“ In order to create a new order[…] We have to carefully design and test models of “faceless agents”, which are proxies: fusions of organisations projects and processes.”
Our most recent project - Premna Daemon - hopes to make clear the interrelationships between autonomy and sovereignty in the technologically augmented ecosystems of the near future. By way of an introduction to the project, we’ve decided to trace a selective history of autonomous technologies in both the cryptosphere and science fiction, before outlining the project in the context of these examples.
Premna Daemon is currently on show at the Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin, as part of the ‘Proof Of Work’ exhibition curated by Simon Denny, and will run until December 21st 2018.
The Desire for Autonomy
terra0 has always orbited around the themes of autonomy and sovereignty. Much of the initial conceptual impetus for the project stemmed from our reactions to the possibilities exhibited by early Smart Contract deployments, and our subsequent research into the history of autonomy in the Cypherpunk, Bitcoin, and Ethereum communities. Beginning with old threads in Bitcoin forums where users described how Bitcoin could enable software programs to operate as autonomous agents by paying bills, generating their own income, and self-optimizing, we quickly moved on to analysing concrete use cases like StorJ, and researching more abstract developments such as Vitalik Buterin’s blog posts outlining an (incomplete) terminology of organizational models on and for distributed ledgers.
Outside of the cypher/cryptospheres, science fiction was also a major source of inspiration. Daemon (2006), a two-part novel by Daniel Suarez, involves a distributed autonomous computer application named Daemon using augmented reality, its own currency, and AI-driven verticals to collapse the world economy while simultaneously creating technologically-augmented island ecosystems. Political theorist Kevin Carson describes Suarez’s architecture for these islands in his work in The Desktop Regular Interior:
“In the fictional world of Daniel Suarez’s novels Daemon and Freedom(TM), local mixed-use economies (holons) are built on common Darknet platforms; in Suarez’s terminology, the holons are local nodes in the Darknet economy. The virtual layer superimposed on the physical world, and the individual interface with it, are much the same as Sterling’s Sensorweb. Darknet members use heads-up display (HUD) glasses kind of like a grandchild of Google Glass to see into an augmented reality or virtual dimension called “D-Space,” which is “overlaid on the GPS grid. D-Space is built from the mapping architectures of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs)”
Indeed, in a 2015 interview Buterin stated that Daemon was a major influence on him when designing Ethereum: a prime example of ideas (and ideals) bootstrapping themselves into existence via critique of where we could be heading.
Further traces of distributed autonomous programs managing and administering capital are not difficult to find in contemporary science fiction literature. Aside from Daemon, they are best represented in Accelerando (2005), a novel by Charles Stross. Stross’ plots takes a much darker turn than Suarez’s, positioning the the human species as a Discontinued Model of evolution unable to cope with an emergent machine-to-machine economy in the late 21st Century. At one point, in a tragically amusing attempt to sidestep their earlier mistakes, the remaining human government — holed up in an enclave on the edge of the solar system — forbids the creation of companies wholesale. The unnerving implication of this is that the seed of an autonomous, inhuman, machine-to-machine economy is planted from the moment that economic agents acting under legal personhood — companies — come into existence. Phrased differently: from the offset, given the creation of autonomous economic agents — the creation of any form of structural abstraction that deals with the flows of capital — the rise of a machine-to-machine economy is inevitable. The only remaining question then is not if but when.
Stross’ expanded on this point in his 34C3 keynote, outlining a brief thesis of corporations as ‘slow AIs’: intelligent machines designed to optimize economic growth, spreading and growing via metabolizing capital.
Whilst we could climb far further down this particular rabbit hole and ask ourselves which traits capital could (or will) have when no longer coded or corralled by anthropomorphic notions of ownership, we can’t do this in this article (but keep your eyes peeled… 🕳️), and must instead divert back to the topic at hand: autonomous ecosystems, and how we can start building them.
Reinforcing one of the underlying points of this text — that science fiction simultaneously critiques and creates the future — is the fact that it was also a SciFi writer who was the first to formalize the technical possibilities of DAOs for autonomous resource management. In a thread entitled Deodands: DACs for natural systems, author Karl Schröder described the possibilities inherent in distributed ledger-based organizational forms for ecosystem management:
“The rather simple question underlying this idea is, why stop at corporations as persons? Several nations have already enshrined or are in the process of enshrining rights for natural systems. Rivers, watersheds, coral reefs, mountain biomes, all could be represented by DACs, and the goods and services they provided defined in their charter. Might this be a better way to protect and promote the interests of natural systems and other species, rather than tying political actions to antagonistic ideological human-based movements? This is not “save the whales,” it’s “give the whales the tools to save themselves. Do you think DACs could be used by our non-human ecosystem service providers?”
These themes are also present in Schröder’s novel Deodand (2010), wherein an ecosystem legally owns itself and acts as an autonomous entity. In 2016, without having encountered either Deodand or the DACs for natural systems thread, we published a paper laying out how to begin creating a hybrid forest which was able to operate autonomously via technological augmentation — the addition of sensors and Smart Contracts — act as an economic agent in its own right, and legally own itself:
“terra0 is a self-owned forest; an ongoing project that strives to set up a prototype of a self-utilizating piece of land. terra0 creates a scenario whereby a forest is able to sell licences to log trees through automated processes, smart contracts and Blockchain technology. In doing so, this forest accumulates capital. A shift from valorization through third parties to a self utilization makes it possible for the forest to procure its real exchange value, and eventually buy (thus own) itself.”
Obviously there are a lot of similarities indeed between the two concepts. On discovering the aforementioned thread, there was a discussion within the team as to whether we had accidentally come to the same conclusion as Schröder from a more technical perspective; credit is due to Karl for being nothing positive that we came up with such a similar idea isolated from exposure to his work and the interesting conversations that came out of our reaching out to him about it.
This moment of synergy aside, we’re now working at a far more granular level -experimenting with the smaller scale relationships that would operate within such organizational frameworks, such as the social contracts that could consist between autonomous structures and human peers and the creation of meaningful representations of physical assets by their corresponding on-chain digital twins.
A brief aside before moving on to the final section of this piece: it is interesting to note how these experimental or speculative - and thoroughly non-human -conceptualizations of new organizational forms can be re-anthropocentrized by different elements of the wider tech community. A prime example of such an occurrence is the Nature 2.0 movement, which sprang out of a 2018 Medium post by Trent McConaghy, Jan-Peter Doomernik, and Dimitri de Jonghe, in which they described Nature 2.0: a fusion of Schröder’s Deodand, speculative blockchain artworks such as Primavera De Filippi’s Plantoid, and the initial concepts outlined in our 2016 paper. Nature 2.0 continues to be presented as a more generalized conceptual framework, bolstered by AI technology, trying to bring about autonomous, self-owning, self-regulating infrastructure for the creation of a New Commons. This return to the anthropocentric view - or at least the leveraging of these non-human agencies for human ends - is obviously laudable, but highlights a key distinction between the scope of the future activities of terra0 and the majority of the eco-tech community: the direction from which we are building.
As previously highlighted, terra0 is now examining the emergent possibilities of human - non-human interactions at a very granular level. Whereas Nature 2.0 - with its reliance on AI - assumes a top-down, maximalist perspective, we instead are working from the bottom up, creating modular building blocks from which non-human agency can emerge organically. One such building block is the creation software frameworks allowing for technologically-augmented organic systems to engage in social and financial contracts with their broader environment: Premna Daemon is an initial prototype of this framework.
As previously stated, Premna Daemon is an installation and prototype currently residing in the Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin. The system consists of a Bonsai tree (a Premna Microphylla), a web interface, several senors and cameras, and a Smart Contract on the Ethereum Mainnet.
The software and hardware system(s) the tree is embedded within - a set of technological prostheses the plant is augmented with - allow for the creation of a financially-mediated social contract to come into being between the operators of the the Proof of Work exhibition and this hybrid entity. The operators have committed to care for the various needs of the Premna Daemon (watering, lighting, leaf trimming, etc) only when Premna itself requests assistance by sending Ethereum to a wallet owned by the gallery. The Eth used for these requests is donated to Premna by users via the web interface.
Instead of positioning the system as a passive object in need of care, Premna Daemon exposes the potential for non-human systems to gain the status of autonomous peers within their environment. Via shifting the interactions between one such system and the surrounding human actors into the financial realm, Premna shows how autonomous systems can engage in the form of relationships previously only occurring between humans. Indeed, non-human autonomy is not only possible - it can be crowdfunded. Perhaps Premna Daemon’s offspring need not take the route favoured by their distant cousin as imagined by Suarez, and ecological accelerationism can simply bootstrap itself into existence outside of the wider global economy: ECO/ACC bringing itself about via an exit from passive objecthood, in favor of financially-enabled peerage.