Distributed autonomous organization

A distributed (or decentralised) autonomous organisation (DAO) is a new form of organising business transactions, one in which all agreements and transactions are done through code and saved in a shared ledger. It is enabled by blockchain and smart contracts. In a DAO there is no management, but instead complete transparency (as all the transactions are shared) and total shareholder control (as anyone that takes part in a DAO can decide what to do with the funds invested). More broadly, a DAO is an experiment of organising business transactions, where trust is outsourced to code and blockchain. The prominent example of a DAO is aptly named “The DAO”, which is an investment fund without management.

Why is this important?

DAO is a structure built upon a blockchain platform such as Ethereum. It is itself also a type of platform in that through it many types of transactions can be done. DAO is an example of how platforms do not just transfer old ways of organising to digital, networked world, but instead enable new forms of organising and governance. DAO is a structure on which to build different types of activities from investment funds to shared data repositories. It can be used to organise an autonomous ridesharing ecosystem, where there are competing applications for matching, payment, user interface etc, all working seamlessly together. It enables new governance models, such as “futarchy”, which uses a prediction market to choose between policies.

DAO can also be seen as a response to the transformation in work, much like platform cooperativism. As work becomes more like a risky investment than a steady source of income, organisational structures can help cope with the new reality. Whereas platform cooperatives solve the problem by using digital platform to enable fair distribution of value and power, DAOs try to achieve the same through smart contracts, code and blockchain – in other words without humans who could risk the fairness of the system.

Things to keep an eye on

DAOs are based on the idea that all rules can be embedded in the code and system. Smart contracts are described as plain English, but what matters really is the code that defines what the contracts do. Code is susceptible to human error, which means that those agreeing on the conditions of the contract must be able to decipher the code or trust that someone has checked it. An interesting example of what this can lead to happened last spring in The DAO.

In June 2016 a hacker managed to use a vulnerability in a smart contract and transfer a large amount of funds to another contract within the DAO. This led to an ideological discussion about what to do: should this transaction be cancelled and the immutability of the blockchain thus questioned, or should those who lost their money just accept what happened. Because there is no one officially in control, the developers of the Ethereum platform, on which The DAO operates, recommended as their preferred solution “hard fork”, i.e. to cancel the transaction and gave the decision to participants of The DAO. A majority voted in favour of the hard fork, but the original version of the blockchain containing the disputed transaction still exists as “Ethereum Classic”.

The example above indicates how the practices around DAOs are developing. Blockchain technology is still in its infancy and lots of failures and experimentation on the applications are to be expected. There is now clearly a need for built-in governance systems for dispute settlement. One example of this is Microsoft’s project Bletchley, which aims to develop a distributed ledger marketplace and “cryptlets” that would work in the interface between humans and the blockchain implementations. Cryplets would basically mix more traditional methods to ensure trust with blockchain.

On a broader level there is the question of whether or not a DAO is an organisation and what is its legal status or the role of the tokens that represent funds or other assets. There is also the question of whether there is really a need for such an organisation, which eliminates middlemen completely, as middlemen can be useful and provide services other than just matching demand and supply. On a technological and more long-term note, as the blockchain is based on encryption, it is vulnerable to quantum computers, which could break the encryption by calculating private keys from public keys in minutes.

Selected articles and websites

Post-blockchain smart contracts creating a new firm
TED Talk: How the blockchain will radically transform the economy | Bettina Warburg
The humans who dream of companies that won’t need them
The Tao of “The DAO” or: How the autonomous corporation is already here
The DAO: a radical experiment that could be the future of decentralised governance
Why Ethereum’s Hard Fork Will Cause Problems in the Coming Year
The gateway to a new business order: Why crowdfunding is just the start of the next era of organisations

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd