Things as authorities
Authoritative automata often come in the form of what (on a computer) Mark Miller has dubbed an admonition system. An admonition system reminds a person of a plan or of a legal or ethical obligation. A clock, for example, can remind a person of a scheduled meeting, and a cash register communicates an obligation to pay.
With some extra security a device may also provide a strong affordance that requires the person to act purposefully to use it or to avoid using it, and may also gather evidence of such use or avoidance, as with tamper evidence. A locked door, for example, reminds a person about whether they have consent to enter, makes accidental entry effectively impossible, and often requires those who enter anyway to leave behind evidence of lock picking or forcible entry.
Some technologies create standards that we all come to follow, as in standard weights and measures. Old unforgeably costly standards, such as those of shells used in hunter-gatherer and Neolithic cultures and the gold standard used up to modern times, enabled the emergence of money to replace barter and other costly and inconvenient in-kind transactions. Physical standards provide objective, verifiable, and repeatable interactions with our physical environment and with each other.
When new kinds of authoritative automata are proposed, the robotic response of Hello Kitty people is that they are inflexible and impersonal and thus not to be trusted. The Roman playwright Plautus made fun of early complainer of this kind, a bum objecting to one of the earliest authoritative devices, the sundial:
The gods confound the man who first found outBut history teaches that it is the many people who act strategically against strangers who are not to be trusted. It is human preferences, not machines, that are unpredictable and incomparable, as well they should be. For coordinating our interactions with strangers, impartial automata are often crucial.
How to distinguish the hours. Confound him too,
Who in this place set up a sundial,
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small pieces! When I was a boy,
My belly was my sundial -- only surer,
Truer, and more exact than any of them.
This dial told me when 'twas the proper time
To go to dinner, when I ought to eat;
But nowadays, why even when I have,
I can't fall to unless the sun gives leave.
The town's so full of these confounded dials!
To what extent will computer algorithms come to serve as authorities? We've already seen one algorithm that has been in use for centuries: the adding algorithm in adding machines and cash registers. Some other authoritative algorithms have become crucial parts of the following:
(1) All the various protocols network applications use to talk to each other, such the web browser protocol you are probably using right now,
(2) The system that distributes domain names (the name of a web site found in an URL) and translate them to Internet protocol (IP) addresses -- albeit, not the ability to register domain names in the first place, which is still largely manual,
(3) Ranking algorithms such as Google page rank (for relevance based on a particular text search) and popularity ranking algorithms such as those used by Digg, Reddit, and the like,
(4) Payment systems, such as credit card processing and PayPal,
(5) Time distribution networks and protocols,
(6) The Global Positioning System (GPS) for determining location based on the time it takes radio signals to travel from a orbiting satellites, and
(7) A wide variety of other algorithms that many of us rely on to coordinate our activities.
Algorithms give us the potential of moving beyond the weak and reactive security of most physical devices to strong and often preventative security. Technologies such as digital signatures and mulitparty private computation may be used to implement things like unalterable audit trails, smart contracts, secure and owner-controlled property title registries, and so on. Bit gold, or property titles to unforgeably costly bits, might be possible. These automata will rely more on distribution and protocol security and less on trusted third parties than traditional authorities. There is a strong argument to be made that algorithmic authorities should be open source.
We've just scratched the surface of what secure authorities we can establish over computer networks. Such authorities will make it far easier for 6 billion plus strangers to interact with each other securely and reliably.