When The Bus Will Be Its Own Boss

Thousands of cabs make their way through the streets of London. Hundreds of buses pick up and drop off passengers. Trucks carry their cargo. They are, of course, autonomous; like Google’s self-driving car, they all move without a driver.

This vision is almost a cliché. Everyone is already talking about a future where professional drivers are unemployed and all vehicles will drive themselves.

But what do you think about vehicles that own themselves? Yes, that own themselves. They have their own file at the IRS. They generate their own income, support themselves financially and if they don’t succeed in the free market, they turn themselves off. Sound strange? It’s not far-fetched at all. Let’s see how it could look in practice.

London, 2040

You order a cab through the reservations system. Hundreds of independent taxis, vehicles that own themselves, receive the order. They calculate their distance from you and see if there are any traffic jams. They take into account the price of gas and where you want to go. They suggest a price and an estimated arrival time.

You choose one and the vehicle arrives. You sit inside and proceed to ride in a cab without a driver. Arriving at your destination, the agreed fee is transferred from your bank account to an account that is registered to the cab itself.

On your journey you pass a toll road. Like the cab, the road owns itself. It also has its own IRS file, and tolls are transferred to its bank account. The cabs’ profit margins are very low. The income of the road, the traffic light and the cabs are enough for upgrades and to keep them operational.

They are not alone: Tens of billions of objects that service human beings have joined the free market where billions of people do business. They belong to no one but themselves, and they are maintained by a digital waqf. This is a futuristic communist system unlike the communism we know now.

The man associated with this vision is a Bitcoin developer called Mike Hearn; he presented the idea at Edinburgh’s Turing Festival in 2013. Hearn is working with a new concept from the world of Bitcoin, the DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization). This is a computer program that runs on a decentralized “platform,” operating through the computers of thousands of volunteers.

This kind of DAO, like many of the Bitcoin-based decentralized structures, delineates a new kind of ownership; that is, independent ownership, or ownership without ownership. In this concept lies the revolution.

Digital Waqf

Nowadays, almost everything belongs to someone, but this new ownership will look completely different. Of all the structures with which we are familiar, it is most like the Islamic idea of “sacred property,” or waqf.

According to custom, a certain person dedicates a building to Allah, and appoints representatives to run the property for the good of Allah and the believers. This group of people is meant to run properties for the benefit of others, not for profit.

There are obvious downsides to this system: When the owner of the group is Allah or the Muslim Ummah, the criteria for running the property are unclear. Those who run the property are not always monitored, and oftentimes the monitoring itself is vulnerable to corruption.

This is where technology comes in and offers a real revolution. The blockchain — the network at the root of Bitcoin — enables a new kind of waqf; finally, a complete waqf. This is a waqf that runs itself, by itself and belongs to itself. No one can manipulate it; therefore it is incorruptible.

An Autonomous Organization

Let’s imagine a computer program that has been programmed to publish a daily air pollution forecast. Let’s assume that the forecast is based on an Internet search, certain calculations and more. Usually, such a program is owned by a particular company. The company regularly updates and operates the program.

On the other hand, what about a situation in which our program was built by a person or a group and sent out, free, into the world? The program doesn’t sit in a computer that is under anyone’s control, but on thousands of computers belonging to volunteers.

From the minute this program was launched, no one can change it. It just runs and runs. It knows how to program and update itself, and it is open for use by millions around the world. It is built using the blockchain, the base that also enables Bitcoin. This is the digital waqf.

Now, Michael Hearn would say to us, we will swap our air pollution program for a cab algorithm. The developers are coders who want to work for the good of humanity. They write the code and release it to the world.

What does our algorithm do? In the world of the future, our algorithm can raise money on the stock market, for example.

As soon as it has money in its Bitcoin account, it can order the materials it needs to function as a cab in the outside world. It will order all the engine parts it needs from a mechanic that it will hire, and it will even be able to hire workers to put it together. And who runs it?

Well, we programmed it from the outset so it could look after itself, and we dedicated it to the public. We created a digital waqf, or in the language of Bitcoin developers, we created a DAO. This organization is no longer under the control of its programmers. Its memory, its bank account details and all the rest are spread out through thousands of computers of volunteers that make up the waqf.

And our cab? It is opening a file at the IRS, and starting to ride the streets at rock-bottom prices. At cost price — which really, is for the good of us all.