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Researcher Max Hampshire wrote a text on the material presented at Thursday Night Live! Bot Club: Legal Bots and included points of discussion raised at the Critical Making Session the following day.

DAOs as Decentralised Legal Persons

What is perhaps initially most intriguing about DAOs is that they have some kind of autonomous agency. They have the ability to act more or less independently and to manage their own assets (digital or otherwise). This agency exists even on the most the most basic level of a DAO optimising itself for its continued existence: retaining enough tokenised capital to continue paying for the basic transactions it needs to in order to continue operating.

However, the agency of DAOs jars with the conceptualisation of agency we ascribe to many other autonomous agents at work today, of which we tend to have a fairly anthropomorphic understanding. For instance, the algorithms performing high-frequency trading (HFT) are simply faster and cheaper versions of human traders. The wild variety of chatbots that rely on machine learning are likewise the faster, cheaper, and more easily controllable solution to the organisational problem of providing an always accessible interface to customers - they are the 24/7 stand-in for someone answering the phone.  Also, many robots (hardware-based agents) such as those coming out of DARPA, are almost always ‘human’ in size and scope; emulations of animals and humans, built from the perspective of human designers and engineers.

DAOs exhibit a far broader form of emergent operational agency; resembling more the systems for market analysis or the actions of animal hive-minds  than the actions of other software or hardware-based agents. In this sense they are more akin to infrastructure. Their particular brand of agency is made all the more distant from our conceptual norm by the fact that they only rarely interact with the world outside of the limits of their blockchain, mostly operating solely in closed-off loops with other blockchain-based systems or agents.

A more helpful example of a previous instantiations of non-human agency is the ‘legal person’ of the corporation. A corporation is a so-called legal fiction, that - in certain regards – is treated as an individual agent in the legal realm. It is a non-human rule-based construct that has rights and obligations conferred onto it, such as the ability to own property, or be legally liable for its actions.

According to science fiction author Charles Stross, corporations are not only the first non-human legal persons, they are also the first form of Artificial Intelligence  because they were the first artificial non-humans that acted - on an abstract level - autonomously, and solely in their own self-interest. They have one main goal: survival.  A corporation survives by making money in order to pay its staff and continue investing in either itself or sections of the economy that might support its future investments. In short: a corporation is a non-human legal person that metabolises capital, just like a DAO is.

Corporations and DAOs show enough similarity with regards to their actions and forms of agency that it is not too far a stretch - and is in fact useful - to conceptualise DAOs as legal persons in much the same way that corporations are, augmented by the inherent characteristics of blockchain technology. They are decentralised, autonomous legal persons that do not necessarily have to abide by the laws and regulations of a nation state.

But DAOs are not merely the decentralised cousins of the legal persons that are corporations. Corporations do not necessarily bring about the weird range of potential cases of ownership and legality that DAOs do. Some of these interesting cases will be discussed below.

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Motivations to Take This Seriously

The Indeterminately Near-Future Scenario The speculative (but technically realisable) scenario(s) sketched here, combined with the fact that DAOs are somewhat immune to legislative action after they are instantiated, point towards a future in which decentralised legal persons are not merely in control of vast amounts of assets, but in fact are potentially able to dictate the flows of these assets with greater precision than any agent (legal or natural) that exists today. Furthermore, they will be better secured against theft than the vast majority of digital or physical assets currently in circulation. This is unprecedented; entire industries and smart infrastructures could exist constituted of code that is not the property of a given person or group of people, and act entirely of their own - albeit programmed - volition, controlling assets on a global scale - and the humans who rely on them.

Although actually defining DAOs is not possible beyond their general technical characteristics, it is clear that their existence has (at least) profound philosophical, legal, and (crypto-) economic implications. Of these we only begin to get a glimpse, but they already force us to stretch our home-grown anthropomorphic conceptions of agency and ownership. Given the sorts of situation(s) we could be faced with in the future, further research into their potential is warranted; research that must simultaneously push the boundaries of our current conceptions in order to understand the alien actions of its subject. Hopefully via these future attempts at understanding decentralised non-human agents, we can also begin to understand our own place in the decentralised future that will, to a greater or lesser extent, be less than anthropocentric.

Max Hampshire 

Max Hampshire is a programmer and crypto researcher based in Amsterdam. He is one of three project initators of terra0, a company built on the Ethereum network that provides automated resilience systems for forested ecosystems, and is also a Blockchain engineer at BlockLab in Rotterdam, developing proof-of-concepts and MVPs for the blockchain infrastructure of the future. He is a member of the RIAT Institute For Future Cryptoeconomics, engaging in research-through-practice to glimpse the potential interaction possibilities of tomorrow's cryptosphere, and was previously part of the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam.

Bot Club

Algorithmic culture is a label for the entangled, sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny state of cultural formation that humans have entered by producing algorithms that operate online on such a massive scale and at such a fundamental level of societal organisation that they play a key role in producing culture. In this programme the term ‘bot’ is used in a broad sense to include all algorithmic agents that operate without direct supervision of humans, but that present the results of their functioning to humans. Bot Club takes an amazed and critical look at the world in which bots, algorithmic agents and generative processes do their work, and places them centre stage. A Bot Club consists of two parts: the first is a Thursday Night Live! programme, with human speakers, demonstrations of and performances by bots and algorithmic agents. The evening programme is followed by a workshop day dedicated to putting notions into practice and producing concepts and code for functioning critical algorithmic agents.

Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, R&D Department
Adriaan Odendaal