Multipurpose digital tokens might be the future of all types of transactions
But what if we turned cryptocurrencies into multipurpose digital tokens with a use value far greater than as a form of cash? Traditional money has exchange value, but zero use value (apologies for appealing to Karl Marx to make the point). What if we reinvented money altogether so that it helps not just with payments but with elections as well?
Every day, billions of transactions are made in the global market economy. With each one, there are at least two counterparties: For example, a buyer and seller, an insurer and insured, or a borrower and lender. More broadly, humans engage in all kinds of transactions where there is a party and counterparty, including legal agreements like marriage, divorce or a will that distributes property after someone dies. Digital tokens may make this whole process easier and cheaper.
And it won’t end there. Virtually everything can be turned into a token, including equities, commodities, debt, real estate, art, births, civil unions, diplomas, votes and so on. Even data could be turned into a token, potentially disrupting the likes of Google and Facebook.
The beauty of the blockchain is that it enables all manner of lateral extensions from its original, intended purpose. One possibility is to combine digital currencies with smart contracts, digital record management and decentralized autonomous organizations — all ideas supported by the so-called Blockchain 2.0, first proposed half a decade ago. Tax collection might also be made less complex by automatically deducting the government’s share from every transaction recorded on the blockchain. In general, the management of supply chains at companies would be simplified and accelerated though a combination of the mechanisms involving contract execution, record keeping, tracking, payment collection and restocking.
Another lateral application of digital tokens would relate to the interaction between governments and citizens, political parties and their voters, or corporations and shareholders. Elections, for instance, are still conducted around the world using paper ballots or very rudimentary voting machines. Blockchain -enabled e-voting would eliminate the need for voting stations, making it more convenient to vote. Each citizen registered to vote would have a unique digital token for each candidate or issue being voted on.
They could exercise the right to vote after authentication using a personal key. Engagement and turnout might increase, although digital accessibility is a concern that could augment inequality. In fact, with blockchain technology voter participation might be even higher among the better educated and more sophisticated groups of individuals who already have higher participation rates. For national elections, the stakes would be high. “It is not enough for the result to be fair and valid,” argues a study published by the European Parliament. “The whole electorate, even if they are disappointed with the result, must accept that the process was legitimate and reliable. As such, beyond providing actual security and accuracy, [e-voting] must also inspire confidence and trust.”
What if we thought laterally in yet another direction? What if we used digital tokens and blockchain technology to force government officials to automatically act on campaign promises under certain pre-agreed conditions? Taxpayers would use cryptocurrency in exchange for accountability. For instance, after an election certain policies could be implemented through binding smart contracts or money allocated to specific budgetary categories. Or citizens could track how much the government is spending and whether it is fulfilling its promises.
Smart contracts could be used throughout the economy, and not just in the context of government policymaking. They include a set of instructions agreed upon by the parties to a transaction that would be automatically triggered if certain conditions are met. A simple example would be a loan contract whereby a lower insurance premium on a mortgage kicks in if the market interest rate goes down. A 2016 report by the U.K. Government Chief Scientific Advisor proposed using blockchain technology and digital tokens to improve government services by cutting costs, supporting compliance and fostering accountability. It would also help collect taxes, disburse benefits and make interactions with citizens more fluid.
Several countries have already realized some of the potential of digital tokens. Estonia, home to the most advanced e-government in the world, so much so that it presents itself to the world as e-estonia. The citizens of this tiny country of 1.3 million can apply for benefits, obtain medical prescriptions, register their businesses, vote and access nearly 3,000 other government digital services online. In 2016, Wired named Estonia “the most advanced digital society in the world.”
Some African countries like Ghana and Kenya are at the forefront of global efforts to bring government closer to the people through technology. According to the World Bank, “the eGhana project represented a pioneering design for ICT [information and communication technology] projects that is being replicated in a number of African countries.” An independent research team evaluated Kenya’s efforts and concluded that the country “has created an enabling political, legal and business environment that is suitable for the implementation of … e-government,” bringing benefits such as a “reduction of bureaucracy, round the clock accessibility of services, fast and convenient transactions, increased transparency and accountability, improved staff productivity, and easy flow of information.”
The potential of multipurpose digital tokens is truly unlimited. A key geopolitical issue of our time is copyright infringement. Many a trade war has started as a result of systematic intellectual property theft, including the ongoing row between the U.S. and China. Copyright owners could enforce their rights much more easily if they accepted digital cash tied to royalty payments, offering companies and individuals a discount for using the system. A global economy powered by technology is no place for traditional, bureaucratic regulation and authentication of intellectual property use. This is especially the case with complex products such as cars or computers, and also with intangible content like software, music and video.
Digital tokens could also give people and companies incentives to engage in pro-environmental behavior. One potentially important proposal is to enable companies and individuals to transform carbon credits into digital tokens that can be traded on an exchange or converted into cryptocurrency, or to help homeowners sell their excess solar power without the cumbersome paperwork involved in dealing with their local utility.
EnergiMine, a startup, uses the blockchain to give people “gold stars” in the form of tokens if they reduce their carbon footprint by taking public transportation, replacing their old appliances with efficient ones, or better insulating their homes. The tokens can be used to pay for utility bills or exchanged for cryptocurrency at a discount. A similar system could be set up for certain categories of consumer goods that leave behind a large carbon footprint, including food, beverages, clothing and personal care products. Consumers would thus be able to gauge the environmental impact of their purchases.
Besides citizen services, intellectual property, and tackling climate change, digital tokens with both use and exchange value could provide a system for tracing guns, protecting endangered species and certifying the origin of diamonds, among many other applications. Cryptocurrencies will only capture the imagination of users — and perhaps regulators — if they transform the way in which we think about money and how we use money; if they open new horizons and possibilities not only for doing business or managing our personal finances but for improving our lives. If digital currencies merely substitute for cash, then we might be disappointed.
But if we can do away with the high costs of moving cash around while at the same time providing incentives for individuals to preserve resources or diminish their carbon footprint, then we might witness a tectonic shift in the world of finance — and create a better future at the same time.
Ultimately, digital tokens are a formidable tool when it comes to encouraging individual and group behavior that helps society. For digital tokens to become widely used, people need to receive some immediate benefit (like ease of use or a reduced cost per transaction) in addition to the long-term benefit to everyone in society (a reduction in carbon emissions). For instance, the interest paid on my holdings of cryptocurrency should be higher if I reduce my wasteful behavior concerning food and clothes by sharing them on a digital platform. Cryptocurrencies will triumph only to the extent that entrepreneurs find ways to integrate more uses into them.
It’s clearly too late to make digital tokens available to deliver stimulus money or election ballots. But it’s never too early to start designing a better, more reliable and fairer system for it to be ready for the next election — or the next big crisis.
We are still the masters of our fate. Rational thinking, even assisted by any conceivable electronic computors, cannot predict the future. All it can do is to map out the probability space as it appears at the present and which will be different tomorrow when one of the infinity of possible states will have materialized. Technological and social inventions are broadening this probability space all the time; it is now incomparably larger than it was before the industrial revolution—for good or for evil.
The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.
It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is. The mental processes of inventions are still mysterious. They are rational but not logical, that is to say, not deductive.
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.
Social media has given everyone a virtual megaphone to broadcast every thought, along with the means to filter out any contrary view [...] The result is a creeping sense of isolation and emptiness, which leads people to swipe, tap, and click all the more. Digital distraction keeps the mind occupied but does little to nurture it, much less cultivate depth of feeling, which requires the resonance of another’s voice within our very bones and psyches.
Moravec's paradox is the observation by artificial intelligence and robotics researchers that, contrary to traditional assumptions, reasoning (which is high-level in humans) requires very little ...
Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.