A Blockchain-Based Art Installation

One of the projets at Ars Electronica this year was “Plantoid is a bionic blockchain-based installation.” Plantoids are are large metal sculptures portraying flowers. These flowers are nourished by a gentle rain of Bitcoins:

“In its physical form, it is a welded mechanical sculpture on display in a public space —an aesthetic ornaments that exhibits its mechanical beauty and begs to be appreciated by the public. Appreciation is done via interactions with the public who can ‘tip or feed’ the Plantoid by sending tokens into its Bitcoin wallet.

When it receives funds by the audience, the Plantoid evolves and turns into a more beautiful flower, by e.g. moving around a means to gratify the donor and progressively opening up its petals as more and more funds are stored into its wallet.

At first I thought this was something frothy and silly, using a trendy technology just because it is possible. (Not that I am averse to “it could be done, so we had to do it”.

This project touches so many trendy topics, I didn’t know how to label this blog entry. Is this a Bitcoin thing? A biomimetic design thing? A “new way of working” thing? Or even an “Internet of Everything” thing? Grace Caffyn of Coindesk certainly views it as a Bitcoin thing, and I can see her point.

Looking closer, it became clear to me that there is a lot of substance to this project, with many layers of ideas to think about.

In one sense, the part about a sculpture that accepts Bitcoin is a bit silly, and not really different from any number of web sites begging for bitcoin ((Kickstarter?).

But there is much, mush more to the story. These “plants” are “self-owned and self-sufficient”, and, in fact, are designed to illustrate a Distributed Autonomous Organization (DAO), (self-)managed by digital contracts and the Bitcoin Blockchain.

The Plantoids are actually a mesh network, organized as a family tree. Some of the income of a Plantoid flows to it’s parent, to help sustain them. When a Plantoid accumulates sufficient Bitcoins, it commissions some humans to build a new (child) Plantoid. This transaction is done via “smart contracts’’.  This is all strange and wonderful—isn’t that one description of “Art”?

The DAO angle is actually quite deep water here, and this is not by chance.  One of the principals  Primavera de Filippi is a leading thinker about these issues from a legal viewpoint, and she knows what she is talking about. As she has explained, these entities are “autonomous” and self-governing, but occupy a yet-to-be-defined legal status.

Legally speaking, Plantoids do not have any legal entity, since —as opposed to corporations— the law does not recognize legal personhood to commodities or things. Yet, as opposed to traditional art pieces, Plantoids are not bought or sold; nor can they be owned as objects.

It is also interesting to see the comment that Plantoids are a “self-sustainable system”, but not a pyramid scheme. This distinction is clearer to a lawyer than to me.

Phew! All this makes my head hurt! Where to start.

First, I have to say that the name “Plantoid” is unfortunate because there already is a robotics project with that name, doing different but equally interesting stuff.

Second, the “bionic” label is, in my opinion, misleading. Furthermore, this is not a very biomimetic design. Whatever merits this hybrid, virtual-physical, DAO system might have, it is not easily related to any biological system that I know.

OK, the Plantoids are supposed to learn and evolve, as successful interactions with humans will yield more Bitcoins, and enable that strain to reproduce. While this evolutionary process is patterned after biological evolution, it is rather simplified, to the point of triviality. For one thing, no living thing is dependent on one and only one resource, nor is any living thing connected to its environment solely through attention, nor are interactions conducted via contracts.

Thinking about it, I found my biggest objection is the purely parasitic dependence on pleasing humans in order to get Bitcoins. The system would be so much more sustainable if these Plantoids had other sources of inputs, and other kinds of outputs.

For instance, if the petals age and fall off, they could be recycled, with a payment in Bitcoin for the scrap. Perhaps all the leaves fall in the winter, “rotting” to yield Bitcoins that flow to the dormant plant to fuel next season’s growth.

Even better, the Plantoid could actually mine Bitcoins. Perhaps harvesting solar energy and quietly running a small node, generating small payments. This is technically, possible, though I don’t know about the economics. Of course, human gardeners can help the Plantoid with donations to fertilize it.

Another biomimetic concept might be to collect some of the Bitcoins into metal “seeds” that are dropped from the Plantoid. This would be a cool way to handle the contracts, no? The contract is recorded on the Blockchain, but actual transfer is done by delivering a physical seed (with the appropriate key and encrypted wallet). Thus, these Plantoids could be farmed by people, who harvest a crop in exchange for nourishing the Plantoid.

Finally, the ecosystem is absurdly simple. There should be a whole assortment of Plantoids and other ‘–oids’, that compete for Bitcoins, and even “eat” each other to suck out Bitcoin nutrients. So, the Aphid-oids should plug into some of the Plantoids, and draw off a few Bitcoins.

For that matter, it would be very realistic, both biomimetic and digitally, if the Plantoids are infected with various (digital) viruses, which may be passed among the population along with the payments, and, for that matter, potentially passed to and via the people who interact with the Plantoids.

Now that would be cool!

I think that this is more than just project an exercise in artificial life. If DAOs become common and widespread, there will certainly be many of them, and they will interact with each other “automously” (and we will need a better vocabulary for this situation). I believe that the only possible model for such a situation is a biological ecosystem.

Plantoids made me realize that today people are thinking about simple cases where there is only one Blockchain, and only a handful of autonomous entities. We need to think much, much bigger. “Billions and billions.” More DAOs than humans. As many DAOs as microbes. DAOs that create new DAOs. Yoiks!

One last thought. I’d like to see this something like this tied to something other than the Bitcoin Blockchain. Specifically, I would love to have a similar system that is backed by something like “socially valuable activity” rather than completely meaningless, energy sucking, computation. I’m imagining this would involve integration with some kind of social sensing, that keeps score and “powers” the mining.

In this vision, the Plantoids spread and flourish as we care for each other, our communities, and our planet. Plantoids encourage us to do positive things, which nourishes the Plantoids. We can harvest a fraction of this “good” in the form of “fruits” harvested fro the Plantoids.

Now that would be really interesting.


Cryptocurrency Thursday

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