In 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto—whoever he or she really is—used a new invention, called the blockchain, to run currency maintenance and payment software over a decentralized, global computer network. What we got was Bitcoin, an unstoppable digital currency. We now know that a blockchain, in its generalized form, can also be used to run any other kind of software imaginable. Once deployed on a blockchain, programs run automatically, they are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, and they are nearly impervious to governmental controls. Which is to say, they are essentially autonomous. If the word Skynet just floated through your mind, then you’re starting to get the picture. (See “The Future of the Web Looks A Lot Like Bitcoin.” And watch this explainer of how the blockchain works.)
Ethereum is one of the projects bringing this technology to the masses. It provides a user-friendly platform for deploying software onto a blockchain network. Vlad Zamfir has been working on refining the protocols that will ensure that the Ethereum network can be scaled up. Most of the people developing similar systems speak with unqualified exhilaration about blockchain technology’s disruptive potential: They tout censor-proof social media tools, automated microlending apps, and government-independent identity verification, to name just a few examples. But, in his moments of greatest doubt, Zamfir finds the resulting loss of societal control terrifying. He spoke with IEEE Spectrum about the darker potential of public blockchains, what can be done to keep the technology an engine for social good, and why he still thinks the benefits outweigh the risks.
IEEE Spectrum: The goal, I take it, is to make something that anyone can easily build upon. Of course, that puts a lot of power into the hands of people with both good and bad intentions. What kinds of bad things do you think we are likely to see?
Vlad Zamfir: Some of the things that come to mind immediately are things like hate speech, defamation, things that we deal with through censorship. There’s also a big privacy issue with blockchains. It’s not that you can’t use it anonymously. It’s that someone could use it to make an application that’s specifically designed to infringe your privacy, to make breaches into…databases of private information.
With autonomous software it will be much harder for society to regulate and to stop these kinds of things. Right now, it would be quite hard for me to host a server that stores a lot of people’s personal data and serve it out illegally. It would be a challenge, right? Whereas in the world that we’re trying to build it would not be a challenge. I get the data once. I publish it once. And then I leave. It’ll be served out by this network forever.
I worry about that a lot. I think that censoring hate speech is actually a good thing. I think that not having libel be publishable is a good thing. I think there’s a reason that society asks people to take it down.
A lot of this stuff at the moment is still a little bit sci-fi because we don’t have blockchain scaling yet. We don’t have privacy on the blockchain. But we’re working on this stuff very hard.
The more I make progress on them, the more scared I get.
Spectrum: What about the people with good intentions? Is it just the bad actors we should worry about, or is there also the potential for unintended negative consequences?
V.Z.: Actually, the thing that’s really terrifying is the way policymakers might want to use this technology. It could potentially be very, very risky.
Imagine if some government somewhere decided, from now on here is the title system where property is transferred. That’s actually a very dangerous thing to do because you’ve specified the title system in an algorithm that has no ability to respond to court orders outside of what is specified in the algorithm.
As a policy tool, the blockchain provides something that is very reliable, and will execute exactly the way you specified it. But it is also potentially autonomous, which means that it can survive your government. And it also means that your people might be stuck with it.
Every week now, you hear some big-shot regulator say how blockchains might be the future of technology that they use. And it’s kind of frightening.
Spectrum: Do other developers in the community share your concern?
V.Z.: Generally, people don’t feel responsible. There’s a lot of feeling that we’re just producing general-purpose tools and it’s not up to us what people do with them.
It is a justification that people in practice are quite happy with. But I don’t think it’s a very serious position to take from an ethical standpoint.
Spectrum: You’ve said in the past that Ethereum is designed to be hard to control and that there is little to nothing that can be done on the protocol level to ensure that people use it only to build good things. What then do you want people to do?
V.Z.: Actually, just by having the conversations it improves people’s ability to pay attention to the fact that some of these applications might actually be unethical. Just for developers to understand that their choices are…not just neutral, I think will make a huge difference.
Spectrum: Given that you foresee so many negative outcomes, how do you justify the work you do?
V.Z.: We need more than just—hey, let’s make money; hey, this is really interesting; or hey, here’s a good use case. I think if you’re going to bring autonomous software to the world you have to have a damn good justification. You have to say why, actually, if we don’t have this we’re definitely going to have a really bad outcome.
Spectrum: Okay, so then why is it necessary? What does the world look like if we just keep going on without this kind of technology?
V.Z.: I think that basically there’s a crazy amount of corruption and failure over existing legal and regulatory frameworks. And given the nature of the global problems that we’re facing, we need some framework that we can use on a global basis to coordinate.
The reason [traditional governance] hasn’t worked out that well is that people end up gaming the systems for their own advantage. And the reason why this might be different is because it’s a tool…that we explicitly can’t control. It’s a tool that we put outside of our jurisdiction in order to have it govern us. That is a hard-core thing we have never done before. Society has never created something that is not human in order to govern society.
This article appears in the June 2016 print issue as “The Blockchain Has a Dark Side.”