Self-realization beyond rules Let’s talk about the autonomy of agents, DAOs, and autonomous worlds separately.

Author: Wang Chao

“Autonomous” – translated as “自主” in Chinese, is also often translated as “自治”. This is a very important word in my study and work over the past few years. It represents the “A” in DAO and the concept of autonomous world, and also represents people’s expectations for artificial intelligence – autonomous agents.

As a new direction, there are naturally different understandings of autonomous. What exactly is autonomous? Do the meanings of autonomous in different fields match? Does absolute autonomy exist?

Today, let’s break down 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”, a carpenter’s square.

Norma - Carpenter's square

This word was later extended to the concept of “law/custom”, and the English word “Norm” (norm) comes from this.

In the original meaning in ancient Greece, “autonomous” referred to the power to govern oneself, to establish one’s own laws, and not to be controlled by larger governing institutions.

Ancient Greece was not a unified nation like modern countries. 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, for example, Athens was 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 period, reflecting the desire of these city-states and their citizens to maintain their unique identities, governance structures, and ways of life in a decentralized and competitive environment.

Over 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” is considered a classic in the crypto community and has extensively 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 background has far exceeded the imagination of the ancient Greeks.

The changing meaning of the word “autonomous” demonstrates how culture, technology, and society shape and change people’s perceptions.

Autonomy in AI

In the field of artificial intelligence, “autonomy” typically refers to systems that can perform tasks without human intervention.

For example, in the context of ordering food, ChatBots like ChatGPT can provide users with a lot of reference information, such as calorie calculation, dish and restaurant recommendations, but they cannot complete the ordering process.

An Agent, on the other hand, can fulfill an order based on the user’s instructions, such as “reserve two seats at the Blue Frog restaurant in Guomao on Meituan for tonight.” However, for the Agent to complete this task, it relies on a prerequisite – a pre-designed workflow for ordering and integration with the Meituan service. If the programmer hasn’t instructed the Agent on how to place an order or how to integrate with Meituan, the Agent will be unable to fulfill the command.

An Autonomous Agent adds autonomy compared to a regular Agent, manifesting in stronger thinking and more versatile action capabilities. When a user says, “reserve two quiet seats near Guomao for tonight,” an Autonomous Agent understands the user’s intent, thinks about how to act, and executes the task. The programmer doesn’t need to pre-teach the Agent how to place an order, book a flight, or buy something on eBay. Instead, it operates within a general framework, taking action based on its understanding of the world and the general rules of online interaction. This ability to complete tasks independently is what defines autonomy.

To some extent, all the robots we see in science fiction movies are Autonomous Agents. For more scenarios and considerations regarding Autonomous Agents, you can refer to the article “From J.A.R.V.I.S. to Westworld – the Future of Symbiosis between Agents and Humans.”

Although there isn’t much disagreement about the meaning of “autonomous” in the AI community, there are still significant differences in the 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 full automation. This classification system also has strong reference value for Autonomous Agents.

Microsoft’s Autonomous Agents, which are overseen by a director (yes, Microsoft actually has such a position), have defined autonomy as “human-like action and decision-making.” Microsoft ultimately focuses on enabling Autonomous Agents to solve a specific part of existing enterprise workflows. From a technological standpoint, this is a very practical choice. However, in terms of autonomy levels, it would at best be classified as L2 or L2.5.

Startups focusing on Autonomous Agents have even greater ambitions. They hope to fully replace humans in many scenarios, such as AI sales representatives. In terms of the corresponding classification, this would fall within the range of at least L3 and L4.

An entrepreneurial project that provides AI sales representative services

As an observer who enjoys watching the show, I have higher expectations for the autonomy of intelligent agents.

Imagine a future where my daily work and life rely on the assistance of autonomous intelligent agents. One morning, I called the autonomous intelligent agent only to find that it didn’t respond. Upon investigation, I discovered that the hosted Amazon cloud service was experiencing a malfunction. Despite being so capable, it can be easily rendered useless by simply unplugging the network cable, which is unacceptable. An intelligent agent with higher autonomy should not only possess the ability to think and make decisions, but also the ability to operate stably in the long term without the need for human intervention. It is a basic requirement for autonomous intelligent agents to not be easily disconnected by unplugging the network cable. As entities with stronger behavioral capabilities, they should also have digital identities, a certain degree of autonomous finance, and even control over their own computing power and energy management.

In my opinion, this will be one of the natural intersections between encryption and AI. If there is a place in the world that can provide a secure and reliable operating environment, an independent and easy-to-use financial system that does not rely on any institution to approve and can be closed at any time, and where 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 encrypted network is undoubtedly the infrastructure for AI to achieve a high level of autonomy.

Autonomy in DAOs

Compared to AI, there is a greater divergence in understanding the autonomy of DAOs.

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

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.

DO 和 DAO 的界限有时候是模糊的,但有一个通用的分界线可以参考 – 治理是通过类似政治的协商过程完成 (DO),还是「自动化」的过程 (DAO)。

Ethereum Whitepaper, December 2014

However, the world is complex. Cryptographic technology has brought about more efficient and fair distribution of ownership, as well as stronger coordination capabilities. Communities with different cultures and interests are using these technologies to organize and take collective action. Although participants in the crypto field generally agree with the “code is law” concept, the world is too complex. How much of the business logic can actually run in smart contracts? It was impossible for a long time to expect a set of smart contract code to handle all the work of an organization and achieve continuous automation.

If we go by the definition in the original Ethereum whitepaper, none of the current DAOs can be considered 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, and then a reverse metamorphosis in the crypto world.

Starting from the real world, many DAO operators no longer insist on pursuing fully code-based autonomous operation. Instead, they give more space to the social layer, and the meaning of “autonomous” returns to the autonomous governance of the organization. It may also be that non-automated DAOs are considered the mainstream supported by current technology. The Ethereum whitepaper also removed the concept of “DO” in a subsequent update, further blurring the definition of “autonomous” in DAOs. With the popularity of the concept of network state in the past two years, the meaning of “autonomous” in DAOs is increasingly close to its original definition in ancient Greece.

If you ask me, how to understand and practice this “autonomous” is not that important. The original definition of DAO represents an ideal, an expectation of empowering technology, although it is not currently achievable, it is a beautiful and pure pursuit.

And now, the hundreds and thousands of DAOs that have emerged have sacrificed technical robustness and compensated with cultural layers, allowing community members with common values to come together organically, through blockchain technology to achieve more powerful coordination, incentives, and ownership distribution, creating many patterns and achievements that did not exist in the world before, which is also a blessing of the times.

In the past, I believed that with the development of cryptographic technology and the improvement of infrastructure, DAOs would gradually reduce their reliance on humans. Maybe today we are still using the manual multisig method of gnosis to manage the community treasury, but tomorrow we may automate the allocation of funds by linking the proposal system and the treasury system. The day after tomorrow, we may put the roles in the DAO on the chain in a certain way, achieving the automation of key role permission allocation. The automation system gradually erodes human roles, and eventually at a certain point in time, DAOs transition from relying on human operation to relying entirely on code operation.

However, as I observe more projects and the development changes of different DAOs over the years, I begin to think that today’s community DAOs and the ideal autonomous DAOs that operate automatically should be different species, and they will take completely different paths in the future, instead of merging into one at a certain point in time.

DAOs that are human-centric do have a lot of room for improvement in terms of automation to enhance efficiency, coordination, and trust. But the value creation entity is always the community, every individual within the community. Humans will always be important.

And the DAO that relies entirely on code operation in the imagination may have a different starting point, such as – autonomous world.

Autonomy in the Autonomous World

The Autonomous World, often abbreviated as “AW,” is a concept first proposed by 0xLianGuaiRC in 2022. After a year of fermentation, it has begun to be discussed more and more. The Autonomous World is a relatively complex concept, and many people see it as a concept in the direction of full-chain gaming, but I don’t think so. It is a crossroads of technology, culture, politics, philosophy, and other fields.

In the concept of the Autonomous World, the world is not specifically referring to the place where human beings live, but a container, a place that accommodates rules and narratives. The world where human beings 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. “Chinese Paladin” 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 subreddit called worldbuilding on Reddit, and I like to go and see what people are talking about from time to time. There are many people who enjoy imagining the geography, climate, history, legends, culture, society, technology, and ecological chain backgrounds of a world.

A constructed world

Some even design the ocean currents between continents in their constructed worlds

Some people even design a dark element periodic table for their imagined world

Screenshot translation: I am a perfectionist and also a world builder, which means I create my world flawlessly and don't let any doubts slip in. In my world, I have an unfinished history of 2000 years, including wars, blood feuds, detailed events about how certain countries decline, a list of monarchs of an empire, regional explorations, etc. Start with a timeline and things you like, and then expand it to create your own history. I've been doing this for years, but I've only completed about 300 years of history.

After a brief explanation of the concept of the world, let’s take a look at what an Autonomous World is. In the definition, 0xLianGuaiRC believes that an Autonomous World is a “world with blockchain as its underlying technology.” To be more specific –

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

自主世界有着严格的叙事边界、正式化的引入规则,它不需要特权个体来维持其生存。Ludens from 0xLianGuaiRC

The definition describes the three core characteristics of an “Autonomous World”:

  • Hard diegetic boundaries: This means that the world has a set of fixed and immutable baseline rules. They do not change over time or circumstances, providing stability to the world.
  • Formalised introduction rules: This indicates that there are clear and fixed 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.
  • No need for privileged individuals to keep its existence: This means that the world is self-sustaining and does not rely on any specific individuals or organizations to maintain or manage it.

From this perspective, Autonomous World is actually closer to the original definition of DAO – autonomously operating under predetermined rules, without relying on any individual or soft rules or political coordination processes. Or you can say that DAO itself is a form of Autonomous World.

What is the charm of such an autonomous world? I believe it is objectivity.

The real world we live in is objective. No one owns this world, and it 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 laws of physics and make this influence a objective fact of this world.

But the world of “Harry Potter” is not objective. If J.K. Rowling added another character when she was writing, that character would become part of the world, and if she didn’t write it, it wouldn’t exist. This world is constructed by J.K. Rowling and relies on J.K. Rowling to maintain its rules. Thousands 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 also not objective. Although people can enter this world and interact under the rules set by Blizzard Entertainment and influence the “objective facts” of this world. But “World of Warcraft” fundamentally depends on the subjective will of Blizzard Entertainment and its administrators. When the cooperation between NetEase and Blizzard broke down last year, all the objectivity created by Chinese players was also extinguished.

But now, we have the opportunity to create a self-governing, objective world based on a blockchain network. In such a specific autonomous world, everything created by people becomes an objective fact, an objective fact in a world with stable rules and self-sustenance.

The above outlines the meanings of Autonomous in several different fields and the logic behind them. It’s just my personal thoughts and not necessarily all correct. And the meaning of Autonomous is still evolving. “Autonomy” is one of the most profound issues in human civilization, far beyond the scope of this short article.

Last week, I read a science fiction novel called “Blindsight”. It is a book that was rejected by major publishers and had to be published online for free. It is regarded as a masterpiece by many people, but also considered garbage by many others. 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 kept me reading it was a viewpoint 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 higher-dimensional codes?

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

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