Congratulations to Anthony Aguirre, Future of Life Institute, for winning the Foresight Edition of the Incentive Prize on Incentives

The Prize is part of the Grand Challenge on Inclusive Stakeholding, an initiative by the Yun Family Foundation to nurture innovations that promote a better future for all through inclusive stakeholding, vested interdependent interests, and goal congruence. The Challenge invites social innovations from any discipline, including economics, politics, arts, technology, and sciences (including the social sciences).

We are thrilled to feature Anthony’s excellent proposal here, which was chosen among hundreds of qualifying submissions:


A Simple Secure Coordination Platform for Collective Action

I propose a simple, streamlined, and secure platform for enabling coordinated collective action and for revealing hidden but shared preferences. Its core function would be to collect verified “signatures” supporting a particular statement, which would only be publicly revealed upon the satisfaction of some criterion such as a threshold number of signatories. Many social problems can be understood as coordination problems, in which a large group shares a preference that could easily be satisfied by collective action, but for which there is a significant barrier or disincentive to individual or small-group action. These barriers could range from minor financial cost or fear of revealing an unconventional opinion all the way to major legal, social, political, or physical retaliation. There is increased interest of late for mechanisms that bridge the gap by allowing people to commit to a particular action that is triggered by sufficient commitment. Kickstarter is an excellent example, in which payment is committed on the platform, but only charged when a threshold total commitment is reached. This idea has also gained great currency among proponents of blockchain technologies and “smart contracts.” But while many collective-action problems may require credible commitment in terms of providing real resources or actual actions, there are many important cases in which just the commitment to have one’s identity revealed could be enough to address coordination problems.

As a few broad examples:

1. Political parties can force individual politicians to “hew the party line” against even a rather popular position by implicitly threatening retaliation; this leads to partisan, polarized politics. Taking a public position is an action for a politician, so coordinated revelation of shared but secret policy preferences could allow for cooperation across party lines with the risk spread over many.

2. Whistleblowers could share risk across a much larger set of individuals, where the accusation could be made anonymously (and should garner little credibility), but those willing to provide testimony or information backing up the accusation could have their identities revealed only as a large group, and thus grant real credibility to the accusation.

3. A petition advocating for a controversial position (for example in an authoritarian political environment) could be made public only upon a sufficient number of signatures, or possibly when enough sufficiently prominent people sign on.

Many, many other use cases are likely. The proposed system would be quite simple in initial form, but with high-security guarantees. Via a simple and easy-to-use interface, users would list a Statement and a Triggering Condition. Any user with a verified identity (associated with a token on an authentication system) could then “sign” a given Statement. Their signing is cryptographically stored in a second system so that it is impossible to read the list of tokens, and the fact that signing took place is provided (with no identifying information) to a third system. If and when, on the basis of information supplied to the third system, the Triggering Condition is met, the third system provides a cryptographic key that can be combined with data from the user authentication system and the signatory database to generate a list of users who signed that statement, which is then made public. Using this (or a similar) system, users can have a high degree of confidence that their identities will be made public only in the event of the Triggering Condition they signed up for. After a certain pre-defined time interval, if the Triggering Condition is not met, the encrypted signatory data would be destroyed. This system would, preferably, be open-sourced and run by a nonprofit at low cost (it seems unlikely that there would be a good business model, and a business could create conflicts-of-interest). The development cost/effort would be modest given that the functionality is simple and the system should employ largely “off-the-shelf” ingredients. (There are many ways — for example on blockchain — one could envision such a system; the idea here is to focus on simplicity, ease-of-use and sign-up, and robustness). It could be tested first in relatively small groups and lower-stakes settings, then grow to larger groups and higher stakes. Thereare many expansions that could build upon this simple system, allowing for example more
complex triggering conditions or commitments.The proposed system is not risk-free. No security is absolute, and there would always be some risk of system compromise of one sort or another. Moreover, it may not always be good to reveal hidden preferences; if widely adopted this system could enable collective action of many types, not all of which would necessarily end up being good! However, I hold a strong belief that on average, allowing more coordinated action is likely to be broadly beneficial.

Anthony Aguirre
Future of Life Institute
[email protected]