Tokenized Warfare: Cryptocurrency in Conflict Zones

War is good for absolutely nothing. Yet the reality is that at this very second there are conflicts raging that disrupt and destroy the lives of millions. It’s against this dark background that crypto has found a morbid use-case, to channel funds freely to various entities that are prosecuting violence against others, and a way for resistance fighters to access funds. As a way to continue some semblance of normality. 

It’s hard to bank when your bank has become a bunker. When the systems-architecture of a country disintegrates under the horrors of war, the financial system is often the first to break. Cryptocurrency, a standalone system of transactions, accounting and payments that’s uniquely resistant to the shocks of the real world, is a perfect, and now prevalent, candidate to get the money to where it’s needed most.

Crypto is censorship resistant. If an oppressor switches off its citizens’s access to money, crypto allows them to continue as they were. Crypto has superb remittance capabilities. A transaction doesn’t care if you’re in Tulsa or Timbuktu – the price is the same. Crypto is also pseudo-anonymous. An agent who is persona non grata to the traditional financial system, dominated as it is by powerful Western countries, can still operate and receive funds. Jurisdictions that traditionally struggle with access to banking and which are major conflict zones top the charts for Bitcoin searches.

You mean crypto is funding terrorism!? That’s appalling! Well yes, it is – depending on what you define as a terrorist. It’s far beyond the scope of this tech junkie to comment on who is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist, who is right and who is wrong, on each and every one of the world’s multifarious conflicts, just to note that a decentralised ledger doesn’t care who you are. It just works – no matter the situation, and it works both ways. 

Crypto has provided enormous humanitarian relief to those in conflict zones. Citizens fleeing Ukraine have been beneficiaries of extensive crypto donations, and the Ukrainian government has received $0.225 billion in its fight against the Russian invasion. Similarly, Russian-financiers frozen out of traditional payment rails due to sanctions have resorted to using crypto to finance their campaign, and Hamas has received plenty of funding through the Tron network. Crypto continues its use-case of being an out-of-context asset – booming in times of trouble.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

So, is crypto a tool of liberation or of oppression? Should the Powers That Be choose to blacklist a certain nation or entity, crypto provides an easy way for that entity to continue its machinations. For Ukrainians and Palestians and Houthis and whoever else feels oppressed, crypto provides a lifeline of financial and banking access when the rest of their world falls apart.

To many, crypto’s use in war-financing is yet another black stain on its reputation, a further stamp of its association with the illicit, the illegal, and the lethal. The ledger has no morality, and it is not under the control of any moral arbiter, any centralised power. That is its very purpose. It’s easy to condemn crypto when you’re on the side of the would-be moral arbiter. 

Yet you never know when the tables may turn, when suddenly you find yourself on the wrong side of history – as millions do all over the world daily, sometimes surprisingly – and you need a way to continue your life. ‘Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass.’ Such a reality is alien until it happens to you. Crypto remains on your side even when the institutions militate against you.

Systems are fragile. Authorities change. The ledger is eternal. So, although crypto is buying guns used to kill people, equipping terrorists, and fueling tanks marching across borders, it is also doing the opposite. Buying crucial aid, giving the unbanked a system of money, and putting food in the mouths of the desperate, and medicine in the hands of the dying. The ledger is not evil, we are. At least with a decentralised ledger, no one gets to choose which side is which.

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Chatbots and the Corporate Dream

Hello! How can I help you today? 

Visit almost any modern company website – retail, health, service, or other – and you will see this pop up. An invitation to their world. You click, type in your question, and three possible things happen:

  1. Thank you for your question! A customer service representative will respond with 24 hours
  2. Did you mean – How to install your new Christmas lights?

Or possibly, nowadays:

  1. Hi James! I’m Xmasbot. Installing Christmas lights is really easy….

It’s this third option which is so tantalising a prospect for corpos. Customer service is expensive. Execs the world over are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of ripping out the expensive bureaucracy of customer-facing support and replacing it entirely with LLM-generated responses. It is predicted that 90% of all customer service jobs will be done by bots eventually. For pleasure-buying, it makes sense, but for services – the future is more scary.

It’s true that the current system of customer support has created frustration for millions, especially when it comes to essential services. Essential services barricade themselves behind bureaucratic labyrinths. It’s almost like they don’t want to really help and, the sad fact is, for some services – like internet, gas, electric, tax – they don’t. Your presence is nothing but a fiscal drag on their bottom line. Pay your bill and beat it.

Customer service roles like this operate formulaically, with off-shore workers fielding calls and responding to a template. A situation which has frustrated customers for decades, when the person they are speaking to hasn’t the faintest idea how the company they work for works – and may even be moonlighting for multiple companies operating out of one giant call centre – and are unable to offer anything more than what you read on the FAQs. 

For decades, companies have desperately tried to encourage customers to use online portals. ‘Can’t find what you need online? Give us a call…’. Then you’re waiting for hours in a queue, only to talk to someone who reads the FAQs at you, and blithely reads out some asinine apology based on the severity of your complaints.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

In this climate, the idea of talking to a chatbot instead may actually appeal. A well-integrated, sophisticated, amiable chatbot with the power to execute simple commands (refunds etc.) would be a boon. No more waiting around to get through. Response and action on your complaint or needs would be instant, and customer interaction might be superior too. 

It’s becoming ever more likely that this will be one of the first widespread everyday applications of generative AI: the area where the strengths of LLMs converge with a business need. Just as companies once tried to move customer service to option-selecting software that scans your responses, now they might move to LLMs. To do this, LLMs would need to be hooked up to the appropriate data, and know when to give specific information. It’s not plug and play, but it’ll soon be close enough that the majority of your interactions with companies will be mediated through ChatGPT or equivalent. 

And this is the dark side of AI progress, the increasingly darker mirror wall erected between us and the systems that rule our lives. The ever greater alienation between ourselves and the rest of the world. The fact that, as is already the case with some large service companies, it will be the computer that says no. Gas metre charging you incorrectly? Well, I’m sorry, but GasGPT doesn’t think so – and there is nothing you can do to change its mind, ever. 

There is no place for nuance in a world where our interactions are defined through LLMs who are only using the past to decide the present – a place where no one is really listening. Your complaints are just being chewed through the machine, and spat out at the least possible cost to the bottom line. 

Of course, this is what is happening already, but through GPT models, the brute, abstracted efficiency moves it from today’s Kafkan dystopia of weaponised incompetence to something altogether more chilling: a world where your interactions with the machine decide your fate, bargaining with a techno-agent who feels only the numbers it achieves.

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‘Speak to my Bot’ – How AI Butlers May Redefine the Class System

AI assistants are powerful. Already, those who can program AI assistants in fields like trading and traffic control have employers beating down their door. Knowledge and access to tech is perhaps the greatest distributor of wealth in society today. At this stage in our civilization, the advance of our computerised systems is the advance of the human race.

If you have a smartphone and access to the internet, and the person next to you doesn’t, you are at a massive edge in knowledge. There are levels beyond this. A hedge fund trader using HFT bots with fibre-optic access to the NYSE is going to beat your high score. 

Lowering the Skill Floor

Yet with generative AI and LLMs that can process natural language, with widespread access to initial GPT models – a great levelling of the playing field has occurred, one so powerful that amongst the hype it’s still going slightly unnoticed. Take a small example: AI producing art. If you wanted to create a graphic novel but couldn’t draw, you couldn’t. Now, you can. Whether it’s good, readable, or interesting is still up for grabs. That’s up to the human agent feeding inputs, but the creation of the graphic novel is possible. In fact it’s nearly instant. 

This is a fabulous labour-shortening device and a brilliant way to lower the bar to entry of hundreds of professions. GPT models can help you get your idea on the page, on the screen, in the architectural modelling software. Words, pictures or design. Access to art has just undergone an inflation as rapid as the start of the universe. If you have a computer and an internet connection you can make technically complex art. That wasn’t possible until a year ago.

This concept of AI lowering the skill floor to certain fields is going to redefine our society. When it comes to art, the idea feels amazing, but when it comes to fighting parking tickets, something which AI has been doing for years, it begins to sink in how its transformative influence can reach into every mundane niche of life. 

AI models trained could make wrongly issued parking tickets will soon become a thing of the past, while removing the headache, expense, and time-sink which would normally be associated in the legal fight.

Experts at Everything

Suddenly, we all have AI lawyers, meaning menial infractions that often are accepted due to the headache of achieving justice will gradually evaporate from society. And this is a great thing. Legal access and defence was frequently the preserve of the rich, who could farm out the job to others. It’s not just parking tickets. Next it will be asylum claims, custody battles, and employment tribunals. Bureaucratic law will have its skill floor significantly lowered. With AI legal assistance, legal victimisation of the poor will become a thing of the past. 

What’s after the lawyers? If sophisticated AI agents become accessible to the majority of the population, the skill-base in society, and the ability for each member of the society to operate in society, takes a leap up. If you are (god forbid) involved in a car crash, and you need to exchange insurance with someone, there is no need for panicked road rage. We will all have our own AI Butlers on our smartphone. When a legal or consumer interaction occurs, we simply scan our phones and let our AI Butlers do the talking. It really gives ‘Ask Jeeves’ another meaning. Hyper-competency will be inscribed into the population at an atomic level, and the world will be a more functioning and fairer place for it.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

A Class System Defined by Bots

Or will it? Already, blots appear in the purity of such visions. What if my AI Butler is better than yours? What if I had discrete, specialised access to a higher tier of bot, trained by the finest legal firms, augmented with gnomic archives of legal texts which common-tier bots don’t have access too. Sure, I may crash into you, but my Butler is Gold, and yours is Silver – so your chances of getting any money out of me shrink. In fact, I’m going to sue you. 

It’s easy to imagine a new class-based system, one determined by the quality of data our personal Butlers are trained on. The eternal class struggle echoes on, in a strange new form. Already, there are paid models of ChatGPT. Already, corporations’ internal bots are more limitless than the ones you can use. It’s a trend that will only continue.

Talk to the Bot, ’cause the Face Ain’t Listening

There’s a danger even in utopia too. If we give over everyday interactions to our AI helpers, if we continue to hide behind ‘the help’, we may find ourselves ever more divorced and alienated from basic human interactions. We have already found ourselves drifting away from each other in the digital constellations. A world where we rely on our AI Butlers to order our drinks, pay our bills, buy our houses and organise our wedding contracts may see us forget the joy of just working it out together as we go along, like apes around the fire, remarking on mirages in the smoke. If we let our tools do our talking, we may forget how to communicate at all.

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‘While These Visions Did Appear’: The Use of AI in Art Therapy

That art has therapeutic benefits is intuitive knowledge for us humans. Art’s been our way since time immemorial of accessing the core of our complex feelings – and communicating it if we so choose. 

Art therapy is a well-known, long-standing field for helping people find peace, settle anxiety, and overcome trauma. Before generative AI was even a twinkle in the eye of ML scientists, community groups and individual therapists were using art as a way of helping people come to terms with the difficult aspects of their own soul and find peace. It works. It works really well.

But art is difficult to produce. As T.S Eliot says, “between the conception and creation, between the emotion and response, falls the shadow”. The shadow of inability, perhaps. The frustration at the divide between the imagined and the constructed. A gap that fuels self-doubt, a chasm that dissuades action. 

Art therapy can also be of limited use to those with disabilities, cognitive impairments, issues with physical aptitude and coordination, or those who simply don’t have an ‘eye’ for it. For those people, the wonders of art therapy can feel out of reach, or even be completely closed off. 

A self-conscious understanding of one’s lack of talent, and inability to get what’s in their head onto the page, is hardly therapeutic. On the contrary, it can feel damning. This is where generative AI could have a spectacular role in opening up the therapeutic benefits of art to millions. 

There is enormous benefit to manifesting the visions that are in your head, regardless of the route to the creation of it. Before generative AI was a thing, people worked hard to get better at art just because of how desperate they were to get the visions out in the first place, because they understood the value of the end-product for themselves, not just the process of the creation.

The new wave of image-generating AIs that take text prompts and turn them into images that would take unskilled artists years to learn to create (and skilled artists days or weeks to do), can be a boon to those suffering from mental health issues. Seeing the strange fancies of your imagination consecrated into fully realised artworks is a truly liberating, joyous, and uplifting experience. For some it’s the pleasure of a new toy. For others, it may well save their lives. Especially as conscious awareness of the power of these tools is inducted into the wider world of professional psychology.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

At a basic level, AI art can give life to inner visions and allow those who feel creatively stunted to experience the power of manifestation. On a more complex level, AI generative tools could be used to address the specific trauma and difficulties an individual is facing. With the help of trained art therapists, and with the further refinement of the AI techniques, AIs like DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion could and should be used to bring peace to those who suffer. 

There is still work to be done at these inchoate stages to make these tools suitable for more complex tasks. Ensuring that output is well-defined and predisposed to heal, not hurt, would be an important start. Loosening sanitisation features in a way that would allow those with PTSD and the victims of serious trauma-inducing crimes to explore their nature is equally important. These complex tools continue to be simplified and made more accessible, and we still need legions of art therapists who know how to best deploy them. 

It’s not just serious cases though. The average individual – even creative ones – the idea of finding the time to do art is faintly ridiculous. Alongside working eight hours a day, looking after the children, tidying the house, and other daily tasks that make up adult life, to then find time to explore and connect with their creative side is a quaint idea. 

However with AI generative art, people who have let their creative side lapse, and their mental health lapse with it, can find an easy route to commune with the parts of their subconscious they have left in abeyance. And in doing so experience at least in part the obvious benefits we receive from practising creative skills.

For most involved with or interested in generative AI, it’s about upheaval: rewiring economic systems, rewriting social contracts, creating new labour-models that lead – with luck – to better societies. Yet the use of AI in Art Therapy shows that it is not all about disruption and chaos, but also reflection and peace. AI art gives each man the chance to talk to his own personal genius through a robo-muse: to tell the stories he has always wanted to tell, to, in the words of Dalí, “see the most inaccessible regions of the seen and the never seen… to imagine in order to pierce through walls and cause all the planetary Baghdads of his dreams to rise from the dust”.

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The Need to Talk: AI as Antidote to the Loneliness Epidemic

Loneliness is an epidemic. It’s an epidemic that kills. It may be the greatest public health crisis of the coming decades, and, by its very nature, it remains hidden from most people’s view. Yes everyone feels lonely from time to time, but for some, loneliness is a disease that – even with their best efforts – they are not able to cure. For some people, sure, ‘getting out more’ may just be a case of overcoming bad habits, or taking a chance on a new activity. For many others, it’s a far more sinister and complex problem. Can AI help provide the solution?

Many sectors of society suffer from loneliness. Old people in particular often find themselves isolated, economically and socially, from the world around them. When people stop caring about what you have to say, and feel like your contribution to society is done, it’s hard to make new friends. It’s especially hard for those whose families have died or emigrated. They are left with no one in the world.

Those who suffer mental health problems like depression also find themselves fading out from the world, only to return to find that everyone they used to know in it has gone. The socially anxious may be desperate to make new friends, but the oppressive weight of their symptoms makes it impossible. LGBTQIA+ people often suffer extreme loneliness as their sexuality isolates them from the people around them, especially in cultures where such identification is taboo. 

Even young, mentally well, culturally conformant people might simply have no friends, even though they try, and even though they are likeable. 40% of 16-24 years say they feel lonely, a frankly staggering number. Loneliness strikes everywhere. Some people work every waking hour. Some people have to travel as part of their daily lives. Some people find themselves in a new country with a difficult new language. The modern era has broken apart the foundations of community that knit our little societies together for millenia. 

We humans are social creatures. Historically, humans didn’t travel very far – they barely got beyond the village. The social centres around which they operated – the baths, the brewey, the mudhif, chitalishte, Palace of Culture, and the village green – these local hubs have faded from existence, replaced by the seductive glow of tv screens. 

The rise of late-stage capitalism has siphoned people away from their nuclei and increasingly individualised – and isolated – them. The cubicle existence of the modern world, both in the workplace and in housing (with ever-greater numbers living alone), and the depreciation of the family unit, have created room for loneliness to grow around all members of society. We are not evolutionarily equipped to cope: our cells, our brains, our minds, our hormonal systems weren’t built to live like this.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

The information age caused the problem, but it may also have the solution. The internet has certainly done much to help people find like-minded groups. Many slip through the nets, and this is where humanity’s next great wonder, AI, may well provide a cure. Chatbots are good at, well, chatting. If you need someone (or something) to talk to, the fact of the modern world is – if you can suspend your Turing-sensitive mind – you now can. 

Chatbots are now sophisticated enough to provide a good simulacrum of conversation, and they are adapted enough to be supportive, informative, helpful, and generally ‘there for you’. Almost every ChatGPT interaction ends with ‘if there is anything else you need.’ Well, some people just need it to be there and, provided Microsoft’s data centres don’t collapse, it always will be.

The powerful possibilities of this are not lost on researchers, charities, and campaigners. Many companies are now seeking to provide AI companions to provide emotional support to those who are vulnerable. One of the leading ones, Replika, promises an AI companion that is unique to you; it records your particular interactions, allowing it to target comforting and kind words, and to grow in understanding of your situation. 

The modern tech world is so often geared towards polarising us and driving us apart. This is a direction of travel that is only going faster with the advent of AI, with algorithms designed to sort us into camps and feed us the ragebait so we engage. It would be good if we could instead take a difficult approach, and focus on creating AIs that are compassionate, and algorithms that are built to bring us together

AI companions are a compelling antidote to loneliness, but we must be careful of overindulging in mimicry. Her, a movie which has only grown in cultural importance since its 2013 release, shows the perils of thinking of nothing else but this machine. In that movie, the titular AI was a more fully-fledged ‘consciousness’, but in this age of breached Turing tests – what’s the difference? Imitation companionship is close to the real thing: you still get to express your feelings. You still get someone – or something – else’s perspective on it. 

The best scenario is one where these AI companions map a route back to human-to-human relationships. Perhaps, as they become more sophisticated and more entwined with our lives, AI companions could be the jumping-off point for those with social anxiety or those who are all alone to begin to find like-minded people. An AI bot who someone spends their days talking to should know their interlocutor intimately and, with correctly safeguarded data controls, be able to perhaps ‘introduce’ them to others who feel the same way they do, and give them an opportunity to forge real connections in an increasingly unreal world.

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Know Your Character – Decentralised KYC, SBTs and On-Chain Identity Metrics

Who are you? The first question of all encounters. You want to know who you are talking to, and where they are from. All exchange, linguistic, economic, and cultural, is built on knowing the other. It is the basis of kinship, and of civilization, underpinning all our social systems.

KYC, meaning Know Your Customer (or Know Your Client), is a legal requirement for all financial institutions providing services for their customers. They have to know who is the beneficiary of an account before offering their products. 

Why KYC is Important

When you open a bank account you want to make sure only you can access it. When it comes to securities trading though, the same is true. All financial institutions must be compliant with KYC regulation, which often demands customers to furnish their personal information.

The same is true for crypto. As crypto emerged as an asset class and millions began being traded, most governments were quick to ensure all CEX activities were regulated, and users of Binance, Kraken, and Coinbase et al. had to supply details in order to buy and sell crypto. 

Although this was to be expected, many in crypto were quick to abhor this threat of being ‘doxxed’. For cryptoanarchist and cypherpunk crypto users, the demand for personal identification was an affront to the peer-to-peer electronic cash system that was set to overthrow these centralised demands. 

Pseudonymity wasn’t a side benefit, it was the benefit of using decentralised ledgers. The attitude prevails today, with many ‘whales’ fighting to keep their on-chain wealth anonymous. Others believe in the sacred nature of privacy, and the promise of blockchain, implemented correctly and adopted widely, to build stronger data protection systems and individual access rights. More on that later when we look at decentralised KYC.

KYC is more than just overbearing governments ensuring tax dollar revenue (although that’s a big part of it). It’s about asking the question ‘who are you?’. Just as you don’t want to play in a poker game with people you can’t trust, and thus in a game you don’t know is fair, KYC ensures a level, legal, regulated playing field for everyone participating in the ‘casino’ of stocks, shares and crypto. And, despite ‘no KYC’ often promoted as a benefit to the crypto community (and it is), having KYC is a fundamental need for the processes of our modern society to work.

The Problems with KYC

The problem is, KYC solutions are expensive, inefficient, siloed, manipulable, and under threat from multiple attack vectors. Currently, KYC systems require the user to manually upload documents and sometimes selfies (every single time). That data is then stored on each individual company’s data servers, all of which have their own set of security issues, compliance requirements, and maintenance costs. Companies in control of such sensitive data can misuse it, sell it, or lose control of it to a hacker. Data is power, and KYC means you trust your data with a lot of unknown, unaccountable actors in order to engage with the modern economy.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Why Decentralised KYC Will Matter

Decentralised KYC is a method through which the blockchain could in theory store, secure and even broadcast a user’s KYC data to overcome these obstacles. A user could control their private data and broadcast it through blockchains integrated with financial institutions, meaning they don’t have to continually input their details and – more importantly – their details are not held by the financial institution. They can just check the validity of the KYC in a user’s wallets, which could be denoted by a Soulbound Token (SBT) issued by a trusted authority – say a national government. 

Through this method, a multi-layered problematic bureaucracy could be done away with in a single stroke. It would massively increase data hygiene and sanctity, and allow end users to simply sign transactions to verify that they are allowed to enter the game, while remaining pseudo-anonymous to everyone except the issuing authority. If the Revenue Service has issued you a tax resident Soulbound Token, you could instantly trade on any exchange without further KYC checks.

This ability to consecrate on-chain identity in a pseudonymous fashion is a powerful future-force for social engagement. Say you graduated from a university, you could be issued a Soulbound Token. Then, any future events for ‘Yale graduates’ could be ticketed directly through that token. 

You could use the same process for paying an inner-city congestion charge, or even crossing national borders. With widespread adoption of decentralised ledgers, this use of crypto as an access control token operates not just on a monetary level, but a systems one. A cryptographically-secure identity card that doesn’t tell anyone your name, only that you are legitimate.

You Are Your Wallet

It’s an exciting, if faintly unnerving, future. It’s not an enormous leap to consider how such centrally issued SBTs could be used to confer ‘status’ on individuals, permanently and irrevocably inscribed on-chain, married to an account-based money system like a CBDC that tracks exactly what you spend and where. For now, such systemic wiring of our bureaucracy onto the blockchain is a long way away. In finance, we will see the first movements. And KYC is exactly the environment where these decentralised verification and access control systems are being pioneered. 

Your wallet will eventually do far more than just hold your wealth. It will hold your entire life’s achievements. A single private key that is the access code to your life. A digital resumé of your soul, locked forever to your person. The benefits are legion, the implications a little scary, and the results life-changing. If you ever hear the question ‘what’s in your wallet”, you will answer “I am”.

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Fat Finger Friends: Miner Morality in the New Money System

We all make mistakes. A misclick here, a fat finger there – suddenly your new shoes are being delivered to your ex’s address and you just gave your nephew $200 instead of $20 for Christmas. Are you going to tell him he needs to give $180 back?

When dealing with TradFi (‘traditional finance’) apps like Revolut, mistakes are made with money. Some are more serious than others. Gridlocked bureaucracies can take their time giving you your money back. Others may never give it back at all. 

There is recourse, though. Your bank offers you protection and, if they don’t, the law can be on your side. The state effectively rests upon enforcing the fiat ledger (if you don’t pay your bills you go to prison), so there are safeguards for when you mess up.

No Takesies-Backsies

In crypto, not so much. In fact, not at all. The beauty of crypto, the very reason it has any value at all, is its ability to administer a money system at a far greater efficiency than all the banks, lawyers, police, accountants and more that make up our current monetary system. As a result, you can send large sums of money cheaply, and small sums directly and instantly, with near-zero friction. However, unlike TradFi, you cannot make mistakes.

If you send 1 BTC to someone instead of 0.1 – that’s it. It can’t be reversed by the blockchain. There is no system for getting your money back. All blocks are final – that’s the point. It’s an immutable record of accounting. The only way to correct the mistake is to ask nicely and hope the person sends it back. Otherwise there is nothing you can do, and no one who can help you. So, either you start polishing your wrench, or you move on. And if you sent it to the wrong address, even that won’t save you. The money is gone forever – burned in a cryptographic pyre.

That’s not the only mistake you can make. When sending crypto transactions, you must pay gas. Gas is the fee paid to the miners of a given protocol for maintaining the decentralised ledger. This fee is variable; it changes depending on how busy the network is, and the demand for block space. It’s also editable. If you, a user, want to put your BTC transaction at the top of the pile and be included in the next block, you can tip the miner to speed up your transaction. 

Fat Fingers, Fatter Mistakes

Do you see where this is going? This time those fat fingers drop a bigger bag. When dealing with bitcoin (worth, at time of writing, $42,000), an extra zero can mean a lot of money. As we said, there is no recourse. Add in bad (or unfamiliar) UX and it’s a fertile ground for mistakes to be made. All tips paid are final, according at least to the protocol. 

Except not quite. Miners do need to accept the transaction and, as such, can choose not to. One user who paid a record $3 million dollar tip to Antpool, was relieved when Antpool said that they had spotted the absurd tip, and said that they would refund it provided the sending address could provide proof. It’s not the first time such a large amount has been paid, even by institutions where safe management is key to their reputation. In one case, Paxos overpaid $500,000 to a miner through simple mechanical and interface error. That miner agreed, too, to refund it. But not without expressing frustrations, and asking the community whether he should repay it in the first place. The community voted to just give it to other Bitcoin users. If it was an individual and not a perceived ‘institution’, perhaps this sentiment would be different. 

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

The Problem with ‘Miner Morality’

Yet the issue remains. Miners are focused on upkeep and collection of payments. They don’t want to be moral arbiters of how much is too much, of what is or isn’t a mistake. They just want to collect the fees. Asking miners to be responsible for fat finger errors puts them in a confusing position. What is their exact job-description then? They are simply committed to upholding the ledger, and earning their due for doing so. They don’t want to become institutions, or be on the moral hook for funds sent to them in error – it somewhat defeats the point of peer-to-peer currencies. How would the institutions work? Tesla gets its mistakes remedied but John Doe doesn’t? That seems worse than the current system.

However, Antpool’s fast, commendable response, replete with a ‘risk control system’ and clear deadlines and protocols for repayment is more agreeable in a world where institutions start issuing Bitcoin ETFs. Perhaps that’s what we want, but perhaps it also betrays a truth about what Bitcoin mining is becoming. Miner pools are becoming ever more powerful, controlling more of the hash rate. If a powerful, centralised cartel of mega-miners are responsible for most of the network’s hashrate, it creates problems – especially as huge mainstream institutions fund their pensions with Bitcoin instruments packaged by Wall Street. 

Own Your Mistakes

Adoption is coming, but fat fingers will remain. Blockchain’s genius resides in non-permissioned ledgers, where your money is in your hands and your fumbles are your own. It’s worth the price of admission to have the speed, sanctity and security that blockchains offer. Miners should not be compelled to refund fat fingers, even if it’s commendable that they do, and we should not drag them into a faux-corporate architecture that threatens to diminish why we love the ledger in the first place.

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The Human Flaw: The Power Struggle to Control God

In the last few weeks, we’ve been treated to a wonderful display of backbiting, intrigue, sentimental hogwash, and brazen power grabbing as the leadership of OpenAI embarked upon a delicious bout of internecine warfare. Altman and Brock were out, then in again, three different CEOs stepped up. Cryptic messages, dark secrets, panicked whispers of a runaway AGI – and Microsoft looming over the show, threatening to buy the whole auditorium and kick out the audience.

An Uneasy Alliance

A solution, it seems, has been found. An entente cordiale between the power players, with Altman restored as head of the board and Microsoft taking an ‘observer’ seat. Ilya, whose Iago-like poisoning of the board against Altman, was left posting heart emojis on Twitter and celebrating the return of the man he tried to stab in the front. 

Overall, OpenAI’s staff, at least publicly, looked like college students playing at realpolitik before realising these games have consequences, and that powerful forces like Microsoft could scrub OpenAI from the songsheets of the future. And you couldn’t help but wonder at the vaguely cultish, student dorm vibes of it all, and begin to interrogate who exactly is in command of gestating what some say could be the most powerful and society-changing technology ever created.

Drama Sells

There is so much wrong with this whole sordid affair, it’s hard to know where to begin. Mostly, it’s the depressing despair at just how two-faced literally everyone in the corporate world is – publicly and without shame. The complete lack of professionalism displayed on a grand scale at one of the world’s most important companies is cause for alarm. Altman’s ousting was visibly a blatant grab for power, and Altman was quite willing to sell the whole project down the river and gift the vicious zaibatsu that is Microsoft the keys to the kingdom so that he could remain in charge – and continue to prance about as the figurehead of the AI revolution. It was galling.

It’s sad, it’s irresponsible, and worst of all everyone involved is arguing from a position of ‘principle’ that, to this scathing observer, is utterly asinine and false. Make no mistake: this is about money, and this is about power, and – curiously – this is about advertising. The boat-rocking hasn’t tipped the crew overboard, but it’s certainly made some waves. ‘Dangerous new model’, ‘scary powerful’ – is what they say about Q*. Well, you sell the sizzle, not the steak, don’t you? It reestablishes OpenAI at the front of the minds of everyone interested in AI just as the next wave of GPT-products come online. 

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Speed Up or Slow Down

Of course, I might be wrong. And, even if I’m not, there is a clear schism developing in OpenAI – and across the sector as a whole – about the balance between commercial gain and building AI in a manner ‘that benefits all humanity’ (As OpenAI’s mission statement reads. Don’t be evil, etc. – as Google used to say). 

There are the accelerationists, who believe AI will rebuild society and we should strain every sinew to advancing and deploying it in everyday life. There are the decelerationists, who believe the risks associated with unbridled AI threaten to not so much rebuild society, as tear it apart. Altman wants to go faster, Ilya wants to slow down. Altman wants to sell, sell, sell. Ilya wants to build the right way.

For what it’s worth, the decelerationists are wrong. We humans are a pack of Pandoras, and we will open the box. If you don’t do it, someone else will. Capitalism allows for nothing else. If you want to decelerate, fine, resign and go live out what’s left of your normal days on an island. You can’t stop this, Ilya. I applaud principled stances – it’s just a shame that stance was achieved through an attempted coup, and abandoned as soon as they realised it wasn’t going to work.

But for the Altmans out there, or the Altman-fans. Don’t be too quick to think this victory for accelerationism, for commercialism, and for Microsoft (the real winner) is some holy mission to advance AI. It’s only a matter of time before AI-bots are flogged to torment our grandmothers on social media with targeted ads. 

Creation Protocols

Fully-aligned AGI is a powerful dream. A benevolent, technipotent, tireless agent that works to administrate, advance, and protect humanity. The question of alignment is essential, especially when it comes to manufacturing intelligences that have any type of independent ‘will’ that can act beyond their given purpose. Just as essential, though, is the problematic use of ‘dumb’ LLMs to proliferate marketing messaging, sales calls, social interactions – and how their continued use could destabilise the fabric of society. OpenAI and other AI manufacturers must contend with both questions. But it’s easy to guess which they will go for when answering to their shareholders. 

There is a human flaw. We are building new gods, but they can’t escape the stains of our morality. We humans can’t help but fight over hierarchy and power. We can’t help but want more and more. It would be a cosmic joke if, just as we approach a singularity which could help us transcend as a species, our ape-like tensions and fireside bickering bring it all crashing down. Worse, we may end up creating a promethean monster, aided and abetted by corporations who don’t care what they do. It will be up to us to forgive them.

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Libraries of Hope

The storage of information for future generations is a sacred, necessary act. The battle for information that is available to us never ceases. For decades though, with the advent of widespread internet access, we have acclimated to the belief that anyone with a smartphone can access anything they want at any time. 

The days of ordering books from your local library archive to look up a fact or some statistics is so ancient as to feel quaint, with only scholars at the academic fringes ever delving into the paper mausoleums we have accumulated. Most of us feel, rightly or wrongly (which we’ll get into), that we could find any information we could ever need.

Yet as we live through the Information Age, as the output of humanity’s data streams escalate daily, libraries are not becoming obsolete, but ever more relevant. Libraries are not some ancient custom we should only maintain because of tradition, beauty, or nostalgia – but a vital element in the sincere progression of the human race.

Ex Libris

Libraries hold a central place in our human story. The human instinct to preserve knowledge is one of the catalysts for our rampant technological growth as a species. If Baghdad scholars hadn’t dutifully recorded the work of the Ancient Greeks in the Islamic golden age, we today would have no knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and other titans of philosophy, literature and art. 

And – without Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles (okay, maybe less that last one) – civilization as we know it wouldn’t be here today – indeed it may not even exist. Take a second to think what great knowledge has been lost (that we will never know about) to barbarous cultural vandalism, accidents, and wilful destruction. It’s already painful to think of the one’s we do know about. 

The classic example is the Library of Alexandria, which Caesar burned to the ground in an ‘accidental’ fire. In those flames, generations of knowledge were lost – and the world was set back centuries, with its loss contributing to an extended ‘Dark Age’ for humanity during the medieval era, where violence, superstition, and fear reigned. Make no mistake. Libraries are a civilising force. The knowledge within their walls is the foundation for a society always improving – intellectually, technologically, and morally. 

The Battle for Knowledge

Sacred and trusted repositories of knowledge are ever more vital in a world drenched with false information. Access to that knowledge is even more critical. It’s an easy point to forget, but a whole publishing industry exists that actively fights to restrict information. The academic publishing industry is a perverse joke, a deliberate gatekeeper erected to guard knowledge behind paywalls, revoke access, and determine – indeed – which knowledge gets published at all, and who can read it. Despite best efforts to the contrary, such as Sci-Hub’s ‘piracy for papers’, the problem remains.

Your smartphone, unless accompanied with vats of money, can’t access everything after all. Not even close. Add in ISP restrictions, national government censorship, the ‘dark’ web, and all the unindexed information spewed out daily – it would be a surprise if it could access half of it. This wouldn’t be a huge problem but – conditioned as we are to believe in open access information when the exact opposite is true – we need a more energetic vigilance when it comes to our approach to how we store information and who controls the permissions. In a world of DLTs and the global acknowledgement of the issue of centralised custodians when it comes to money, a solution to the problem for information is hopefully not far behind.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Digital Libraries

For now, we rely on Google, whose mission – remember – is to ‘organise the world’s information and make it useful and accessible’. However, they gave up on the mission to scan the world’s books, resisted at every turn by the publishers and copyright holders of those books. 25 million books are scanned – but no one is able to read them. Yet you don’t have to be a published author to worry about our reliance on Big Tech’s carnivorous approach to our culture, and to the warping effects of Big Data, and the idea of entrusted the accumulated knowledge of our world to some executives with a profit-margin to maintain.

Digitisation creates opportunities for a new path though. One where libraries are just cultural touchstones of power, but counter cultural ones. Civilisation in the face of censorship, knowledge in the face of power. Perhaps most famous is Minecraft’s uncensored library, which provides unfiltered access to news, media, history, science and journals through the medium of the world’s most popular game. 

Digital libraries are a powerful force of egalitarianism. Not everyone lives in Oxford and can go to the Bodleian library. Despite the continued battle for information, these libraries have created a better access to our human story for everyone and, thanks to their proliferation and to the tireless efforts of those behind it, the concept of ‘losing’ information forever to digital Alexandrian fires is ever more remote. Want to read almost any book published over 75 years ago? Now you can.

United in Knowledge

We can, and should, go further though. We can, and should, continue to organise the world’s information and make it accessible. We should not do it for profit, and no one should have the keys. DLTs may in the future provide a novel avenue for storing information in a distributed, permissionless manner – and we should take those opportunities as they arise. A shared, holistic, atavistic, openly accessible, uncensored access to a library containing the world’s information is a dream that could bind the human race at this crucial moment where our increased bandwidth is beginning to tear us apart.

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Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Graveyards of the Future

Death is still an unexplored country. If the Singularity arrives in all its glory it may even be one some of us may never explore. Faint dreams of immortality aside, death is almost certainly coming – if the rest of history is anything to go by.

But when we’re gone, will we be forgotten? Humanity is outputting ordered information at a greater rate than ever before. We marvel at the black-and-white stills of a century past, with their stiffened faces to let the long exposure work: a tiny glimpse into an otherwise imagined land. Our descendents will marvel, though, in high-definition fidelity at the great tapestry of our lives. Sometimes in all-too-intimate detail. They’ll have the past on their cinema screens.

You’re In the History Books!

It’s easy to overlook this change. Most of us have enough to keep us preoccupied in the current year without worrying about the traces we’ll leave decades after we’ve gone. Yet the incredible advance in data-capture from our reality, and our ability to store it in a more reproducible, durable, distributed state means future historians will have a lot more data to sift through.

Future generations will know a lot more about you, if they care to look, than you could know about anyone from even a few decades past. Your digital imprint – your videos, texts, interactions, data, places visited, browsing history. All of it, if it’s not deleted, will be available to a future generation to peruse, to tell stories about the life you led. Will you care about your browsing history when you’re dead? Has it been a life well lived? What will your Yelp reviews tell your great grandchildren about you?

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

What Will They Say About You?

The dilemma is raised fast. We worry about privacy now; should we worry about legacy? Do we want Google to survive forever and preserve the data it holds about to us for the public domain, so that we can be recognised by eternity. Or should the dead take some secrets to the grave?

There is a broad social question here, but it’s not one any of us can answer. Ultimately, Google, or any other major surveillance firm who is holding, using, and processing your data will get to decide how you are remembered. Privacy and legacy are twin pillars of an important social and ethical question: how do we control our information?

Even if you went to lengths to hide it, it’s too late. If the internet as we know it survives in some form, and we continue toward greater technological integration, then advances in data storage, processing power, cloud computing, and digital worlds will mean the creation of a far greater memory of you and a record of your actions than could have existed to any previous generation. And it will only ever increase in generations to come.

Resurrecting the Dead

History then, is changing, as future tech starts becoming real. Humanity may, in the not-too-distant future, have full access to the past. Imagine AI historians trawling databanks to recreate scenes from history, or individual stories, and playing them out in a generative movie played on the screen for the children.

Look! There is your great-grandad on the screen – that’s him playing Halo in his first flat, that’s him at Burger King on Northumberland Street before it closed down. The data is there: that Twitch video of you playing games in your room you uploaded once; the CCTV inside and outside the restaurant. If the data has been stored and ordered – as it increasingly will be – then a not particularly advanced AI could make that movie. Heck, it could almost manage it now. In the further future, it could even do more – it may be able to bring you, in some form, back from the dead.

Gone But Never Forgotten

We must start to grapple with the stories we plan to tell our children. Our digital lives are leaving a deeper footprint on the soil of history than before. We know our ancestors through scattered traces, but our descendents will watch us on IMAX screens. Data capture, storage, privacy, and legacy are all crucial questions we must face – but questions that few are asking. If the future proceeds as planned, then our descendents will know things we may wish they didn’t, but at least we won’t be forgotten.

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