Why the specter of blockchain will be more important to humankind than AI

In the current state of the overly-centralized internet, the birth of blockchain can be interpreted as “right time, right place, right people”

Comment: Original text was 区块链的诞生可谓符合“天时地利人和”, a reference to the Art of War by Sun Tzu, stating that you need the right factors to fall into place, namely: timely opportunities bestowed by heaven, situational advantages afforded by land, and unity powered by the accord of man.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed the establishment of a global hypertext project, the World Wide Web (WWW), whose original intention was to make it easy for everyone to obtain and share information online. However, the Internet has been monopolized by the giants today. Centralization has led to the unfortunate outcome that the internet is no longer being open. Facebook is a closed system, and WeChat is a closed system. These closed systems have created isolated islands of information, drifting apart, severely hindering the free flow of information on the internet, betraying the original hope of its creators.

In the real world, economic fundamentals determine what infrastructure is built; In the virtual world of the internet, technological fundamentals determine what infrastructure is built.

The blockchain technology model consists of a 6-layer structure consisting of a bottom-up data layer, a network layer, a consensus layer, an incentive /economic layer, a contract layer, and an application layer. Many tech entrepreneurs glance at this model, and dismiss that there is nothing new about this technology–that this is only old P2P (peer-to-peer) technology wrapped in shiny new garb, and good ol’ Napster, NetAnts, and even the Chinese video player QVOD, were built upon a model like this. However, if you study more deeply and carefully, you will realize that this is a new model. The significance of this new model is the discovery of “open source consensus incentives” in its structural design, a multi-level architecture comprising system design, integrated data, calculation, and governance; and with it, has constructed a new technological civilization and social civilization system. The blockchain will give us a freer, more transparent and fairer world.

In the last 30 years, the internet civilization has achieved runaway success, almost like a horse that has bucked its reins. In these past 30 to 40 years–let’s forget about the boring trend of mobile internet surpassing traditional internet–we have had Internet+ and Industry 4.0, both of which were the starting points for the next wave of important developments: smart watches, smart bands, smart glasses, assistive/humanoid robots, driverless cars, smart medicine, natural language generation, machine translation… It is inevitably clear that our artificial intelligence research has delivered results.

If you look at things from a long historical time scale, everything developed from an accidental turn to the inevitable. Nobody can predict the accidental, but we certainly can push through to create the inevitable. The internet, big data, cloud computing, IOT, and artificial intelligence were progressive improvements, inevitable developments from the accidental and randomness in the world. Artificial intelligence simply follows the trend of increasing productivity and growth in human history.

Artificial intelligence includes robots, speech recognition, computer vision, natural language processing, expert systems and more, and what it augments is productivity–let machines do the work, and let humans do less work, or even no work at all.

If you don’t have to be a producer in the future, because you no longer have the productive power to rival that of a machine equipped with data and processing power, you can forget all about being a rightful consumer in this world. Engels said that labor makes a man, that productivity is the essence of being human–but if you can never work again, what does that mean about your continued existence?

If we reach the extremes of information processing and technological prowess, but lose our ability to be productive and are completely replaced by humans, and are controlled by a few monopolists who own the AI systems, what do we do then? Should we simply accept our current view that human prosperity always comes from continuous productivity growth, or should we consider a technological revolution in our relationship with productivity growth?

What blockchain will bring is this revolution in our productive relationships; in the future, it will release humanity from the clutches of robot dominion and labor impotence, and bring about a new prosperity in productivity growth. For example: in business today, for the most part the channel is king. If you sell FMCGs (fast-moving consumer goods) your margins are razor thin, but before you even make a couple of pennies, you are already working for the mall and the supermarket. If you own a mall or supermarket, before you even make a couple of dollars, you have already paid most of it to rent. The internet has destroyed traditional businesses and channels, but its own entryway is the strongest, most centralized channel. If you are a small e-commerce seller, you pay away your profits to the e-commerce platform; if you create games, your users and traffic are at the mercy of the internet channel you are on.

Some people have gone as far as to say the internet is now the giants’ “user slaughterhouse”, and no individual or corporation is exempt from the fate of being a cow or a sheep on their playing field, biding their time before they are skinned and slaughtered.

With blockchain, for the first time, producers can promote their products and content directly, judged only by the consensus of the crowd. If the content is good, everyone will be willing to share it, because they too can get rewarded for it. They are not beholden to traditional channels, and not held captive by internet channels or user entry points to the internet. Good products and content will naturally spread and its prices will rise. This way, producers and users are finally in the same boat, in a boat sailing along on the winds of a distributed and fair technological foundation.

Therefore, with blockchain’s significance being to increase human prosperity through changing the way that value is distributed throughout the world, its meaning to us far surpasses what artificial intelligence can bring in the way of greater productivity.

On October 31, 2015, The Economist’s cover was “The Trust Machine”, with an interpretation far deeper than just the impact of cryptocurrencies. It enables consensus among those who may not have trust to begin with, without an intermediary, and in this way builds true trust instead.

If the steam engine set human productivity free, and electricity fulfilled the basic needs of daily life, the internet fundamentally changed the way information is transmitted, then blockchain as the trust machine will completely change how value is exchanged among humans. Hence, blockchain technology is seen as the successor of the steam engine, electricity and the internet, as the next disruptive technology.

The core of this technology is built upon trust, no matter whether it’s a narrower application like Bitcoin’s peer-to-peer payment ledger, or a larger application like blockchain consensus mechanisms. This consensus mechanism is blockchain’s unique ability to establish trust among distributed nodes, an algorithm that powers the exchange of rights and interests. Blockchain’s foundational support system is a pure logic, and is more ambitious and vital than computers and mobile internet devices running on physical systems and infrastructure. The blockchain can exist on both PCs and phones, run on mainframe servers, and even on quantum computing platforms in the future.

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