Fistful of oracles or the dirty 264

Intro to Oracles – Can Unreliable Inputs Be Used to Make Valid Decisions

1967 was a good year for action movies. In the classic spaghetti western “For a Few Dollars More” Clint Eastwood’s character goes to consult a prophet at the beginning of the movie so that he can find out all that he can about his rival. Clint relies on a single trusted oracle to gain the insight he is looking for. He never bothers to cross check anything the prophet told him but hey this guy was the prophet after all and he had a reputation of knowing valuable stuff I’m sure. In the “Dirty Dozen” the whole movie is predicated on the concept that a group of 12 ex-solider convicts can somehow be trained to become an elite fighting force to carry out an important mission for the allied forces. Why would the allies do this? They believe the assignment to be a suicide mission thus there is an unwillingness to send non-convicts. Since many of these men were already sentenced to death I suppose they were being given the chance to die honorably. But why would you trust 12 unreliable solders to carry out an important mission? Sometimes having a large number of dispensable inputs with low reliability is better than having a single trusted input with high but not infallible reliability (the trains probably didn’t help the prophets sanity much and some days were likely worse than others). It is this implied result that frames the context about the value of using social networks as trusted oracles.

In our last blog post we pointed out that we would no longer use a single centralized authority to determine the eligibility status of the claimant to collect on a claim. We need a way of accurately determining the employment status of the claimant and informing the DAO what that status is. The DAO can then use this information when initially awarding or denying a claim and later to decide whether or not to pay a claim. When a human institution does this for supplemental unemployment insurance they are relying on the government as their “oracle.” The supplemental UI provider may actually never bother to find out who employed the claimant previously or why they were terminated from their last job. They don’t need to know this information in order to perform the task of paying a claim so long as the provider can trust that the government knew and used that information when deciding if it should pay a given claim.

From Wikipedia a general purpose oracle machine is one that operates as a "black box" that is able to produce a solution for any instance of a given computational problem. A limited oracle would be able to produce a solution for a specific instance of a problem that the DAO is trying to solve. An oracle is any method of getting an answer to a question without having to do the work of knowing why a certain answer is true which would require one to gather evidence and perform analysis.

A few interesting facts about oracles:

  1. Oracles can make certain computations relatively cheap.
  2. Oracles initially require high levels of trust which decline as more oracles are used to report on the same fact. This requires that each oracle is an independent entity from the others capable of reaching a different conclusion if provided different evidence.
  3. Without oracles there is no way for a blockchain to know the state of anything outside of its own database.
  4. Without oracles DAOs cannot exist to issue insurance since insurance requires a knowledge of events that occur outside of the blockchain.

When I think of oracles I think of them as points which sit on the border between the real world and the blockchain which selectively allow information to pass into the blockchain to be recorded into its database. This information might then be used to allow the blockchain to do something useful or it might not, but it gets recorded in the blockchain database regardless and in this way now the blockchain “knows” something about the world outside of itself. These oracles could easily be trusted third parties like our prophet which required no cross checking before their reporting is used to make decisions. They could also be untrusted members of a social network. Taken individually none of these unreliable inputs could be used to make a valid decision, however when several replies are taken in aggregate this can produce reporting reliable enough to know the state of events in the real world. This is just a theory. This blog post will not be attempting to prove the above assertion as there is likely insufficient evidence at the present time to come to this conclusion.

Social Networks as Oracles – Like ‘Tinder’ for Blockchains

But if this assertion were true how would one use a social network to produce reliable reporting on facts important enough to determine the payment on an insurance claim? I wonder how many people who have 500+ contacts on LinkedIn (like me) actually know who the majority of their connections are. I have never met 60% of the contacts I have added on LinkedIn (half of these are recruiters). 15% of contacts I have only met once and only the remaining 25% are people I know well enough to expect they might respond if I were to send them a message. With regards to finding a job during my next job search or using Dynamis to validate a claim can any of these people help me? First some key questions:

  • Can people I don’t know well in my social network actually help me find a job or validate my UI claim? Nothing against recruiters but I want someone who is inside of a company to tell me if they like working there and if so is anything available; but not if I have to enter into an awkward conversation with them and certainly not to contact them to validate my supplemental UI claim because again that would be awkward being that they don’t know me.
  • Can people I know fairly well in my social network help me find a job or validate my UI claim? Asking for help unless someone is a best friend is still awkward, telling them you are collecting unemployment insurance and you need their help validating your claim is even worse. Would I feel like I am placing myself at their mercy or asking for a handout? There is still a stigma associated with being unemployed how can I overcome it?

If I had a way to contact these people when I was looking for work perhaps having them in my network might actually be worth something. Perhaps one of them knows of a really good opportunity but what if I am not an outgoing extrovert? I’m an engineer and I don’t particularly like to ask other people for help. Dynamis unfortunately uses a decentralized peer to peer model to pay insurance claims as we have discussed previously. Some of us who have seen the vision of a bright peer to peer future realize that it isn’t going to come without a shift not just in the technology but in the culture and the fabric of our social networks. If you want to hide in your bedroom while you collect supplemental unemployment insurance from a centralized institution and not tell anyone you are looking for work or get help from anyone that is your option. If you decide to opt into becoming a Dynamis policy holder with that mindset you unfortunately won’t be able to collect on a claim for very long.

But saying that doesn’t help people who might benefit from using peer to peer technology feel more comfortable with this shift. None of us really wants to come to terms with the fact that we don’t know how to ask our social network to help us. Asking people for favors may leave us vulnerable while we become a bother and inconvenience to others right?

Sometimes you have to flip a problem around to get the right perspective. Think about what it might be like if someone was polite, friendly, genuine, and direct and only needed two minutes of your time to chat on the phone and two additional minutes for you to respond to an email request from Dynamis. If you could help someone who was doing the right thing (finding a job) with the right attitude (positive upbeat) wouldn’t this actually make you feel happy and not awkward? Finding a good job isn’t easy as all of us know and for someone to show a good attitude while they do something difficult can be an endearing quality. Most of us are willing to sympathize with others so long as they don’t have an ulterior motive, and the claimant who is looking for validators doesn’t have an ulterior motive.

They are asking their social network to do only two things:

  1. Make time for a two minute phone conversation where the claimant verbally tells someone in their social network “I am looking for work and would you be willing to receive an email that simply asks you to confirm we had this conversation?”
  2. Receive an email where they respond that yes the claimant did contact them stating they are currently conducting a job search.

They are not asking their social network to do the following:

  1. Assist the claimant in their job search.
  2. Vouch for the claimant by making any sort of affirmations as to the claimant’s character.
  3. Assert that they have any sort of significant connection to the claimant i.e. personal relationship.

The claimant’s genuine and simple demeanor is the key in their successful use of their own social capital. If you want someone to help you sometimes the best way is just to ask. It’s important to remember that a claimant looking for validators is not asking for a job or an endorsement. If they were doing this then yes that would be an awkward situation because you would be imposing upon people for more than just four minutes of their time. The people who will be most successful at using Dynamis to gain validators are the people who can be taught how to be believable when being direct.

If a validator can trust that they are only being asked to confirm that a claimant contacted them to say “I’m looking for work” then the validator’s job becomes easy. You can train people to be genuine and direct when something is easy to understand. Peer to peer insurance is complicated but telling someone “I am using this new insurance technology. Your response can confirm I am actively searching for work. When you respond my claim is paid,” is easy. Telling someone “your response lets the system know I am contacting people in my social network as part of my job search,” is easy. We can help educate people to communicate in a way that is believable, genuine, and direct. The truth is that the claimant is not imposing upon the validator by asking for help. If the claimant genuinely believes that they are not imposing upon the validator then their attitude will convey this and will influence the validator to conclude that there is no imposition. When the system works it really works although people need to get it.

A truly peer to peer future is a future where systems work to connect and empower people in ways we haven’t seen yet. As more Dapps and DAOs serve to connect people in ways that they had not experienced previously concepts such as Dynamis will become intuitively more believable and accessible. A validator doesn’t need to understand the complexities of peer to peer insurance but the simplicity of an email that directs them to select “yes I was contacted and yes this person is still looking for work.” In five years’ time this experience of an app that uses social media as an oracle will be so commonplace people won’t even have to think about it let alone question it. A text will arrive on their phone asking them to validate a fact concerning someone in their social network and with two swipes to the right the fact is confirmed, with two swipes to the left the fact is refuted and this will be happening a million times a day across thousands of apps. Like ‘Tinder’ for blockchains I suppose. It’s only difficult to make this transition in the beginning because people haven’t seen it yet. What Dynamis is doing won’t be hard to trust or understand it will become so commonplace you won’t need to trust or understand it.

Overcoming Social Stigmas - A Cruel Task Master or a Helpful Tool

Still why so many validators? Dynamis is asking people to contact 8+n connections per week where n is the number of weeks a claim has been opened. Five months is the maximum claim length without an extension which would result in a claimant contacting a total of 264 connections (see chart). I think having the right perspective is the key which changes Dynamis from being a cruel task master to being a helpful tool. Is Dynamis forcing people to have awkward conversations and to put themselves in a vulnerable position compelling them to speak to others or is Dynamis a helpful tool that empowers people and gives them permission to contact their own social network?

Ok so just maybe there might be a way of getting through the initial awkwardness if Dynamis could perhaps train people on the right approach to contact others in a pure, open, friendly and direct way. But what about the social stigma associated with being unemployed? Being unemployed and being unemployable are not the same thing. Fully participating in peer to peer technology requires a different mindset that is free from past stigmas. No one wants others to know they were fired or they quit before finding their next job or even that they were selected for a layoff but these events need not reflect poorly on our character. Given where peer to peer technologies are headed lets imagine a future where our character and our reputation are actually interrelated if not the same thing.

Reputation is simply a score, a single number or set of numbers that sums up all of our past interactions within a community. People then use this score as a rule of thumb when deciding if they want to purchase a product, go to a restaurant, trust a seller, receive a ride from an Uber driver and so forth. Having worked for the same company for 20 years is a sort of reputation score that defines the relationship between someone and their employer and tells you something about their character.

Can there be a single number which is an accurate rating of the effort put forth by someone to find a job? Could such a number be published which would then allow people to know the progress of one’s job search and the efforts someone has taken thus far and is still taking to find a job?

If we could publish such a value how would it impact:

  • Others perception of us
  • The way we contact people
  • Our own sense of self confidence
  • The stigma related to being unemployed

Stigmas surrounding months of unemployment can be reversed once we find a job and we are able to demonstrate something positive was accomplished during our time spent looking for work. There is no stigma associated with looking for work if you’re unemployed because looking for work is the right thing to do. The stigma people face is related to the fact that there is no way to prove if their current status is related to the condition of the job market or a lack of effort on their part to find and keep a job. This goes back to the difference between unemployed and unemployable.

But what if you could publish a number demonstrating your character during the course of your job search? One number that represents how your job search is progressing? What if you could prove to people you were looking for work wouldn’t they be less likely to have a critical opinion of your current status as unemployed? If Dynamis was a household name then someone’s association with an open claim could actually be that proof. In the not too distant future one might hear a friend say, “Oh you are using Dynamis? How is it going? 20 validators this week wow that seems like a lot any leads?” However I can imagine that most people’s initial negative reaction would sound something like, “Wow that company is actually making you beg 20 people for a job?”

I think you see my point. If you have a superficial understanding of Dynamis’s method of maintaining a claim then immediately you really hate it. Claim validation can either be a chore or it can be a tool. If I could be Dynamis’s first customer I would love to respond to the above negative reaction by saying, “Nope the opposite actually. My contact of people is proving I am doing something positive with my job search that I am actually moving forward by connecting with real people. I am not just submitting applications into the black hole but I am discussing my options and getting advice from people. Because I am happy, direct, and upbeat on the phone I do sometimes get some leads although I never expect any. Basically I couldn’t be any more positive about my prospects. Thanks to Dynamis this is the best experience of looking for work I’ve ever had.”

There will always be people who really don’t want everyone to know they are looking for work. This feeling may be normal today however we are not living in our parents’ generation. Many from my father’s generation had the same employer for decades. How often is this true anymore? Why then should there still be a stigma surrounding our employment status? Once this shift about people’s thinking concerning unemployment takes place Dynamis becomes a tool people can use to empower themselves. Whether someone is a victim of layoffs or decides to quit a job that they hated, Dynamis becomes a bridge of financial support and the platform by which their social network can become their most valuable resource so that they can find their next job.