the other hand, it might be reasonable to believe that any task that can be done with a human brain can be done much quicker with an equivalently complex processor. There are no right answers but it seems that roles like entrepreneur, teacher, caregiver or artist might still have more time dominated by neurons than many other callings. Also, there might be some roles that we always want other humans to take with us, even if the transistors could take care of it much more quickly and more efficiently.

Blockchain, Digital Governance, Tech and Business

Bitcoin: Bubble or S-Curve?

You can find more about cryptocurrencies and other Exponential Revolutions that will shape the future in my book: Beyond Digital (here in Spanish).

I have been writing about Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies for over a year now. The jump in prices in 2017 has been staggering, an order of magnitude. Now, with crypto between half and three-quarters of a trillion USD, the question in everyone’s mind is the same. Is it a bubble? What should I do about it?

I don’t have the answer and no one has. We are looking at an unprecedented phenomenon. It will be easy to explain in hindsight but right now we are completely at a loss to predict the future. There are two compelling and competing explanations out there about what is happening. They are making testable predictions that lead to diametrically opposed advice. The two theories are the bubble and the adoption curve.

Nasdaq Bubble and burst. Source: FedPrimeRate

The Bubble: Internet Boom all over again

The Bubble is the most widely spread explanation. It says this has happened before, many times. A new asset class is created, it starts to rise fueled by speculation and at some point, everyone buys into the game. Fear of missing out takes the best of caution and more and more people start to invest. The scarcity of the asset class drives high apparent valuations that are not real, but rather just predicated on the transaction prices of the few people that are selling vs. the crowd trying to get in. First, it is just the techies, then the financiers jump in, then the broader public and then there is no one left to jump in and prices collapse. Afterwards, the technology takes its time to develop and a small part of the asset class becomes very valuable over time.

The first bubble of this kind was the famous Tulipmania in 16th century Holland, then there was the South Sea Bubble, the 1929 stock market peak, the go-go years in the 1960s, the internet boom in the late 1990s and several real estate bubbles, the latest finishing with the 2008 crash. It is pure human mass psychology and begets stock phrases like “prices can never fall”, “this time is different” or a “we have reached a permanently high plateau of valuation”.

The facts are also consistent with the explanation, but with a much more radical speed and depth to it compared to other bubbles. The NASDAQ 1990s bubble took around a decade to form with an x11 price increase in the period from the ~500 trough in October 1990 to its ~5000 peak in February 2000. The crypto craze has done much more just during 2017, going from a ~20 billion valuation at the beginning of 2017 to a ~600 billion valuation at the end of the year. Approximately an x30 during 2017.

As more and more people have gotten into crypto prices have skyrocketed, leading to more people to get into crypto. Most people are buying and holding crypto, so there is scarcity to enter the asset class, a very small door to enter Bitcoin that bids prices ever upward. In the western world, we are living the start of the “financiers” and “everyone else” phase, with still plenty of people left to enter the cryptocurrency craze. However, in Korea, China or Japan we have been in the “everyone else” phase for a while, with governments deeply concerned about the speculation’s impact on their elderly or young.

If the bubble theory is correct there are three questions worth answering: When? How much? and How long? When will the crash come? Is what all speculators are thinking about, impossible to answer as it depends on crowd psychology. The Rockefeller anecdote about selling all his stocks when a shoeshine boy gave him a stock tip thus avoiding the 1929 crash seems a good warning sign. In some countries, taxi drivers are already recommending bitcoin investment, which could be a modern-day equivalent. How much will it collapse? Is another great question. The NASDAQ bubble collapsed to ~1200-1500 (-80%) twice, once in September 2002 and another one in February 2009. Of course, cryptocurrencies have no bottom at all, as there is almost no intrinsic value behind them, while the NASDAQ had real companies with real earnings. How long could it take to recover? The NASDAQ only confidently recouped its peak and went beyond last year, 17 years after the 2000 peak. This puts into perspective how much risk there really is. This is how long the internet’s real value took to catch up with its hype, even if there has obviously been a lot of real value. Blockchain will be a game-changing technology, but real applications are still few and far between.

4 famous S-curves. Source: Quora

The S-Curve: A New World of Value

Of course, there is an alternative explanation to the Bubble, the Adoption Curve (or S curve given its shape). The adoption curve is very widespread among starry-eyed crypto enthusiasts. It has also precedent. Eternal September is September 1993, when internet usage started growing significantly thanks to AOL (that is the bottom of the S) and it has only grown exponentially since. Of course, once the whole of the world uses the internet growth flattens (the top of the S) and it stops at that permanently high plateau.

Adoption curves or S-curves are prevalent in the adoption of technology, and for the most part have been tried and true ways of predicting technology adoption. Initial adoption is slow (bottom of the S) with innovators and enthusiasts, once the majority comes in it grows fast (slope of the S), finally the last laggards take a long time to adopt as they are anti-technology (top of the S). TVs, Trains, Electricity, Cars, and many other technologies can be explained with the S curve.

The rationale behind the S curve for cryptocurrencies is assuming that Crypto is a new asset class that is being adopted, not a stock or bond that is being subjected to an irrational euphoria. It took a long time to get started (~9 years until ~20 billion market cap) but now it is in the explosion phase and it will continue to grow until it flattens out once it reaches saturation. Where does it flatten will depend on what percentage does crypto attain as an asset class. Total wealth in the world is ~250-300 trillion USD depending on the estimates. So we are now at approximately 0.2% penetration, if it gets to 1% we still have an x5 run and if it gets to 10% we still have an x50 run, to close to $1 million Bitcoin.

The Adoption Curve has a number of important questions to be considered: How? What? and Which? How much penetration? Will it be 0.1%, 1% or 10% of the wealth? Depending on what you believe there is a big difference in potential. Real Estate is ~60% of the total wealth while Hedge Funds are 1%. What path will it take to the final penetration? S curves are about usage, not value. So a crash or correction could be consistent with it as long as usage and ownership continue to grow. Which cryptocurrencies will be used in the long term? Are Bitcoin and Ethereum Webvan and Pets.com or Amazon and Google? Crypto might be 10% of the wealth and you might still lose everything if you choose the wrong cryptocurrencies. Choosing between Friendster and Facebook is easy in hindsight, but very hard in advance.

So what should I do?

Don’t invest more than you are willing to lose, diversify and hedge your bets are always good paths to follow if you feel you don’t have an edge over others. It hurts when you hedge and miss the bull run, but it hurts more when you plunge in and lose what you cannot afford to lose. 2% of your assets or one month’s salary will be substantial but not take you to bankruptcy in most situations. Go beyond that at your peril.

The bar for beating the cryptomarkets is really high. People who are really investing in cryptocurrencies are dedicating a significant amount of their time to them, doing things like participating in Slack groups, trying out every new token out there and talking to founders. If you are not doing that you don’t have an edge and will be probably better off with a diversified portfolio and limited exposure.

Bioprogramming, Digital Governance, Neurogamification, Tech and Business

3 More stories about the 6 exponential revolutions

More stories about how I got to understand and get deep in the 6 exponential revolutions.

Digital Governance.

My journey down the Digital Governance rabbit hole started with a random conversation with an innovation executive at a large multinational bank in mid-2015. He told me he was working on Blockchain, I had barely heard about it so I asked if it had something to do with Bitcoin. He answered with the phrase that would become stock later, “It is not about Bitcoin, it is about Blockchain”. In those days Bitcoin was in the mid-hundreds, about 10x below this writing.

That conversation got me exploring in 2016 and I started to find out that some of the smartest and most innovative people I knew were involved in this world. Some of them staking their careers on this new and unknown technology. The “Blockchain rather than Bitcoin” bunch was more focused on Ethereum and enterprise applications. There had to be something to it. I got familiar with the technology and started to read on it. I even started speaking about it, realizing the great degree of ignorance there was out there about the technology.

My real involvement with blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and the impact of Digital Governance was in 2017. There I made my first cryptocurrency investments and discovered that several groups of my acquaintances were already deep into it. People in the online sports betting world had been using bitcoin as a payments utility for some years already. Now they were considering it and other cryptos as an alternative investment. The San Francisco tech scene was also quite into cryptocurrencies, with a different set of favorite coins.

From there, it went quickly. Clients started wanting to get deep in Blockchain. I started to follow the ICO scene, see it climb over two billion in 2017, and met random people in Madrid who were participating in ICOs in New Zealand and getting to know the founders through the Slack channels. Even one of my portfolio companies decided to do an initial coin offering. The animal spirits of the internet boom were present with a vengeance in the ICOs and cryptocurrency investments, heralding a crash at some point. At the same time, the technology was incredibly powerful and flexible, a real general purpose technology. A new paradigm that could be game-changing in many use cases.

Bioprogramming.

Bioprogramming became real for me in two separate events. The first one was during 2016. I had always been interested in the Maker movement, and there had always been a “bio-maker” side to it. So I wasn’t surprised when I learned reading Singularity University materials that several software IDEs were available to design the DNA. I installed GenomeCompiler to try it out and was promptly shocked. Of course GenomeCompiler is just one of the options, a long list including uGene, GeneStudio, and Gene Beans is out there.

It fulfilled the promise of allowing you to design the DNA of an organism, but it went far beyond it. First, it allowed you to use existing organisms as a base for the design. This included bacteria (Lactobacillus, Escherichia Coli, Clostridium Botulinum), viruses (HIV1, Enterobacteria phage) and Eukaryotes (Saccharomyces). This meant you could try out subtle or not so subtle changes to an existing organism and see what happened. The potential for a bio-engineering golden age was obvious, as was the dangers of its potential nefarious uses.

What really made this real for me was the fact that you could actually order your redesigned samples over the internet. There are a variety of companies (Twist Bioscience, Gene Universal, GenScript, and many more) that are happy to fabricate it for you for a fee (some sites start as low as 25€). While it is not as fast as a software engineer deploying her code to the cloud, it is way faster than evolution by mutation and reproduction. I never got to order a sample to see if it really works. My wife is a doctor and she told me that in her mind it was too dangerous and potentially illegal.

That first experience made it clear to me that there was an amateur biohacking scene and that it was technically feasible. In early 2017 I learned there was a real industrial one also. We were looking for ways to reduce the environmental footprint for a fashion retailer. Surprisingly to many, Fashion is one of the most environmentally impactful industries. Its footprint is very large especially because of its materials like cotton, leather, or silk.

We explored some alternative suppliers and discovered there was a complete world of companies working on creating new materials through biofabrication. Bioengineered leather had several alternatives, it didn’t need cows and could have its leather precisely tuned to the characteristics a company needed. Everything was accomplished through cell cultures. Modern Meadow is an example of a company working on this and also on artificial meat. Another favorite is silk. The material that allegedly bankrupted the Roman Empire, silk is extremely intensive in resources, with 1kg requiring over 5000 silkworms. AMSilk is producing silk through bioengineering for textiles, medical devices, and the cosmetics industry.

Neurogamification

I have always been shocked by the low levels of work and school engagement in the world. I have been lucky enough that for me work and learning have been for the most part exciting and fun. However, I could see how many around me, and most in the world, according to statistics, were totally disengaged. For me, this is a disaster and a huge lost opportunity. It is a real pity that most of the population passes most of their waking hours in activities they find boring and unappealing.

Games have always been the opposite. Whether card games, physical games, or computer games, I have always seen people enthralled by games. Many of these games involve strenuous physical exertion, deep mental concentration, or complex social interactions with empathy and listening playing a large role. Why couldn’t the same principles that make games fascinating be applied to work and study so that everyone could be totally fascinated with his or her day to day?

Digital and the other Exponential Revolutions will enable this to a large extent, by eliminating thankless repetitive work. However, what really convinced me was seeing what the computer games by Blizzard, probably the most successful games studio of the last two decades, did to people.

I saw my friends, some more workaholic others more laid back, dedicate hours on end to these games. Their activities included intense study of how to perform certain tasks and deliberate practice to improve (leveling and tournament training), complex social negotiations and practice to get large groups (20-40 person guilds) to execute complex tasks (raids and instances), execution of repetitive tasks to gather resources (farming or grinding), and many others. Getting them to do this required very much ingenuity from Blizzard, and a level of understanding of how the brain works far beyond common sense. If this could be made for a game that actually cost money to play, I became conviced that it is doable for an activity you get paid for.

Blockchain, Digital Governance, Español, Tech and Business

Competición entre Criptoestados

 

Ya hemos echado una mirada profunda a Realidades y especulaciones de gobernanza digital. Para terminar de explorar la Revolución Exponencial # 4 – Gobernanza Digital, veremos una potencial transformación a largo plazo que podría traer: la competición entre criptoestados.

Como humanos, generalmente no nos gusta el cambio. Especialmente no nos gusta el cambio si va en contra de nuestros intereses. Dado que cualquier cambio siempre tendrá un efecto adverso en algunos grupos de interés, nos encontramos con una inercia institucional relevante. Esto es cierto incluso si el cambio es neto positivo, especialmente en los casos en que los efectos positivos son difusos mientras que los efectos negativos se concentran. A cualquier grupo de personas les resultará difícil cambiar a menos que se sometan a una tremenda presión.

La inercia institucional explica el ascenso y la caída de muchos imperios. Los griegos tenían mucha menos inercia institucional que los persas, por lo que superaron y derrocaron un imperio mucho más grande. El imperio romano sucumbió a los intereses acumulados de su clase dominante, que no hizo los cambios necesarios para mantenerlo viable. El imperio chino Song era muy avanzado tecnológicamente, pero no adoptó esas tecnologías para cambiar su funcionamiento y fue superado por Europa.

La competencia ha demostrado ser el mejor antídoto para la inercia organizacional. Europa a finales de la Edad Media era altamente competitiva y adoptó las innovaciones necesarias que China había inventado, adelantándose a ella. Las empresas juegan en un terreno competitivo que las obliga a adaptarse o morir. Sin embargo, la guerra y las revoluciones, los resultados habituales de la competencia a nivel estatal, son costosas y devastadoras. Y la privatización, poniendo todo en “el mercado”, ha demostrado que no funciona en servicios como salud, educación o seguridad.

Imaginemos que somos capaces de introducir competencia en la esfera pública de una manera segura y sin derramamiento de sangre. Imaginemos que los ciudadanos pueden elegir de manera instantánea y continua su nación-estado y proveedor de servicios público, como si fuera su marca de champú. Imaginemos que los resultados acumulados determinan fronteras y presupuestos, con nuevos estados emergiendo y otros que mueren dinámicamente y sin derramamiento de sangre. Imaginemos la responsabilización de los funcionarios públicos, la velocidad de la evolución y la innovación en la esfera pública.

Al mismo tiempo, parece un caos perfecto. Trae a la mente situaciones como los referendums de Quebec y Escocia, como el terrorismo irlandés o vasco, o los problemas actuales en Cataluña. Nuestra infraestructura pública simplemente no está preparada para este tipo de responsabilidad y cambio. La opinión común es que rápidamente colapsaría bajo la tiranía de la mayoría. Que sería imposible mantener un sistema público funcionando con voto real y descenderíamos al populismo y la dictadura.

Si bien eso podría ser cierto en una gobernanza pre-digital, con la nueva tecnología podríamos construir un tipo de gobierno responsable y programable. Podríamos tener ciudadanos verificados criptográficamente que puedan decidir a qué gobierno criptográfico quieren pertenecer en cada instante. Los cambios se ejecutarían y las cuentas se resolverían fácilmente en blockchain. Y los gobiernos estarían sujetos a la responsabilidad directa de los ciudadanos. El castigo por tergiversación o incompetencia de los líderes públicos no sería una revolución armada, sino más bien perder a los ciudadanos y finalmente desaparecer como estado. Alguien con una idea diferente podría hacer emprendimiento público y probar el modelo a una escala pequeña y usar su historial para atraer nuevos ciudadanos.

Si Blockchain y la tecnología digital pueden hacer que este escenario se haga realidad, aún está por verse. Incluso es dudoso que la naturaleza humana pueda aceptar la competencia y la incertidumbre en un nivel tan cercano a nuestro sentimiento de identidad. Sin embargo, lo que parece claro es que un gobierno público organizado de esta forma sería tan superior a las formas existentes que las superaría rapidamente. Al igual que las ciudades griegas hicieron con los persas, o los estados de la Europa medieval tardía lo hicieron con el resto del mundo.

El aumento de la presión de la competencia y el aumento de la tasa evolutiva de un estado criptográfico sería incomparable y nos llevaría mucho más lejos de lo que nunca hemos considerado. Podría arraigar en algunos de los estados fallidos del mundo como el Oriente Medio Mediterraneo, Asia Central o África que no tienen nada que perder. También podría surgir en algunos de los Estados-nación más pequeños que existen hoy, como los nórdicos o América Central, que saben que necesitan evolucionar rápidamente para sobrevivir. También podría ser utilizado por uno de los gigantes bloqueados como China, Rusia, Brasil, Estados Unidos o la UE para reinventarse e ir más allá de sus limitaciones actuales. En cualquier caso, quien desbloquee este nuevo tipo de gobierno podría superar a todos los demás de manera rápida y eficaz para dar forma a la futura evolución política del mundo.

Por supuesto, puede haber peligros. Recordemos el DAO, un fallo en la programación podría convertir esta cripto-utopía en una pesadilla totalitaria. Los primeros intentos pueden descender a la anarquía y la violencia a medida que se desactivan las restricciones tradicionales. No será un viaje fácil, y es improbable que el primer intento funcione.

De todos modos, vale la pena intentarlo. Vemos el regionalismo, el populismo, la desigualdad, la corrupción y la globalización que amenazan el edificio de las libertades que ha construido la democracia capitalista. Incluso vemos una nostalgia preocupante por los autócratas y tiempos más simples en la mayoría de las naciones desarrolladas. Las dictaduras pueden hacer maravillas con monarcas-filósofos platónicos. Hay muchos ejemplos en la historia como Lee Kuan Yew de Singapur, Augusto y Trajano en Roma, las Isabeles de Castilla e Inglaterra en el Atlántico, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln y Roosevelts en EEUU, sabios emperadores de China o Ashoka en la India. “Felicior Augusto, Meior Traiano”, pedía el Senado romano a cada nuevo emperador. Sin embargo, por cada Augusto o Trajano, la historia ha demostrado que tenemos al menos 5 Nerones, Caligulas, Heliogabalos, Comodos y Domicianos. La competencia criptoestatal nos llevaría desde promesas de 4 años hasta decisiones en tiempo real basadas en realidades. Y de ser forzados a elegir la opción menos mala, a tener nuevas opciones para elegir que aparecen y se testan continuamente. No nos exigiría privatizar lo que funciona mejor como público, sino que nos permitiría someter a nuestras instituciones públicas a la disciplina de la competencia y al poder purificador de la creación y la destrucción.

Blockchain, Digital Governance

Exponential Technology Revolution #4 – Digital Governance Speculations

(En Español aquí)

We already took a deep look at Digital Governance Realities in a previous post. To continue exploring Exponential Technology Revolution #4 – Digital Governance we will look at some speculations. There is some evidence to justify the speculations, but no real deployments yet.

Digital Governance Speculations

Public cryptocurrencies a cryptocurrency with state backing.

Once Bitcoin started to gain traction the obvious next step was the hybridization of Bitcoin and a fiat currency. Of course, this is a very scary step also for any government to take, so we still haven’t seen it. However, it is probably only a question of time until we have the first cryptocurrency with the backing of a National Bank and the consideration of legal tender.

A blockchain backed fiat currency could be a true gamechanger. With the legal backing of a state and the algorithmic inflation protection and flexibility of a cryptocurrency. This could very quickly challenge the dollar’s role as the reserve currency of choice and Bitcoin’s role as the premier crypto store of value. So the stakes might be really high for a public cryptocurrency.

There are rumors of cryptocurrencies being considered by several national governments:

China. After several unsubstantiated rumors. Yao Qian, the Director of the Digital Currency Research Industry (backed by China’s Central Bank) laid down the plan for a state-backed cryptocurrency in the ITU meeting. The goal would be to create a stable cryptocurrency that solves the Yuan’s inflation troubles

Sweden. Apparently, one the worlds most advanced nation in terms of going cashless is exploring the launch of the eKrona. This was communicated late last years with a two-year timeframe.

Russia. Rumor has it that Vladimir Putin meets often with Vitalik Buterin to discuss cryptocurrencies. The Russian government has gone from a very negative stance on cryptocurrencies to some of its foremost members expressing direct support for a state-backed cryptocurrency, and even an apparent announcement of the CryptoRubble.

US. For the US we have mostly speculation, like this prediction from currency expert Doug Casey.

Singapore. Singapore’s monetary authority (MAS) is backing a proof of concept of Utility Coin with a banking consortium. This would be the equivalent of the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, but with a blockchain infrastructure. Singapore has a history of moving boldly to new technologies when they think there is value to be captured.

Estonia. If it is digital Estonia is in it. So beyond a lot of other very interesting Digital Governance initiatives, Estonia is exploring the creation of a state-backed cryptocurrency.

Overall national cryptocurrencies are still in the planning and speculation stage, but they could be a real step ahead in terms of Digital Governance.

Digital ownership and access taking the middle-person out of marketplaces, fractionalizing ownership and shedding light on supply chains.

Marketplaces have taken the economy by storm. What used to be deep and dark markets like property rentals, taxi drivers, hair salons or nannies are being opened up and made transparent by marketplaces. These platforms like AirBNB or Uber put themselves in the middle of service providers and customers and create a much easier discovery and contracting experience while taking a substantial cut of the pie.

Digital Governance can extend this transformation in three ways. First, there are several projects aiming to create decentralized open source marketplaces with no middle-person. Second, others are trying to fractionalize ownership to make everyone play on both sides. Third, it is difficult to trace the origin of goods, so transparent supply chains can change the game substantially.

Slock.it, a decentralized AirBNB. Could you do without AirBNB but keep its functionality? That is Slock.it’s premise. Imagine an open source platform for listing platforms and making offers on them. Imagine that the transactions are operated in a blockchain and that same blockchain controls the locks of the property and arbitrates disputes. It is a DAO for AirBNB and one that doesn’t need to take a 15% cut of every transaction.

Elon’s dream of having everyone own a Tesla. Elon Musk is the Henry Ford of our age, he even wants to put a Tesla in the hands of each person much like Mr. Ford did with the Model T. He has given us cheaper and cheaper models, the Powerwall and solar panels. Now he wants to give us back the unused time of our car (95% by most estimates) so we don’t have to pay for it. How does he intend to go about it? Fractional ownership. Much like the tried and true ownership sharing for holiday homes but much more nuanced and flexible thanks to Digital Governance. Start adding a percentage column to the list of things you own. Maybe you only need 1% of that gym towel.

Supply chain transparency. Finally, most of the world’s supply chains both digital and analog are very hard to track. You don’t know where that tomato you are eating came from. Was it produced by slave laborers in North Korea? Has it been exposed to dangerous chemicals? Blockchain promises to easily and cheaply track everything there is to track on each item and solve those questions. The change that could come from that is astounding. Many companies are piloting this, with Walmart and IBM having some of the most visible projects.

Crypto-Law the greatest legislative step forward since the Code of Hammurabi.

Crypto-lawyers sound like something really cool and scary, a bit like ninjas. I believe that this is going to be one of the world’s foremost professions in the near future as laws and code merge.

The law is a set of contracts between everyone in a given state. Admittedly it is an extremely complex set of contracts. The legislative and judicial branches of government are responsible for updating and enforcing those contracts. The increasing complexity and analog methods we use are making both branches grind to a halt while we spend enormous amounts on them. This makes all of us extremely unhappy.

Could we put the law into Ethereum? Would it auto-enforce? Could we refactor it to simplify it? Could we simulate the impact of changes before they happen? Would taxes self-collect? Could we fork it to try two different approaches to A/B test? The answer to all of this seems yes but remember the DAO. We don’t want our world to be taken over by the evil genius who finds the bug. We need to do it step by step.

The Github of Hammurabi isn’t even close to a large stone stelae in terms of coolness, however, it could be a lot more practical to enforce, evolve and understand. After all, we have little to show for legal innovation since Hammurabi gave us that first written code of laws.