We're missing out
Millions of people have realized that computers are broken. Many of them are younger people, who never lived without computing, and maybe because of that they can see better than others not only computing’s limitations but more importantly its potential. So, what is this vision of a world where computing is secure? The short version is that we could trust computers with much more. If we go back to the fundamental properties of secure systems, we can have a sense of what we’re missing today.
If computers enabled ubiquitous:
- Integrity, records couldn’t be modified, and we would know that an email forwarded to us wasn’t altered in the process.
- Availability, the software would keep running no matter what, and oil pipelines wouldn’t have to be stopped because of ransomware.
- Confidentiality, files couldn’t simply be shared or copied, and factory owners wouldn’t take risks when subcontracting work.
- Authenticity, we could verify digital claims of authorship, and we wouldn’t need to print, sign, and send paper documents.
- Possession, assets would remain in control of their owner, and banks couldn’t unintentionally prevent us from moving it.
- Utility, then files wouldn’t suddenly become useless when the software initially used to read and edit them stops to exist.
And while solving today’s problems is an exciting proposition on its own, it is likely that entirely new ways to use computing would emerge thanks to the security of tomorrow’s computers. The example of non-fungible tokens, digital representations of assets ownership such as art, is a great example of how quickly the social legitimacy of ownership proofs evolves as new tools become available. A part of society has now accepted, in less than 3 years, that ownership of a token representing something is equivalent to being the owner of that thing. Now imagine this concept extended to cover your possessions, your company’s assets, the state’s properties, all represented with tokens that can be transferred, traded, borrowed worldwide.
Another incredible glimpse of the future that we have today is the rise of decentralized autonomous organizations, from their tumultuous infancy to now enabling true possession of USD. At their core is the idea that decision-making can and should be decentralized. The traditional pyramidal decision making, with many operational people making many low impact decisions and a few high-ranking people making a few high impact decisions, is flipped on its head. Decentralized autonomous organizations instead are demonstrating the viability of new models where many people collectively make many high-impact decisions, with the low impact decisions entirely automated and executed by a few trusted software, blockchain smart contracts. Instead of a bank’s executive team coming up with targets of how many loans should be given next year, smart contracts automatically grant loans to anyone who’s got sufficient collateral, and hundreds of people govern the interest rates and collateral requirements.
When it comes to privacy, we start to have a feel for what this enables as well. While by now everyone has heard of bitcoin and how it lets anyone across the world move money, fewer have understood that we can also move money privately. We can now send money confidentially on an open, decentralized network where the sender, receiver, and amount of a transaction are not disclosed. And while these applications will certainly create numerous headaches for regulators, continued improvements in cryptography promise generalized private computing. Soon™, you will be getting a loan given by software against your assets without ever disclosing to anyone the value of these assets, your intention to get a loan, or the fact that you got a loan.
Using secure computers will be a vastly different experience from using computers of today. We all know too well that every time we open our laptop or smartphone, there is no guarantee that our data will still be there, or that our device will even function correctly. The anxiety that this creates, with so much of our lives depending on these machines, has a profound effect on everyone. What if instead, you had an absolute certainty that your applications would ‘just work’, and that your data was ‘just there’?
While computing allows us to do, with an incredible speed, many of the things that humans do, secure computing allows us to do things that we humans can’t. For example, we can now sell (some) things without having a buyer. You might in the future be able to sell your car and get paid with just one tap on your smartphone. You didn’t sell it to anyone, but instead, a secure computer has bought it from you. This same secure computer will sell your car to someone else later. Even better, thousands of such computers will be competing to buy and sell cars for the lowest fees.
Informing ourselves would be vastly different too. Once every quote, every recording, every video can be securely attributed to its author, why would you continue to read news built by copying and editing information found elsewhere? Once people can anonymously prove their credentials and knowledge of a topic, who wouldn’t read the comments they leave on news articles? Imagine being able to see the statement of a government’s health minister debunked in the comments section by thousands of people that you know are relevant members of the health administration, while no one is revealing their identities.
The computing of tomorrow will give us security. Secure computing is not personal, it is an abstraction built upon traditional computers that continue to provide the raw horsepower. Secure computers are virtual machines, composed of thousands of interconnected nodes that all agree on a security policy, and economic incentives to enforce it, a.k.a. blockchains. Tomorrow, secure computing will be enabled by millions of blockchains, and trillions of tokens. There are large, complex, and largely unsolved computer science and engineering challenges ahead of us that will keep us busy for decades.
When we get there, work is likely going to be vastly different for the next generation. While the cost of creating companies is already negligible for most businesses, the time required to finance, hire, and structure their operations is not. We have now a demonstration of how smart contracts can enable all this. As creating companies, and operating them becomes automated by secure computers, they might become much more ephemeral. You can create a decentralized autonomous organization for free in five minutes today. In the future, you might wake up in the morning, read a report of the income you derived from various previous ventures you were associated with and tailored options of where to now allocate your one true resource: time. This might not be for everyone, and where steady flows of work exist, steady streams of income will as well.
Technological revolutions have abstracted, and automated, the things we used to do before they came. We abstracted and automated the making of goods during the industrial revolution. Then, the digital revolution abstracted and automated the delivery of services. The current revolution is abstracting and automating the creation and operation of entities that produce goods and services. And instead of raising funds, these new entities can issue and distribute their own currencies, which become integral parts of their economic models.
As private computing is enabled by a new generation of computers, this will create the opportunity to rethink how personal data is managed. Imagine a future service like Apple Photos or Google Photos, but designed so that it does not need to own your data to process it. The future service will be able to recognize the faces of your friends on images, just like today, while you will retain ownership of your photos. And these types of applications of private computing are coming soon. Private data will not be owned by centralized services, like today by technical necessity and economic incentives, but by the end-user. And instead of files stored on your mobile phones, they will be stored on decentralized storage services, and processed by private computing services.
How we think about our assets, and investment will change dramatically too. In a world where investment is automated, the cost of investing will tend to zero. And while the concept of a robo-advisor isn’t new, we still need to automate the ‘back-office’ of investment such as clearing, settlement, and custody. And with a cost of investing close to zero and a cost of trade close to zero, why would anyone want to keep money in fiat currencies? Payments will be quite different, as the buyer’s portfolio management software will likely not hold any cash but rather thousands of various financial instruments. These assets will be automatically selected, and just the right amount sold to receive local currency, transfer to the merchant, and the merchant himself will automatically invest this local currency into assets of their choosing. While government fiat currencies will likely continue to be used as a medium of exchange and unit of account, their utility as a store of value will continue to be challenged.And with secure computing enabling instant onboarding to services, there will be much less friction when moving from one goods and services provider to another. Are you fed up with Amazon after reading about how they mistreat their employees? If the effort of signing up for their competitor, entering all your details, and teaching your new online shopping service all your preferences to have meaningful recommendations seems insurmountable, consider the idea that this information will in the future belong to you, and you’ll be able to instantly sign-up to a competitor using your global identity. And the same would apply to financial services. Instead of the ‘Sign-up with Google’ and ‘Login with Facebook’ buttons that we see everywhere, you might be only using a self-sovereign identity that you issued yourself, or perhaps a digital identity given by your government, a ‘Login with my Passport’. Unhappy with the loan rates that your bank provides? Not a problem. Just link your assets, credit history, and identity to a new bank in a few seconds.