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The Doomsday Machine: Blockchains and Irrevocability

war room dr-strangelove

Most people still fail to grasp the profound consequences the invention of distributed ledger –  more commonly called blockchain – technologies will have on all the aspects of our future. It’s key innovation lies in the possibility of making human procedural activities irrevocable, or deterministic.

Whereas irrevocability is readily[1] assumed in deterministic natural processes (for instance in the boiling of water), in human activity it has been considered impossible to fully achieve until … Satoshi Nakamoto launched the genesis block of the Bitcoin protocol on 3 January 2009.

It is not easily explained how the impossibility to revoke a prior decision or agreement works within the context of human interaction, but this is precisely what distributed ledger technology (DLT) enables us to achieve. Rather than using game theoretical arguments  to explain my understanding of irrevocable human activity I will refer to a scene of Stanley Kubrick’s dark nuclear comedy, “Dr. Strangelove”.

The relevant extract concerns an exchange in the USA war room during a very severe atomic crisis with the USSR involving Muffley (the president of the USA), Desadeski (the Russian ambassador) and dr.Strangelove (a strategy advisor to the president of the USA). I have deleted some parts of the exchange  irrelevant to my purpose, but you can watch the full scene on YouTube[2].

MUFFLEY

The doomsday machine? What is that?

DESADESKI

A device which will destroy all human and animal life on earth.

MUFFLEY All human and animal life?

DESADESKI

When it is detonated, it will produce enough lethal radioactive fallout so that within ten months, the surface of the earth will be as dead as the moon! …

MUFFLEY

I’m afraid I don’t understand something, Alexiy. Is the Premier threatening to explode this if our planes carry out their attack?

DESADESKI

No sir. It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to to trigger itself automatically.

MUFFLEY

But surely you can disarm it somehow.

DESADESKI

No. It is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it.

MUFFLEY

Automatically?

MUFFLEY

But this is absolute madness, ambassador.

Why should you build such a thing?

DESADESKI

There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we’d been spending on defence in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.[3]

MUFFLEY

Dr. Strangelove, do we have anything like that in the works?

STRANGELOVE

Under the authority granted me as director of weapons research and development, I commissioned last year a study of this project by the Bland corporation. Based on the findings of the report, my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent, for reasons which, at this moment, must be all too obvious.

MUFFLEY

Then you mean it is possible for them to have built such a thing?

STRANGELOVE

Mr. President, the technology required is easily within the means of even the smallest nuclear power. It requires only the will to do so.

MUFFLEY

But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?

STRANGELOVE

Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.

MUFFLEY

But this is fantastic, Strangelove. How can it be triggered automatically?

STRANGELOVE

Well, it’s remarkably simple to do that. When you merely wish to bury bombs, there is no limit to the size. After that they are connected to a gigantic complex of computers. Now then, a specific and clearly defined set of  circumstances, under which the bombs are to be exploded, is programmed into a tape memory bank.

STRANGELOVE

Yes, but the… whole point of the

doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?

DESADESKI

It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

In the Cold War context of the movie, Strangelove over-sells the feasibility of a Doomsday Machine to his master. He does so not because the required nuclear capacity would not be available, but because the automated triggering mechanism he is describing is incapable of delivering the irrevocable (ruling out human meddling) decision making process which would turn the Doomsday Machine into a practical deterrent at that point in time. One needs a blockchain to achieve this.

A post-2009 dr. Strangelove could more credibly propose a Doomsday Machine as a strategic deterrent, but it would still be very difficult to make it tamper proof. Providing an irrevocable decision making process ruling out human meddling is no longer the main issue today, DLT provides a solution. A present day dr. Strangelove would – however – face two problems of a different order to deliver an operational Doomsday Machine: “smart contract” governance and “oracle” credibility issues.

A credible Doomsday strategy requires the irrevocable and flawlessly deterministic execution of a process described as a “smart contract”. This raises at least three very complex issues:

  1. In order to be deterring, the Doomsday strategy needs to adapt to changing circumstances. This means that the “smart contract” underlying the Doomsday Machine requires continuous governance.
  2. Irrevocability cannot be delivered by just any kind of blockchain, a “Doomsday contract” would need to be enshrined into a decentralised distributed ledger, isolating it from human fiddling. This entails that the governance system underlying the Doomsday Machine may not – under any circumstance – be centralised. It hence requires to be governed by a new type of structure, a Decentralized Autonomous Organization[4]. DAOs are institutions governed by algorithmic rules which are controlled by stakeholders and are deposited in a decentralised distributed ledger.
  3. A “Doomsday DAO” would not only have to define and adapt the rules of engagement of the Doomsday Machine. It would also have to select and monitor the “Oracles” providing the information on the basis of which the “Doomsday contract” would be executed.

Needless to say that although DLTs have made the idea of a Doomsday Machine a bit more feasible, the above mentioned issues show its unpracticality, if not its impossibility. I think that president Muffley was intuitively right when he called the idea of a Doomsday Machine “fantastic”. The decision to deploy a Doomsday strategy can only emanate from a centralised organisation. The notion that a state or a terrorist organisation would “outsource” the operation of its Doomsday Machine to a third party DAO seems “fantastic” indeed. But then again, this logic may describe the next level of terror humanity may have to face.

The idea of such a Doomsday Machine is a good example of the a-moral nature of technology and the irreversibility of its deployment in certain areas of activity. In this case the application of DLT is terrifying because it cannot be stopped if “something goes awfully wrong”. But when applied in other circumstances with less radical potential consequences – such as registration of realestate, quality control, logistics, administering of drugs, financial transactions, … – its irrevocable quality can actually be a benefit.

CONCLUSION

Transformative technologies do not only disrupt our usual ways, they provide new alleys to understand the world.

More than ten years after the DLT’s inception most people still are unaware of the profound transformative potential of this technology. Decentralised DLT (DDLT) has the power to address some – previously unsurmountable – problems related to centralised governance of organisations and processes. With the introduction of DLTs the central governance question  becomes “how to manage irrevocability?”, rather than “how to avoid interference or meddling with the execution conditions of a transaction, a contract or a process”.

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[1] To the extent that a majority of people ignore the fact that some natural processes have proven to become chaotic or unpredictable.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozg7gEchjuM

[3] I have kept this passage to illustrate the obvious economic advantages of the deterministic execution of human processes.

[4] An accessible and clear introduction to this fascinating but complex topic is provided in the following document: https://medium.com/daostack/an-explanation-of-daostack-in-fairlysimple-terms-1956e26b374#99f5

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Christophe de Landtsheer (°Belgium, 1960) is the finance professor at the Marbella International University (MIUC) in Spain. His academic research is currently geared towards the emerging fintech – specifically towards the applications of distributed ledger technologies.

– DISCLAIMER – This article reflects the author’s insights and/or opinions which are not necessarily endorsed by MIUC’s International Business Management Department.

Copyright © 2020 by Christophe J. J. de Landtsheer. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the author’s prior written permission.

The Doomsday Machine: Blockchains and Irrevocability was last modified: October 20th, 2020 by Gobalo
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