Discussing "Autonomy" - Intelligent Agents, DAOs, and the Autonomous World.

23-09-05 14:04
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Original Title: "Talking about 'Autonomy' - Intelligent Agents, DAOs, and the Autonomous World"
Source: Empower Labs

"Autonomous" - translated into Chinese as "自主" and often translated as "自治". This is a very important word in my learning and work over the past few years. It is the "A" in DAO and also represents the "A" in the concept of the autonomous world, as well as people's expectations for artificial intelligence - Autonomous Agents.


As a new direction, there is naturally a great difference in everyone's understanding of Autonomous in the encryption industry. What exactly is Autonomous? Is the meaning of Autonomous the same in different fields? Does absolute Autonomous exist?


Today I dare to dissect the past and present of this word.


Autonomous - evolved from the combination of two Greek words, "Auto" and "Normos". "Auto" in Greek means "self", while "Normos" comes from the Latin word "Norma", which is a carpenter's square used to measure right angles.


Norma - Carpenter's square for woodworking


This word later evolved into the concept of "law/custom", and the English term "Norm" (normative) comes from this.


In the original meaning of ancient Greece, "Autonomous" refers to having the right to self-governance, to establish its own laws and not be controlled by larger governing bodies.


Ancient Greece was not a unified country like modern nations. It was composed of numerous city-states (polis), each of which was an independent political entity with its own governance structure, laws, and customs. Different city-states had different forms of government, such as Athens being a democracy, while Sparta was a mixture of oligarchy and monarchy, and they often competed or conflicted with each other. The word "autonomy" originated from this time, reflecting the desire of these city-states and their citizens to maintain their unique identities, governance structures, and ways of life in a dispersed and competitive environment.


With the passage of time, the concept of autonomy began to be applied to individuals, referring to the ability of individuals to act according to their own principles or beliefs. The book "Sovereign Individual", which is regarded as a classic in the encryption community, has deeply explored the topic of individual autonomy from the perspectives of economic autonomy and technological empowerment.


As technology continues to advance, the term "autonomous" has taken on a new meaning - "machines or systems that can operate without direct human intervention or external control". Today, "autonomous" is often associated with technology, such as autonomous driving systems. These systems operate autonomously and do not require continuous human supervision to function. This modern interpretation still carries the core idea of "self-governance", but its context has far exceeded the imagination of ancient Greeks.


The meaning of the word "autonomous" has shown how culture, technology, and society shape and change people's perceptions.


AI autonomy


In the field of artificial intelligence, the term "autonomous" usually refers to systems that can perform tasks without human intervention.


Speaking of the scenario of ordering food, ChatBots like ChatGPT can provide users with a lot of reference information, from calorie calculation to dish and restaurant recommendations, but they cannot complete the ordering process.


While the Agent can complete the order according to the user's instructions, such as "book two seats at the Guomao Blue Frog restaurant on Meituan tonight". However, there is a prerequisite for the Agent to complete this task - the ordering workflow has been designed in advance and integrated with Meituan's service. If the programmer has not written how to order and how to integrate with Meituan for this Agent, the Agent will be powerless in the face of this instruction.


Autonomous Agent, compared to a regular Agent, has increased autonomy, reflected in stronger thinking ability and more versatile action ability. When a user says "book two quieter seats near Guomao at night", the Autonomous Agent will understand the user's intention, think about how to act, and execute. Programmers do not need to teach the Agent how to book a meal, or how to book a plane ticket, or how to buy something on eBay. It will act under a general working framework, based on its understanding of the world and the general interaction rules online, to complete tasks autonomously.


From a certain perspective, all the robots we see in science fiction movies are autonomous intelligent agents. For more scenarios and thoughts on autonomous intelligent agents, please refer to the article "From J.A.R.V.I.S. to Westworld - The Future of Coexistence between Intelligent Agents and Humans".


Although there is not much disagreement in the AI industry about the meaning of "Autonomous", there are still significant differences in the level of expectations for autonomous agents. In the field of autonomous driving, there is a classification system ranging from L0 for fully manual driving to L5 for fully autonomous driving. This classification system also has strong reference value for autonomous agents.



Microsoft's autonomous AI agent, as stated by the director (Microsoft actually has such a position), is designed to perform human-like action and decision-making. Microsoft ultimately focuses on allowing autonomous AI agents to solve a specific aspect of existing enterprise workflows, which is a practical choice from a technical perspective. However, this level of autonomy is at best classified as L2 or L2.5.


Entrepreneurial teams in the autonomous intelligent agent field have even greater ambitions. They hope to completely replace humans in many scenarios, such as AI sales representatives. In terms of corresponding levels, this is at least within the range of L3 and L4.


An entrepreneurial project that provides AI sales representative services.


As a spectator who enjoys watching the excitement, I have higher expectations for the autonomy of intelligent agents.


Imagine a future where my daily work and life rely on the help of autonomous intelligent agents. One morning, I called for my autonomous intelligent agent and suddenly found no response. Upon inspection, I discovered that the Amazon cloud service it was hosted on had malfunctioned. This cannot be tolerated. An intelligent agent with higher autonomy should not only have the ability to think and make decisions, but also the ability to operate stably for a long time without human intervention. Being unable to be easily disconnected from the network should be a basic requirement for autonomous intelligent agents. As entities with stronger behavioral capabilities, they should also have digital identities, a certain degree of autonomous finance, and even self-control of computing power and energy management.


In my opinion, this will be one of the natural integration points between encryption and AI. If there is a place in the world that can provide a secure and reliable operating environment, and provide an independent and easy-to-operate financial system instead of relying on an institution to approve and close bank accounts at any time, and most applications in this world provide permissionless access and convenient operability. Autonomous intelligent agents have no reason not to choose such an environment to inhabit. In other words, the future of the encryption network is the infrastructure for AI to achieve high-level autonomy.


Autonomy in DAO


Compared to AI, there is a significant difference in understanding the term "Autonomous" in DAO among industry practitioners.


The concept of DAO predates the birth of blockchain systems, but the first time DAO was formally introduced as a concept and clearly defined in a document was in the initial version of the Ethereum white paper. Vitalik classified decentralized organizations into two types in the white paper, DO (decentralized organization) and DAO (decentralized autonomous organization). Autonomous refers to organizations that rely entirely on code deployed in smart contracts to achieve continuous, interference-free autonomous operation.


The difference between a DO and a DAO is fuzzy, but the general dividing line is whether the governance is generally carried out via a political-like process or an「automatic」process。


The boundary between DO and DAO is sometimes blurred, but there is a general dividing line to refer to - governance is achieved through a political-like negotiation process (DO), or an "automated" process (DAO). Ethereum White Paper, version 2014.12.


However, the world is complex. Cryptography technology has brought more efficient and fair distribution of ownership, and stronger coordination capabilities. Communities with different cultures and interests have begun to use these technologies to organize and act together. Although participants in the cryptography field generally agree with the "code is law" concept, how much business logic can actually run in smart contracts in such a complex world? It is impossible to rely on a set of smart contract code to handle all the work of an organization and continue to operate automatically for a long time.


If we go by the definition in the original Ethereum white paper, none of the current DAOs can be considered as DAOs.


The world is constantly evolving, and the term "Autonomous" has undergone a transformation from self-governance to automated operation (governance) in the real world. However, in the world of encryption, it has undergone a reverse transformation.


Starting from reality, many DAO operators no longer insist on pursuing fully code-based autonomous operation, but instead give more space to the social layer. The meaning of "autonomous" has returned to the autonomous governance of the organization from automated governance. It may also be that non-automated DAOs are the mainstream supported by current technology. The Ethereum white paper also deleted the concept of DO in a subsequent update, further blurring the definition of "autonomous" in DAOs. With the popularity of the network state concept in the past two years, the meaning of "autonomous" in DAOs is becoming closer to its original meaning when it was born in ancient Greece.


If you ask me, the understanding and implementation of Autonomous is not that important. The original definition of DAO represents an ideal, an expectation of technological empowerment, although it is not yet achievable, it is a beautiful and pure pursuit.


And now, hundreds and thousands of DAOs have emerged. Sacrificing technical robustness, they make up for it with cultural cohesion, bringing together community members with shared values. Through blockchain technology, they achieve stronger coordination, incentives, and ownership distribution, creating many patterns and achievements that did not exist in the world before. This is also a fortunate development of our time.


My previous belief was that with the development of encryption technology and the improvement of infrastructure, DAOs will gradually reduce their dependence on humans. Today, we may still be using Gnosis' manual multi-signature method to manage community treasuries, but tomorrow we may have automated proposal and treasury systems that allocate funds. The day after tomorrow, roles within the DAO may be put on the chain in a way that automates the allocation of critical role permissions. The automation system gradually erodes human roles, and at some point in time, the DAO will transition from being dependent on human operation to being completely dependent on code operation.


However, with the observation of more projects and the development changes of different DAOs over the years, I began to feel that today's community DAOs and the ideal automated DAOs should be different species, and they will take completely different paths in the future, rather than merging at a certain point in time.


The DAO that focuses on people does have a lot of room for improvement in terms of automation to improve efficiency, coordination, and trust. However, the value creation subject of the DAO is always the community, every individual in the community is different. People are always important.


And the DAO that relies entirely on code execution in our imagination may have a starting point that is something else, such as - autonomous worlds.


Autonomy in the Autonomous World


Autonomous World, also commonly abbreviated as "AW", is a concept proposed by 0xPARC in 2022. After a year of fermentation, it has begun to be discussed more and more. Autonomous World is a relatively complex concept, and many people see it as a concept in the direction of full-chain games, but I do not think so. It is a crossroads of multiple fields such as technology, culture, politics, and philosophy.


In the concept of the Autonomous World, the world does not specifically refer to the place where humans live, but rather a container, a place that contains rules and narratives. The world where humans live is of course a world, but "The Three-Body Problem" is also a world, existing in books, Bilibili, Tencent Video, and people's minds. "The Legend of Sword and Fairy" and "The Lord of the Rings" are also worlds. The world is not necessarily related to the story, for example, chemistry can also be considered a world. It also provides space and its own rules.


This is not a new concept. There is a worldbuilding subreddit on Reddit, and I like to check it out every now and then to see what people are talking about. There are many people who enjoy imagining the geography, climate, history, legends, culture, society, technology, and food chain of a world, among other backgrounds.


An engineered world


Some people even design the ocean currents between continents in their own constructed world.


还有人为自己构想的世界设计了一套暗黑元素周期表


"Some people have designed a dark element periodic table for their own imagined world."


Screenshot Translation: I am a perfectionist and also a world builder, which means I create my world to be impeccable and don't let any doubts slip in. In my world, I have a 2000-year unfinished history, including wars, feuds, detailed events about how certain countries declined, a list of monarchs of an empire, and regional explorations. Start with a time frame and something you like, then expand it to create your own history. I have been working on this for years, but have only completed about 300 years of history.


After a brief overview of the world's concepts, let's take a look at what the autonomous world is. In terms of definition, 0xPARC believes that the autonomous world is a world with "blockchain-based foundations". To be more specific -


Autonomous Worlds have hard diegetic boundaries, formalised introduction rules, and no need for privileged individuals to keep the World alive.


Autonomous World has strict narrative boundaries and formal introduction rules. It does not require privileged individuals to maintain its survival.


Ludens from 0xPARC


The definition describes the three core characteristics of "Autonomous World":


严格 (Hard) 的叙事边界: This means that there is a fixed and immutable set of baseline rules in this world. They will not change over time or circumstances, providing a stability to the world.


Formalized Introduction Rules: This indicates that there is a clear and fixed set of rules for entering and participating in this world. These rules include how to become a part of this world and how to interact within it.


不需要特权个体来维持其存在: This means that the world is self-sustaining and does not rely on any specific individual or organization to maintain or manage it.


From this perspective, the Autonomous World is actually closer to the original definition of DAO - autonomously operating under preset rules, without relying on any individual or soft rules such as political coordination. Or it can be said that DAO itself is a form of autonomous world.


The charm of such a self-governing world lies in its objectivity, in my opinion.


Our reality world is objective, and no one owns it. This world does not exist because of any individual or organization. The fundamental laws that maintain the existence and operation of this world are the laws of physics. Everyone can exert influence on this world under the same physical laws and make this influence a objective fact of this world.


But the world of "Harry Potter" is not objective. If J.K. Rowling had added another character when she was writing, that character would have become a part of the world. If she didn't write it, then it wouldn't exist. This world was constructed by J.K. Rowling and is maintained by her rules. Millions of fans can read and love it, but they cannot change it or leave a backpack at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.


"World of Warcraft" is not objective, although people can enter this world and interact with each other under the rules set by Blizzard and affect the "objective facts" in this world. However, "World of Warcraft" essentially depends on the subjective will of Blizzard and its managers to exist. When the cooperation between NetEase and Blizzard broke down last year, all the objectivity created by Chinese players in the game disappeared with it.


But now, we have the opportunity to create a self-governing, objective world based on a blockchain network. In such a concrete and autonomous world, all human creations become objective facts, within a stable and self-sustaining world of objective facts.


The above outlines the concept of Autonomous and its underlying logic in several different fields. This is just my personal thinking and may not be entirely correct. The meaning of Autonomous is also constantly evolving. "Autonomy" is one of the most profound issues in human civilization, far beyond the scope of this short article.


Over the past week, I read a science fiction novel called "Blindness". This is a book that was rejected by major publishers and had to be published for free online. It is considered a masterpiece by many, but also considered garbage by many. The author's other identity is a marine biologist, and the academic expression and not-so-smooth writing style make the reading experience unpleasant. What supported me to finish reading it was a point raised in the novel - is it possible that the self-consciousness that humans are proud of is actually a shackle that limits human development? The author's thinking here is full of wisdom and thought-provoking.


From this thinking, let's jump to another long-debated topic - are humans autonomous? Has everything that happens in the world already been defined by code in higher dimensions?


We pursue autonomy in this world, but can we really break free from the constraints of universal smart contracts?


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