Future of Money
Jieun Lee, Tim Worms
We are proposing a vision of the future in which we follow the evolution of both money and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) from physical to digital materials, the technologies enabled by this shift, and the coupled opportunities for benevolent and malicious actors.
Money is a fiction that has undergone multiple evolutions throughout history. During the early days of homo sapiens, it took the form of food and other essentials.1 For example, it was once various metals (gold), and then paper (dollars), plastic (credit cards), and now has become digital (Apple Pay). Money represents an imagined value that we collectively attribute to an object in order to facilitate trade between people. Historically, we associated that value with a physical object that was considered rare and difficult for the majority to acquire. The harder it was to come by, the more valuable it became. We controlled the value through adjustments to the availability of that object and the physical nature of it added a layer of tangibility that helped us understand and quantify the exchange.
In recent history, money has become increasingly less physical. With the onset of credit and other banking mechanisms, it has become difficult for the common person to understand the conceptual scope and boundaries of currencies. The average citizen has found themselves in increasing amounts of debt while operating within a system they cannot hope to comprehend.
As the materiality of money has shifted to digital formats, we’ve invented new systems to try and concretize its abstract nature. In the language of machines, we’ve begun to associate monetary values with digital quantifications, such as 1’s and 0’s. This digitization of money has allowed us to apply mathematical algorithms to our value exchanges, allowing us to automate actions and predict future changes. Faster exchanges means more trading which leads to money becoming more liquid out of necessity. As this speed has increased, our control and comprehension of the global financial market has deteriorated, and only a select few can claim to fully understand it.
The digitization of money has allowed us to craft it into computer code and we are now associating value to those strings of numerics. We call this cryptocurrency. With the birth of cryptocurrencies, we have entered an age where our ability to create new money has become cheap, easy, and infinite. A new market has emerged and has quickly become flooded with new entrants. This cements the transition to the digital materiality of currency.
Simultaneously as money has been transformed we have begun to learn how to read and write DNA. This has been heralded as a calendar-changing event. DNA, which carries the genetic information in all living organisms, presents a new frontier material for humans to design with and innovate. We are entering an industrial revolution with programmable life forms, one where we have new technologies such as desktop printers that allow us to instantaneously send and reproduce vaccines across the globe or create close to carbon-neutral fuels.2
Perhaps the most recognizable foray in this emerging field to find market success has been CRISPR- Cas9 (Clustered Regularly Intersected Short Palindromic Repeats). Jennifer Doudna, one of the founders of CRISPR, has casually compared it to the cut-and-paste tool found in common computer word processors. Harnessing this tool creates the potential to both remove unwanted bits of DNA or add in.
Preferred strings. A change in 1 out of 1000 letters in DNA is all that separates one person from another, so it is not a far leap to see how little effort it would take to effectively change the definition and scope of what it means to be an individual.
If we couple CRISPR’s capability to easily manipulate DNA with other innovations in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and behavioral psychology, we see the evidence of humans truly becoming “hackable animals” in a world where DNA is commonly altered like the computer code of today.3
The Value of DNA
The codification cost of money and DNA has dropped significantly in the last 20 years, and we can now see individual researchers making significant strides at the same time as entrepreneurs are finding routes to market for these new technologies.
Cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin, while currently seeing high volatility in their value, have had enormous investor interest and inspired countless other currencies. They have also generated social innovations such as cross-border payments for those without bank accounts and secure assets in corrupt countries.4
Ancestry.com and 23andMe, gene sequencing companies, have sold more than 15 million DNA kits and have started to amass gigantic databases of genetic code. If this trend continues, an estimated 100 million people are expected to sequence their DNA in order to discover their heritage and genetic makeup.5 The companies that own these databases stand to benefit greatly as they control access for health research, government, and new business ventures.
As both money and DNA become codified there are increasing moments of synthesis between them. Cryptocurrencies are generating tremendous amounts of data and are a contributor to a need for new types of mass storage. A collaboration between CERN and Exxon has produced large liquid vats of biological material capable of storing data in a small physical footprint.6 It turns out that DNA is an excellent storage medium just as we are hitting barriers with shrinking computer memory.7 As well, in 2015 the researcher Nick Goldman created a challenge in which a bitcoin was encoded inside a tube of DNA. In 2018, a PHD student from the University of Antwerp successfully managed to decode the nucleobases that hid the bitcoin file.8 While this technology is still far from common, it solves for several ongoing issues with current data solutions such as physical storage space, entropy, and identification.
As currency and DNA technologies advance and create new opportunities for benevolent actors, so increases the opportunities for criminals. Historically, crime has always evolved in exponential lockstep with tech. When locomotive trains were invented, robbers were able to increase their earnings ceiling from several individuals to hundreds in one heist.9 As currency has entered the connected digital world, a lone computer hacker from anywhere on the planet can rob a global network of bank accounts through a singular access point.
Centralization, once a logical method of security as collectives pooled their resources into defending one source, faces unforeseen emerging risks. In the realm of DNA being used as storage, computer servers potentially can be reduced from massive warehouses to a small number of rooms.10 As well, we see risk in the centralized ownership of massive DNA databases. In the name of security, one sequencing company has given database access to the United States’ FBI to find familial matches to crime scene samples. This allows law enforcement agents access to the private genetic information of hundreds of millions of people.11 While this increases utility and efficiency for government agents, it is also creates a weak point of access for malicious actors to tap into the same information. We envision a scenario where a small number of morally flexible individuals have the capability to plan and execute an elaborate heist that compromises the private monetary or DNA data of an entire economy in one fell, Hollywood- esque swoop, all for the sake of one-click access.
The opposite proposal is to decentralize currency and DNA data and grant greater private control. Nebula Genomics has turned the value of research into economic benefit for their customers through privacy and control of their data.12 This creates an opportunity for consumers to utilize their DNA as a unique password for services and products. Rather than aggregate large databases into server farms, believers in blockchain propose spreading the data across billions of networked computers all over the world. More than simply hosting one account on one server and another account on a second, this methodology can split an individual’s bank account across multiple server hosts. If one access point were hacked the thief would not gain access to the entire account, not unlike puzzle pieces where all are needed to complete the picture.
Both decentralized solutions present different types of risk. By using DNA as a password, we may enter a twisted future where human body-parts are severed and sold on a black market, much like identities are sold now. Alternatively, as we spread source code over multiple hosts, computer viruses grow evermore dangerous. Researchers at the University of Washington have already encoded malicious software into physical strands of DNA which will infect a gene sequencing program.13 We wonder about a scenario where DNA is used as a privacy key and becomes the focus of criminal exploits. Having already uploaded our DNA into a mass database, malicious actors might infect the source code with a virus and expose our family history and health vulnerabilities, which are then ransomed back to us for a profit. Our curiosity about our biological histories might cost us our future health.
Finally, we can also see activists stealing DNA encoded with cryptocurrencies and infusing it into undervalued natural resources, such as trees in the Amazonian rainforest. This would add an additional layer of value to the natural world, perhaps creating economically viable options within a capitalistic system for governments to protect these resources for short and long term benefits.
4 https://dci.mit.edu/research/2018/12/4/wired-25-neha-narula-and-alexis-ohanian-say-its-early-days-yet-for-cryptocurrency 5 https://blog.nebula.org/dna-privacy
9 Marc Goodman, Future Crimes, 2015
11 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-01/major-dna-testing-company-is-sharing-genetic-data-with-the-fbi 12 https://www.nebula.org