Robotic bees and computer chip (Illustration: Jonathan Spencer Kaia Levy)

From currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, to user-centric social networks, to new modes of governance, such as Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), “crypto networks” consist of individuals who agree to follow a shared set of rules.

They represent a huge natural experiment. Yet in many cases, crypto networks and the currency systems built upon them are designed by trial and error or with game-theoretic toy models — an approach that SFI Professor Jessica Flack says “works well in rarefied settings. But crypto networks don’t operate in rarefied settings. They operate in the wild, are built by their users, and have to work at scale.”

As such, the entire crypto space is a tangle of rulesets, evolutionary strategies, and economic propositions. What can more subtle, quantitative methods offer the study and design of these networks? What insights can we draw from wild-born, natural systems, such as brains and insect swarms, to better understand and implement collective smarts at a planetary (even interplanetary) scale?

To start addressing these and other pressing questions raised by the proliferation of new crypto networks, SFI is hosting a workshop on “Collective Crypto” June 13, immediately before the InterPlanetary Festival. Organized by Flack, along with SFI President David Krakauer, Omidyar Fellow Joshua Garland, Trustee Graham Spencer of Google Ventures, and Dan Moroz of Harvard, the workshop convenes a necessarily diverse array of experts from academia and enterprise, bringing software developers and crypto token designers into collaboration with social scientists, evolutionary biologists, collective computation theorists, and systems-thinking venture capitalists.

This group is casting its questions wide: How much agreement is required to produce intelligent collective action? Are there mechanisms that allow consensus to emerge that also maintain diversity of opinion? How might a DAO or public ledger change under the influence of different algorithms for the way agreement is encoded in the network?

Flack sees opportunities for the crypto ecosystem to inform the science of collectives as well. “How can decentralization be operationalized and measured?” she asks. “Is decentralization about how the information is integrated, or about how components contribute to aggregate function?”

Krakauer emphasizes the urgency and scope of this conversation, adding, “We’re going to be forced now to conceive of fundamentally new institutions that more accurately reflect empirical reality. We see this in the blockchain/cryptocurrency debate, which started out as a very local means of decentralizing banking services, and has become an entirely new way of thinking about accountability and trust.”

Cutting through the hype is a priority if these novel systems can be implemented as the platforms for vital social functions they were designed to be — and SFI, ever the home to maverick, discipline-blurring research is an ideal place to ask these questions.