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From Ancient Greece to AI and DAOs
The word "Autonomous" is frequently appears as a buzzword in various contexts. It represents the "A" in "DAO" and is also the "A" in the concept of "Autonomous World". Furthermore, it embodies the aspirations many have towards AI.
As novel concepts, people's understandings of "Autonomous" can vary widely. What exactly does "Autonomous" mean? Does its definition change across different domains? Does an absolute sense of "Autonomous" even exist?
Let's dive into this.
The word "Autonomous" has evolved from the combination of two Greek words: "Auto" and "Normos". "Auto" in Greek means "self", while "Normos" derives from the Greek verb "némō", which means "to distribute" or "to allot".
In its original sense in Ancient Greece, "Autonomous" referred to entities that had the authority to govern themselves, set their own laws, and operate independently from a larger governing body.
Ancient Greece was not a unified nation as we understand modern countries today. It was composed of numerous city-states, each an independent political entity with its own governance, laws, and customs. These city-states had varying forms of government; for instance, Athens was democratic, while Sparta combined elements of oligarchy and monarchy. They often competed or clashed with one another. The term "autonomous" was born in this era, reflecting the desire of these city-states and their citizens to maintain their unique identities, governance structures, and ways of life amidst a decentralized and competitive environment.
Over time, the concept of autonomy began to be applied to individuals, denoting the ability of a person to act independently based on their principles or beliefs. The classic text "The Sovereign Individual" esteemed in the crypto community, delved into topics like economic autonomy and technological empowerment.
As technology advanced, "autonomy" began to take on a new meaning – referring to "machines or systems that operate without direct human intervention or external control." Today, "autonomous" is often associated with technology, such as self-driving cars. These systems operate "autonomously", not requiring continuous human oversight. This modern interpretation still carries the essence of "self-governance", though the context has far exceeded what the Ancient Greeks could have imagined.
The evolution in the meaning of "autonomy" showcases how culture, technology, and society shape and shift collective understanding.
In the realm of Artificial Intelligence, the term "autonomous" generally refers to systems that can execute tasks without human intervention.
Let's take ordering food as an example. Chatbots like ChatGPT offer a myriad of insights, from calorie counts to restaurant recommendations. But the bot can not book a seat for you.
That's where an 'Agent' steps in. Picture this: You tell it, “Book two seats for Olive Garden in Times Square on DoorDash tonight.” And it get thing done in a minute. But here's the catch: for the Agent to do this, it must have been pre-programmed to understand the ordering process and be integrated with DoorDash. Without that initial setup by a developer, the Agent would be at a loss.
However, the game changes with an 'Autonomous Agent.' Imagine an agent that doesn't just do what it's told, but can think and make decisions like a human. You can just tell your agent "I want a quiet place to eat in Manhattan tonight," and it not only understands you but also finds the best spot and books it for you, all by itself.
While the understanding of autonomous doesn't differ significantly in AI, expectations about its capabilities certainly do. It's a bit like the grading system for self-driving cars, which ranges from L0 (fully manual) to L5 (fully autonomous). This grading system offers an intriguing perspective on AI autonomy.
Interestingly, the director of autonomous agent adoption at Microsoft once remarked that autonomous implies human-like actions and decision-making. Microsoft's approach leans towards empowering Autonomous Agents to tackle specific aspects of existing business workflows. Technically speaking, this seems pragmatic, in the grander autonomy spectrum, it's perhaps at L2 or L2.5.
On the other hand, start-ups in the Autonomous Agent space are far more ambitious. They envision AI replacing humans in myriad scenarios—consider an AI sales representative. By the grading analogy, they're pushing the envelope towards L3 or L4.
It could be higher, even higher than level 5. Imagine a future where my daily work and life profoundly rely on my AI assistant. One morning, I call upon my assistant but find it unresponsive, and turn out AWS service is malfunctioning. That's not fun.
An ideal autonomous agent should not only think and do things but also operate consistently without any hitches. Resilience against external interferences, like unplugging from the internet, is crucial. And with growth in capabilities, Agent should possess digital identities, a degree of financial autonomy, and perhaps even self-regulation of computational resources and energy.
To me, this converges at the intersection of Crypto and AI. If there exists a platform offering a secure, reliable operating environment, a standalone financial system not dependent on any institution's approval, and where most apps allow permissionless access with seamless operability—why wouldn't an Autonomous Agent choose it? In essence, Blockchain networks are likely the foundational infrastructure for realizing high-level AI autonomy in the future.
When it comes to understanding the term "Autonomous" in DAOs, opinions vary more than in AI.
Though the idea behind DAOs predates even the advent of blockchain systems, it was first formally defined and presented in the inaugural Ethereum whitepaper. Vitalik distinguished between two types of decentralized organizations in the paper: DOs (Decentralized Organizations) and DAOs. The "Autonomous" in DAO signifies an organization that operates wholly based on the code programmed into its associated smart contracts. This setup ensures that the organization runs continuously, free from external interference.
In the future, more advanced mechanisms for organizational governance may be implemented; it is at this point that a decentralized organization (DO) can start to be described as a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO). The difference between a DO and a DAO is fuzzy, but the general dividing line is whether the governance is generally carried out via a political-like process or an “automatic” process.
Ethereum Whitepaper 2014.12 version
The intricate nature of our world is ever-present. Blockchain technologies have paved the way for a more efficient and equitable distribution of ownership rights, enhancing coordination capabilities. Consequently, diverse cultural and interest-based communities began harnessing these technologies to organize and collaborate. Although many in the crypto realm adhere to the "code is law" philosophy, the reality is more nuanced. How much business logic can truly be executed within a smart contract? The aspiration of creating a fully autonomous organization governed solely by smart contract code is a distant dream.
Based on the initial Ethereum white paper's definition, most contemporary DAOs would not qualify as true DAOs.
As the world evolves, the term 'Autonomous' has witnessed various transformations. In the real world, it shifted from signifying self-governance to denoting automated operation (or governance). Upon entering the crypto world, the definition underwent a reverse metamorphosis.
Many DAO operators have stepped back from seeking complete code-based autonomy, shifting focus towards the social layer. Thus, 'Autonomous' has reverted from automated governance to representing organizational self-governance. This shift might be a reflection of the limitations of current technology. The Ethereum white paper's subsequent updates further blurred the 'Autonomous' definition by removing the concept of DO. With the rising popularity of the "network state" notion in recent years, the understanding of 'Autonomous' within DAOs has further gravitated towards its ancient Greek origin.
In my perspective, the exact interpretation and application of 'Autonomous' aren't paramount. The initial definition of DAO symbolized an ideal, a hope of technology-driven empowerment. Even if this hasn't been realized, the pursuit remains pure and admirable.
Numerous DAOs have emerged, compensating for technological robustness with cultural resilience. By connecting community members with shared values and leveraging blockchain technology for stronger coordination, motivation, and ownership distribution, they've fostered novel paradigms and accomplishments previously unseen.
I once believed that as technology and infrastructure matured, DAOs would increasingly minimize human dependency. Perhaps today we manage community treasuries through manual multi-signature methods like Gnosis. Tomorrow might see the integration of proposal and treasury systems, enabling automated fund allocation. The day after might automate key role allocations within a DAO. Over time, automation might gradually replace human roles, leading to a DAO fully operated by code.
However, observing more DAOs has reshaped my view. Current community-centric DAOs and the envisioned fully-automated DAOs seem like distinct entities. Their trajectories appear divergent, rather than converging at some future juncture.
Human-centric DAOs undeniably possess vast potential for automating processes to enhance efficiency, coordination, and trust. Yet, their primary value derives from the community, from every unique individual. Humans remain central.
As for the idealized DAOs fully governed by code, they might originate from other premises, for example, an autonomous world.
The term "Autonomous World," often abbreviated as "AW," was first introduced by 0xPARC in 2022. After a year, it's garnered increasing attention and discussion. While many consider the Autonomous World primarily within the context of fully onchain game, I view it as a complex convergence of technology, culture, politics, and philosophy.
In the concept of the Autonomous World, "world" doesn't exclusively denote the place where humans live; instead, it signifies a vessel, a container that holds rules and entities. Our human world is, of course, a world, but so is the universe of "Star Wars", which exists in films, books, and our imaginations. Similarly, universes like "Diablo" and "Lord of the Rings" are worlds in their own rights. Even abstract concepts like chemistry can be considered a world, with its own set of rules.
Worlds exist everywhere. There's a subreddit called 'worldbuilding', which I visit frequently. Enthusiasts there tirelessly conceptualize worlds, considering geography, climate, history, legends, society, technology.
With this understanding of what a 'world' signifies, let's delve into the definition of an "Autonomous World." 0xParc defines it as a world underpinned by blockchain. To elaborate:
Autonomous Worlds have hard diegetic boundaries, formalized introduction rules, and no need for privileged individuals to keep the World alive.
This encapsulates three core characteristics of an "Autonomous World":
Hard diegetic boundaries: This suggests the world operates under a consistent, unchanging set of foundational rules, offering stability.
Formalized Introduction Rules: This means there are clear and fixed rules for entering and participating in this world.
No need for privileged individuals: The world is self-sustaining and doesn't depend on any specific individual or organization for its maintenance or governance.
In this light, an Autonomous World closely mirrors the original definition of a DAO – an entity operating autonomously under predefined rules, independent of individual influences or soft, political coordination. Perhaps one could argue that DAOs are a manifestation of Autonomous Worlds.
So, what's the allure of such a world? I believe it's objectivity.
Our real world operates objectively; no single entity owns or dictates it. The natural laws sustain it, and every individual has the potential to influence it under these laws, making their mark an objective reality.
In contrast, the world of "Harry Potter" isn't objective. Had J.K. Rowling added or omitted a character, that decision would alter its reality. The world was crafted and is governed by Rowling's vision. While millions love and indulge in it, they cannot truly alter its essence. They cannot leave a note at Platform 9¾ and make it a part of that world.
"World of Warcraft" isn't entirely objective either. Players can engage and impact the world, but its existence hinges on Blizzard's whims. When negotiations between NetEase and Blizzard broke down last year, everything Chinese players had crafted vanished.
But now, we have the opportunity to create a blockchain-based, autonomous, and objective world. In such a space, all creations become objective realities within a stable, self-sustaining environment.
The above provides an overview of the concept of autonomous across various contexts. These are my personal reflections and may not represent absolute truths. The interpretation of autonomous is still evolving. Indeed, "autonomy" remains one of the most profound topics in human civilization, far beyond what can be encapsulated in a few thousand words.
Recently, I explored a sci-fi novel titled "Blindsight." It raises an intriguing query: Might our treasured self-awareness be an impediment to human evolution?This raises a timeless inquiry: Are we truly masters of our own fate, or are we simply playing roles in a preordained cosmic narrative?
Starting from this thought, I delved deeper into another question: Are humans truly autonomous? As we debate between human-governance and code-governance, perhaps our perception of autonomy is merely a predetermined outcome within the cosmic smart contract.