The DAO: Investments Meet the Invisible Hand

A new way of running an investment fund

So, this is new. Or is it? The concept of a distributed autonomous organization (a DAO) has been talked about ever since bitcoin enabled rudimentary smart contracts. The launch of alternative cryptocurrency Ethereum pushed the chatter up several notches with their smart contract-friendly platform. And over the past week it seems that DAO-talk has become mainstream. Yet few know what they are, how they work and why they are so interesting. Because few have been put into real-world practice. And none have attracted significant public attention. Until now.

Backing up a bit, let’s briefly talk about Ethereum. Ethereum is a public distributed blockchain, similar to that of bitcoin, but with operational differences and a more intense focus on smart contracts. Its virtual currency is ether, which is used to power the mini-programs embedded in the transactions on the network. Executing a loop or completing an if-then statement will cost a certain (tiny) amount of ether. Ether can be mined as a reward for validating blocks of ether transactions, or it can be purchased on digital currency exchanges, just like bitcoin. Ether is still at a fraction of bitcoin’s market capitalization ($1.2bn vs $6.9bn), but its liquidity and value seems to be building.

A Distributed Autonomous Organization is what the name says: an organization that does not have a hierarchy, and functions pretty much on its own. No CEO, no Executive Directors, no central chain of command. Therein lies the “decentralized”. No administration staff, marketing executives or sales representatives. Therein lies the “autonomous”. There aren’t even any incorporation papers. The functions the company needs to fulfil are written in code and automatically executed when the time comes. The filing of accounts, the sending of emails, the disbursement of payments – there is no one person asking that these be done, and no one in charge of doing them. They just get done, because they are written in code. It runs itself. It exists as long as there is an internet connection.

What kind of organization can run like that, I hear you ask? Obviously relatively simple ones, such as a crowdfunding campaign (if enough money is collected, ship the product), voting (if enough votes are gathered, such-and-such happens), etc. But also more complicated scenarios have been implemented, such astransport management, content distribution, cloud storage… And even more complicated ones are possible. Just think of everything a business does, and ask yourself, how would I go about automating this?

So why have so few been put into real-world practice? Because the concept is relatively new, and the execution is risky. We can’t count on bitcoin for this (for now), as the protocol does not allow complicated scripts, and the currency’s scalability problem has not yet been overcome (although some DAOs run on topof bitcoin, which means they run off-chain but connect to the bitcoin blockchain for verifying and locking in).

Ethereum does give us that capability. With Ethereum we can program functions, with if/then/else queries and conditional responses. With Ethereum we can create all sorts of DAOs.

Such as the one launched with little fanfare at the end of April. Although often called the “Ethereum DAO” in the press, Ethereum neither owns it, nor did it develop the software. That credit goes to Slock.it, a Germany-based developer of blockchain IoT solutions. On the 30th of April they announced in their blog the activation of the confusingly named The DAO (a bit like naming your company, “The Company”), an automated association whose purpose is to invest in Ethereum applications. And they invited the community to participate by purchasing DAO tokens with Ethereum’s currency ether. DAO tokens give holders the right to vote in the investment decisions. Which makes The DAO, In effect, a crowd-sourced, crowd-run investment fund.

from the Ethereum Community Forum - DAO

In just 20 days, it has become the world’s largest crowdfunded project, by far. Up until now that honour has been held by the video game Star Citizen, which to date, as far as I know, has raised almost $110 million (the actual amount fluctuates in line with the ether exchange rate). As of this morning and with only two hours to go (the campaign ends today), The DAO had accumulated almost $130 million of ether (although this valuation fluctuates in line with ether’s exchange rate), which accounts for 15% of all ether ever mined. It also is now the most funded cryptocurrency startup ever, beating Coinbase’s $75m, Digital Asset Holding’s $60m and Blockstream’s $55m. And The DAO funds did not come from institutional investors. They came from ordinary crypto enthusiasts.

The blown-away success of the campaign has even surprised the developers. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Slock.it’s founder Stephen Tual said that they had hoped to raise perhaps $20 million.

What will the DAO do with the funds? Once the crowdfunding closes on the 28th of May, it will start accepting proposals from developers for their ideas for Ethereum applications, services, etc.. The token holders will then get to vote on which proposals will receive funding. The successful projects then reward The DAO with a percentage of the revenue from their deployed service (or some similar arrangement – each proposal specifies the terms of the funding and the terms of the payout).

This is similar to a VC fund, but without the VCs, without the high salaries, without the paperwork and without the interminable meetings. And, obviously, with ideas limited to projects on the Ethereum blockchain (for now).

Why has it attracted so much interest? Most of the PR has come after the fact, with headlines over the past few days heralding a new form of funding and a new way of developing. The bulk of the interest has not come from professional investors, but from the cryptocurrency community, a rapidly increasing collection of individuals all over the world that are fascinated by the potential of this new distributed consensus system.

The DAO

Yet there are increasing concerns that this may be over-blown hype. First, the legality is still dubious. Who owns the funds? Who owns the ideas? Holding tokens does not make you a shareholder, so while you can vote, you don’t technically own a share of the profits. Can The DAO be hacked? How good will an untrained “crowd” be at spotting worthwhile investments? Would it be possible for someone to buy lots of tokens and then fund their own business idea with The DAO’s money? What if the ether exchange rate crashes?

Whether The DAO ends up a success or not, it is testing new waters, and opening our eyes to what could become possible through automated transactions and governance. It is showing us the power of the community, and the interest in change. And it highlights the potential of cryptocurrencies and blockchains to show us a new way of looking at business. Whatever happens, things are about to get very interesting.

(This article was previously published on LinkedIn.)

Blockchain and settlements: why?

I used to work, many years ago, as a broker of Canadian equities in London (don’t judge, it was the ‘80s). It was so long ago that I confess that I don’t remember much about the process, other than that we would write down our clients’ orders on bits of paper, and hand them in at the end of the day to the head of the desk. From there they would get passed on to the settlements department, which had its own floor, it was so large. Several days of stock price and currency movements later, the settlement would go through. I never thought to question the efficiency, I just assumed that that’s what it took to get ownership transferred.

When I started studying the blockchain, I assumed that aha!, here was a way to save billions in tied up money, simply by reducing the settlement time to seconds rather than days. I assumed that the blockchain’s transparency and immutability would make the cumbersome checking of ownership and payments unnecessary. Matching, verifying and netting would be reduced to code. So it needn’t take several days, right?

As with most financial concepts, it’s not that simple.

by Josh Pepper for Unsplash - trading settlements
by Josh Pepper for Unsplash

To see why, let’s start with a simple example. You and I are together in a café. I have a share certificate in my hand, and you want to buy it. You hand me the cash, I hand you the certificate, and we have instant settlement.

But wait a minute: how do you know that that share certificate is not fake? How do I know that the cash is not fake? My doubts are easier to resolve than yours (I just happen to have a fake bill detector in my pocket). How are you going to check that the certificate was not forged or copied? That’s going to take you a while. We no longer have instant settlement.

Back in the day when share certificates were bearer items (pieces of paper that belonged to whoever held them, much like the €20 in your pocket), checking authenticity could have been enough for the transaction. But now you need to know for sure that I have the right to sell that certificate, because if not, once I’ve disappeared with the cash, you could find that the rightful owner appears and wants the sale declared null and void. How do you do that?

And while you’re doing all your checking, I could decide to change the price. Markets move, after all. How do you prevent that from happening?

The settlement is getting more complicated, right? Now let’s throw in the delicacies of electronic payment, and electronic transfer. To the same doubts about authenticity, we can now add doubts about settlement. Even if we’re satisfied that we are who we say we are, and that we have the right to send the digital certificate/payment, I’m not going to transfer ownership until you send the money, and you’re not going to send the money until I transfer ownership. Who can help us with that?

And, since it’s unlikely that I hold my digital certificates, I have to route all instructions through my certificate custodian. And, how did you and I find each other in the first place? Suddenly a lot of other parties are getting involved, and each is going to want to verify and check that everyone is who they say they are.

So, a lot of verification is going on. And it’s that verification that takes the time.

In theory, the blockchain can help us with verification, in that if something is stored on the blockchain, it’s fact. But is it? Let’s presume that I, personally, don’t have the power to publish my share ownership on the blockchain. My custodian would have to do that. (Why he would do that is an interesting dilemma, since once he has published all his clients’ shares to the blockchain, he is out of a job.)

And how do we know that my custodian will publish the correct information? That my share holdings are 100% intact (nothing has been siphoned off), verifiable, and in a universally accepted format? Who decides what that format is? Would that not be a very, gasp, centralized decision? For a technology that rests on decentralization?

Let’s assume that we figure out a way for my custodian to blockchain all of my holdings and manage to keep his job. So, he transfers the digital ownership of the shares I want to sell to my broker, who is in contact with your broker. Why is my broker going to trust your broker to make the payment on your behalf? It’s easy enough if they know each other or have done business before. But what if you are in Azerbaijan and I am in Iceland? (And let’s not even go into how long it would take a payment to get from Azerbaijan to Iceland…). Right now regulation makes this all work relatively smoothly. And regulation insists on verification and re-verification of the facts and identities. It’s very unlikely that just putting it on the blockchain would be “good enough” for the regulators.

And we shouldn’t want it to be. Efficiency is great, yes. But when it comes to large sums of money, reliability is more important. And when you think of all of the verification that needs to happen for a trade to take place, settlement of two or three days doesn’t sound like that much, after all.

It is possible that the financial sector could come up with a way to encode verification, identity and transactions. But to do it going back far enough for it to be useful would entail a colossal cost. And to do it in a uniform manner in a fiercely fragmented business would require almost magical management skills.

But that’s not to say that blockchain settlement is not a good idea. Some asset classes take longer to settle than others. So, it’s quite possible that we’ll end up seeing separate settlement practices for separate types of deals, and some of those may well use the blockchain. I can especially see blockchain-style settlement being used for future asset classes that haven’t even been invented yet. Building a new settlement system from scratch would be an excellent opportunity for the blockchain to show its power. Converting current systems? Not so much.

And while decentralized trading sounds efficient and, well, democratic, we need to take a look at the steadying role a centralized control can play. Imagine what could have happened in September 2001, and again in the 2008 crash, withoutSEC interference. And the need to reverse a trade, either because of error or because of contractual conditions, is a relatively common occurrence, and something that the blockchain is not set up to allow.

The “blockchain as a new settlement system” dream is appealing. But as with much of the information and talk surrounding this powerful technology, it is largely hype. An improvement on the current system would benefit liquidity and profits, and make the sector more resilient to shocks. And the blockchain does have a role to play in making payments and data transfer more efficient. But it would be a mistake to assume that technology alone is the barrier to an instant settlement system. There is much to explore, though, and much to learn, and things can always be improved, indeed should be if the solution is practical. The sector and the blockchain will find ways of working together if we can move away from sweeping proclamations and towards practical applications that can help today.

Blockchain electricity

I’ve been doing some research recently into the role that blockchains could play in the management of supply chains. The fit seems obvious (one chain on top of another… geddit?), but it’s actually complex, and the potential impact is huge. In brief (and I’ll go into more detail in other posts), the blockchain could be used to track the progress of a good as it passes from one development stage to another. From design through to production through to shipping, with components’ information verified and embedded. Less bureaucracy, fewer middlemen, less chance of corruption, contamination or substitution. Greater transparency, lower costs. There’s a lot to talk about here.

But let’s step to one side for a moment and look at a supply chain that doesn’t move physical goods, or even digital goods. A supply chain that moves energy. The electricity grid. How can the blockchain help there?

From distributed generation to micro-supply, innovators both large and small are coming up with unusual ideas. Here are some examples:

RWE, a large German electricity producer, is working on a prototype (together with Ethereum Internet of Things specialist Slock.it) for an electric car charging station that communicates directly with your car. Your car downloads the electricity it needs, either at a plug-in station or while stationary over an induction point (such as at traffic lights), and pays exactly the right amount via its digital wallet on the blockchain. The contract is between the charging station and your car. Neither you nor the energy company need to get involved.  This system, if extended, would not only make it possible to keep your car charged in any country, since a contract with an electricity company is not needed. It also would make fleets of driverless cars more economically and logistically feasible, since responsibility for charging would fall to the car, not the owner.

Taking a huge distributed step forward, TransActive Grid (a joint venture between distributed tech company L03 Energy and Ethereum developer Consensys) can set up solar panels on your roof, and enable you to sell any excess electricity you generate to your neighbours through a “microgrid”. The aim isn’t to replace the big electricity companies, but to see if a peer-to-peer electricity network is technologically possible. At the moment the main obstacle is that these exchanges have to happen off the electricity grid, which puts physical barriers (distance) in the way of their potential spread. But if the exchange turns out to be practical, grid regulation could in the future allow adaptation of the existing electricity network. This experiment is already underway in Brooklyn, NY, and the first transaction took place successfully just a couple of weeks ago.

On the quirky end of the spectrum, SolarChange was created to reward generators of solar power, via the blockchain. For every 1Mw of green electricity produced, the producer is awarded 1 SolarCoin, which can be stored in a SolarCoin wallet and held for value appreciation, or converted into bitcoin (the current exchange rate is 0.00010001 BTC, or about 5 cents – a year ago it was a tenth of that).

solarcoin

Not as much for decentralized supply as for decentralized funding, South-Africa based Bankymoon – which develops bitcoin payment gateways for smart electricity meters – has set up Usizo, a crowdfunding platform for electricity supply. Schools are equipped with a smart meter, and donors are invited to contribute to the school’s electricity supply by sending bitcoin to the meter’s bitcoin address. Talk about a feel-good application.

Usizo - blockchain electricity

They are supported in this project by Vienna-based Grid Singularity, cofounded and led by some of Ethereum’s core team (and Bankymoon’s founder Lorien Gamaroff is a “Vision Partner”). Grid Singularity is developing a platform to use blockchain technology to connect power companies, and is exploring how to use the blockchain for smart grid management, energy trade verification and other applications. Their focus is use in developing countries, to help develop their solar energy deployment.

And as if to prove that things are warming up in the sector (there are so many opportunities for puns in this topic), just last week a potential new entrant emerged. Consensus 2016, a big bitcoin and blockchain conference organized by CoinDesk, was in full swing in New York. One of their features is a hackathon, in which ideas using the blockchain to improve lives compete for a $5,000 prize. Not a lot of money, true, but the PR isn’t bad. The winner this year is, drumroll, Decentralized Energy Utility, which aims to enable a network of smart meters and blockchain-based payments.

So, while the current electricity grid system is not about to be disrupted tomorrow, the talk about the blockchain disrupting the power supply seems to be passing from the theoretical to the practical. The potential is huge. Decentralized energy is more secure (less likelihood of power outages), involves less wastage (the power goes to where it’s needed), and once scale is reached, will save money (lower generation, distribution and maintenance costs). It also puts efficient electricity within reach of those without a bank account, even those without access to the power grid. Could we be witnessing the beginning of a fragmentation of the electricity market? How will this play out with the regulators? Could it be that the blockchain will reverse the centralization tendency of capitalism? With the stage set for the first act of a suspenseful disruption, the pre-show performance looks promising, and the cast of characters looks hopeful.

I want my stuff now: Bitcoin and immediate transactions

By now you know that a bitcoin transaction can take at least 10 minutes to verify and process. And to be really sure that it is permanently and indelibly on the blockchain, you’re supposed to wait for another 6 blocks (at least!) to pile on top. So, technically, a bitcoin payment could take over 1 hour to go through. This obviously is not ideal if you want to buy something with the digital currency. Imagine if you were told that you had to wait at least an hour for your pizza. Or that you had to come back to the store later to pick up your new jacket. You’d be right in thinking that this could be a significant barrier to bitcoin adoption.

So, how do we get around that?

by Sean McAuliffe for Unsplash
by Sean McAuliffe for Unsplash

One method used “back in the day” and which has fallen out of favour is “green addresses”. These are bitcoin addresses that are set up by a “trustworthy” institution (probably an exchange or a wallet) that is willing to advance the funds to the seller, while waiting for confirmed reception from the buyer. If I wanted to send you bitcoins, and I wanted you to feel secure that you had received them immediately, I would open an account with a well-known intermediary, I would send them the bitcoins, and I would ask them to pay you using a green address. They would do so immediately, without waiting for confirmation that my transaction to them was valid. They would trust me because of our working relationship, and probably because I have a balance of bitcoins held with them. The receiver (the seller) would have heard of the intermediary, and would trust their reputation enough to accept that the green address payment is valid. In effect, the intermediary “vouches” for my payment, and the seller trusts the intermediary enough to accept that.

One of the reasons that this system is not used so much any more is that two of the main green address intermediaries back in 2011, when this form of transaction verification was at its peak of popularity – Mt. Gox and Instawallet – ended up imploding. Obviously, trusting intermediaries is no longer an obvious thing to do.

Another drawback is that green addresses are not as private, since the name of the intermediary has to be disclosed. The intermediary’s records would then identify the buyer. Without a green address, the receiver (the seller) has no idea through which intermediary the funds arrived.

Furthermore, using a green address creates an additional bitcoin transaction, which, given the current intense debate about bitcoin scaling, is probably not the most efficient solution.

And, there is the irony of depending on a centralized trustworthy entity to make a purchase with a currency designed to work in a decentralized environment where no trust is needed. 😉

bitgo instant

Some wallet companies are coming up with ingenious work-arounds. Earlier this year BitGo launched BitGo Instant to make immediate transactions possible. After initial risk checks, BitGo Instant guarantees the funds for the receiver. How does it do this? By co-signing. The keys to a BitGo Instant wallet are held by three participants: the user, BitGo Instant and a key recovery service (a third party that generates, stores and protects public and private key pairs). Two signatures are required on every transaction, and in most cases, those two signatures will be the user’s, and BitGo Instant’s. Obviously before co-signing, BitGo Instant will check that the coins have not been previously spent. If that condition is met, BitGo Instant’s co-signature implies a guarantee that the funds will be paid. The only way that those funds could be double spent is if the user enters into a conspiracy with the key recovery service to send those very same coins somewhere else. To prevent this, the service is required to inform BitGo before it co-signs anything. Also, the key recovery service adds a layer of assurance that the bitcoins will still be accessible in the event that BitGo Instant stops operating, as it could provide the necessary second signature, allowing the user to access the funds. BitGo Instant’s risk in this is low, as it can easily verify that the bitcoins are there. And it is an original way to monetize BitGo’s reputation.

As with green addresses, the privacy of this type of instant transaction is lower than the standard, slow option, as the receiver knows that BitGo is involved. With that information, it is possible to figure out who the buyer (sender of bitcoins) is. So these transactions will most likely be of interest to average users who want instant purchase confirmation, and traders who don’t want funds tied up, not even for an hour. Privacy is probably not their main concern.

We will probably (hopefully) see the emergence of other clever ideas that improve the efficiency of bitcoin over the coming months. Instant transactions will not only increase the liquidity in the system by increasing the circulation. It will also dramatically increase the use cases, by offering instant bitcoin trading settlement, instant purchase confirmation, and less risk that the bitcoin exchange rate will move during the waiting time.

“Zero confirmation transactions”, or transactions that have not yet been embedded on the blockchain, are accepted in some cases, but the risk is high, so the practice is actively discouraged. For bitcoin to one day be widely used as a payment method, the “zero confirmation transaction” risk needs to be resolved. Some exchanges and wallets have been looking at probability approaches, but the system needs to find a simpler and more secure way to transact quickly. Even transactions that are one or two blocks deep in the chain are not free from risk of a block re-write, and waiting over an hour (after which the probability of the block being modified falls to practically zero) is often not practical. And until using the digital currency becomes practical, the talk of bitcoin one day replacing cash will remain just that: talk.