The Truth about Smart Contracts

We all know that the key feature of a smart contract is that it has trustless execution. That is, you don’t need to rely on a third party to execute various conditions. Instead of relying on the other party to make good on their word or even worse, relying on lawyers and the legal system to remedy things should something go wrong, a smart contract executes what’s supposed to happen timely and objectively.

However, smart contracts are pretty dumb. The use of the word “smart” implies that these contracts have some innate intelligence. They don’t. The smart part of the contract is in not needing the other party’s cooperation to execute the agreement. Instead of having to kick out the renters that aren’t paying, a “smart” contract would lock the non-paying renters out of their apartment.

It’s Hard to Get the Security Right

Further, smart contracts are really hard. Because of a lot of centralized marketing from Ethereum, there’s a mistaken belief that Smart Contracts only exist in Ethereum. This is not true. Bitcoin has had, from the very beginning in 2009, a pretty extensive smart contract language called Script. In fact, smart contracts existed before Bitcoin as far back as 1995. The difference between Bitcoin’s smart contract language and Ethereum’s is that Ethereum’s is Turing-complete. That is, Solidity (ETH’s smart contract language) allows for more complicated contracts at the expense of making them more difficult to analyze.

There are some significant consequences of complexity. While complex contracts can allow for more complicated situations, a complex contract is also very difficult to secure. Even in normal contracts, the more complicated the contract it is, the harder it gets to enforce as complications add more uncertainty and room for interpretation. With smart contracts, security means handling every possible way in which a contract could get executed and making sure that the contract does what the authors intend.

Execution in a Turing-complete context is extremely tricky and hard to analyze. Securing a Turing-complete smart contract becomes the equivalent of proving that a computer program does not have bugs. We know this is very difficult, as nearly every computer program in existence has bugs.

Smart Contracts Only Work With Digital Bearer Instruments

Perhaps most importantly, smart contracts only work with digital bearer instruments. In a decentralized context, smart contracts only work if there’s some definitive link between the digital version and the physical version. That is, whenever the digital version of the house changes ownership the physical version has to also change ownership. There’s a need for the digital world to “know” about the physical world. This is known as the “Oracle problem”.

For example, a house could be represented as a non-fungible token on Ethereum. Alice could transfer the house to Bob in an atomic swap for some amount of ETH. Here’s the problem. Bob needs to trust that the token actually represents the house. There has to be some Oracle that ensures the transfer of the house token to him actually means that the house is his legally. Furthermore, even if a government authority says that the token actually represents the house, what then happens if the token is stolen? Does the house now belong to the thief? What if the token is lost? Is the house not available to be sold anymore? Can the house token be re-issued? If so, by whom?

There is an intractable problem in linking a digital to a physical asset whether it be fruit, cars or houses at least in a decentralized context. Physical assets are regulated by the jurisdiction you happen to be in and this means they are in a sense trusting something in addition to the smart contract you’ve created. This means that possession in a smart contract doesn’t necessarily mean possession in the real world and suffers from the same trust problem as normal contracts. A smart contract that trusts a third party removes the killer feature of trustlessness.

Even digital assets like ebooks, health records or movies suffer from the same problem. The “rights” to these these digital assets are ultimately decided by some other authority and an Oracle needs to be trusted.

The only things that can work without an Oracle are digital bearer instruments. Essentially, both sides of the trade need to not just be digital, but be bearer instruments. That is, ownership of the token cannot have dependencies outside of the smart contracting platform. Only when a smart contract has digital bearer instruments can a smart contract really be trustless.

Source: Jimmy Song, via Medium

View at Medium.com

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