DAOs, DACs, DAs and More: An Incomplete Terminology Guide

One of the most popular topics in the digital consensus space (a new term for cryptocurrency 2.0 that I’m beta-testing) is the concept of decentralized autonomous entities. There are now a number of groups rapidly getting involved in the space, including Bitshares (also known as Invictus Innovations) developing “decentralized autonomous companies”, BitAngels’ David Johnston with decentralized applications, our own concept of decentralized autonomous corporations which has since transformed into the much more general and not necessarily financial “decentralized autonomous organizations” (DAOs); all in all, it is safe to say that “DAOism” is well on its way to becoming a quasi-cyber-religion. However, one of the hidden problems lurking beneath the space is a rather blatant one: no one even knows what all of these invididual terms mean. What exactly is a decentralized organization, what is the difference between an organization and an application, and what even makes something autonomous in the first place? Many of us have been frustrated by the lack of coherent terminology here; as Bitshares’ Daniel Larimer points out, “everyone thinks a DAC is just a way of IPOing your centralized company.” The intent of this article will be to delve into some of these concepts, and see if we can come up with at least the beginnings of a coherent understanding of what all of these things actually are.

Smart contracts

A smart contract is the simplest form of decentralized automation, and is most easily and accurately defined as follows: a smart contract is a mechanism involving digital assets and two or more parties, where some or all of the parties put assets in and assets are automatically redistributed among those parties according to a formula based on certain data that is not known at the time the contract is initiated.

One example of a smart contract would be an employment agreement: A wants to pay $500 to B to build a website. The contract would work as follows: A puts $500 into the contract, and the funds are locked up. When B finishes the website, B can send a message to the contract asking to unlock the funds. If A agrees, the funds are released. If B decides not to finish the website, B can quit by sending a message to relinquish the funds. If B claims that he finished the website, but A does not agree, then after a 7-day waiting period it’s up to judge J to provide a verdict in A or B’s favor.

The key property of a smart contract is simple: there is only a fixed number of parties. The parties do not all have to be known at initialization-time; a sell order, where A offers to sell 50 units of asset A to anyone who can provide 10 units of asset B, is also a smart contract. Smart contracts can run on forever; hedging contracts and escrow contracts are good examples there. However, smart contracts that run on forever should still have a fixed number of parties (eg. an entire decentralized exchange is not a smart contract), and contracts that are not intended to exist forever are smart contracts because existing for a finite time necessarily implies the involvement of a finite number of parties.

Note that there is one gray area here: contracts which are finite on one side, but infinite on the other side. For example, if I want to hedge the value of my digital assets, I might want to create a contract where anyone can freely enter and leave. Hence, the other side of the contract, the parties that are speculating on the asset at 2x leverage, has an unbounded number of parties, but my side of the contract does not. Here, I propose the following divide: if the side with a bounded number of parties is the side that intends to receive a specific service (ie. is a consumer), then it is a smart contract; however, if the side with a bounded number of parties is just in it for profit (ie. is a producer), then it is not.

Autonomous Agents

Autonomous agents are on the other side of the automation spectrum; in an autonomous agent, there is no necessary specific human involvement at all; that is to say, while some degree of human effort might be necessary to build the hardware that the agent runs on, there is no need for any humans to exist that are aware of the agent’s existence. One example of an autonomous agent that already exists today would be a computer virus; the virus survives by replicating itself from machine to machine without deliberate human action, and exists almost as a biological organism. A more benign entity would be a decentralized self-replicating cloud computing service; such a system would start off running an automated business on one virtual private server, and then once its profits increase it would rent other servers and install its own software on them, adding them to its network.

A full autonomous agent, or a full artificial intelligence, is the dream of science fiction; such an entity would be able to adjust to arbitrary changes in circumstances, and even expand to manufacture the hardware needed for its own sustainability in theory. Between that, and single purpose agents like computer viruses, is a large range of possibilities, on a scale which can alternatively be described as intelligence or versatility. For example, the self-replicating cloud service, in its simplest form, would only be able to rent servers from a specific set of providers (eg. Amazon, Microtronix and Namecheap). A more complex version, however, should be able to figure out how to rent a server from any provider given only a link to its website, and then use any search engine to locate new websites (and, of course, new search engines in case Google fails). The next level from there would involve upgrading its own software, perhaps using evolutionary algorithms, or being able to adapt to new paradigms of server rental (eg. make offers for ordinary users to install its software and earn funds with their desktops), and then the penultimate step consists of being able to discover and enter new industries (the ultimate step, of course, is generalizing completely into a full AI).

Autonomous agents are some of the hardest things to create, because in order to be successful they need to be able to navigate in an environment that is not just complicated and rapidly changing, but also hostile. If a web hosting provider wants to be unscrupulous, they might specifically locate all instances of the service, and then replace them with nodes that cheat in some fashion; an autonomous agent must be able to detect such cheating and remove or at least neutralize cheating nodes from the system.

Decentralized Applications

A decentralized application is similar to a smart contract, but different in two key ways. First of all, a decentralized application has an unbounded number of participants on all sides of the market. Second, a decentralized application need not be necessarily financial. Because of this second requirement, decentralized applications are actually some of the easiest things to write (or at least, were the easiest before generalized digital consensus platforms came along). For example, BitTorrent qualifies as a decentralized application, as do Popcorn Time, BitMessage, Tor and Maidsafe (note that Maidsafe is also itself a platform for other decentralized applications).

Generally, decentralized applications fall into two classes, likely with a substantial gray area between the two. The first class is a fully anonymous decentralized application. Here, it does not matter who the nodes are; every participant is essentially anonymous and the system is made up of a series of instant atomic interactions. BitTorrent and BitMessage are examples of this. The second class is a reputation-based decentralized application, where the system (or at least nodes in the system) keep track of nodes, and nodes maintain status inside of the application with a mechanism that is purely maintained for the purpose of ensuring trust. Status should not be transferable or have de-facto monetary value. Maidsafe is an example of this. Of course, purity is impossible – even a BitTorrent-like system needs to have peers maintain reputation-like statistics of other peers for anti-DDoS purposes; however, the role that these statistics play is purely in the background and very limited in scope.

An interesting gray area between decentralized applications and “something else” is applications like Bitcoin and Namecoin; these differ from traditional applications because they create ecosystems and there is a concept of virtual property that has value inside the context of this ecosystem, in Bitcoin’s case bitcoins and in Namecoin’s case namecoins and domain names. As we’ll see below, my classification of decentralized autonomous organizations touches on such concepts, and it is not quite clear exactly where they sit.

Decentralized Organizations

In general, a human organization can be defined as combination of two things: a set of property, and a protocol for a set of individuals, which may or may not be divided into certain classes with different conditions for entering or leaving the set, to interact with each other including rules for under what circumstances the individuals may use certain parts of the property. For example, consider a simple corporation running a chain of stores. The corporation has three classes of members: investors, employees and customers. The membership rule for investors is that of a fixed-size (or optionally quorum-adjustable size) slice of virtual property; you buy some virtual property to get in, and you become an investor until you sell your shares. Employees need to be hired by either investors or other employees specifically authorized by investors (or other employees authorized by other employees authorized by investors, and so on recursively) to participate, and can also be fired in the same way, and customers are an open-membership system where anyone can freely interact with the store in the obvious officially sanctioned way for any time. Suppliers, in this model, are equivalent to employees. A nonprofit charity has a somewhat different structure, involving donors and members (charity recipients may or may not be considered members; the alternative view sees the positive increments in the recipients’ welfare as being the charity’s “product”).

The idea of a decentralized organization takes the same concept of an organization, and decentralizes it. Instead of a hierarchical structure managed by a set of humans interacting in person and controlling property via the legal system, a decentralized organization involves a set of humans interacting with each other according to a protocol specified in code, and enforced on the blockchain. A DO may or may not make use of the legal system for some protection of its physical property, but even there such usage is secondary. For example, one can take the shareholder-owned corporation above, and transplant it entirely on the blockchain; a long-running blockchain-based contract maintains a record of each individual’s holdings of their shares, and on-blockchain voting would allow the shareholders to select the positions of the board of directors and the employees. Smart property systems can also be integrated into the blockchain directly, potentially allowing DOs to control vehicles, safety deposit boxes and buildings.

Decentralized Autonomous Organizations

Here, we get into what is perhaps the holy grail, the thing that has the murkiest definition of all: decentralized autonomous organizations, and their corporate subclass, decentralized autonomous corporations (or, more recently, “companies”). The ideal of a decentralized autonomous organization is easy to describe: it is an entity that lives on the internet and exists autonomously, but also heavily relies on hiring individuals to perform certain tasks that the automaton itself cannot do.

Given the above, the important part of the definition is actually to focus on what a DAO is not, and what is not a DAO and is instead either a DO, a DA or an automated agent/AI. First of all, let’s consider DAs. The main difference between a DA and a DAO is that a DAO has internal capital; that is, a DAO contains some kind of internal property that is valuable in some way, and it has the ability to use that property as a mechanism for rewarding certain activities. BitTorrent has no internal property, and Bitcloud/Maidsafe-like systems have reputation but that reputation is not a saleable asset. Bitcoin and Namecoin, on the other hand, do. However, plain old DOs also have internal capital, as do autonomous agents.

Second, we can look at DOs. The obvious difference between a DO and a DAO, and the one inherent in the language, is the word “autonomous”; that is, in a DO the humans are the ones making the decisions, and a DAO is something that, in some fashion, makes decisions for itself. This is a surprisingly tricky distinction to define because, as dictatorships are always keen to point out, there is really no difference between a certain set of actors making decisions directly and that set of actors controlling all of the information through which decisions are made. In Bitcoin, a 51% attack between a small number of mining pools can make the blockchain reverse transactions, and in a hypothetical decentralized autonomous corporation the providers of the data inputs can all collude to make the DAC think that sending all of its money to 1FxkfJQLJTXpW6QmxGT6oF43ZH959ns8Cq constitutes paying for a million nodes’ worth of computing power for ten years. However, there is obviously a meaningful distinction between the two, and so we do need to define it.

My own effort at defining the difference is as follows. DOs and DAOs are both vulnerable to collusion attacks, where (in the best case) a majority or (in worse cases) a significant percentage of a certain type of members collude to specifically direct the D*O’s activity. However, the difference is this: in a DAO collusion attacks are treated as a bug, whereas in a DO they are a feature. In a democracy, for example, the whole point is that a plurality of members choose what they like best and that solution gets executed; in Bitcoin’s on the other hand, the “default” behavior that happens when everyone acts according to individual interest without any desire for a specific outcome is the intent, and a 51% attack to favor a specific blockchain is an aberration. This appeal to social consensus is similar to the definition of a government: if a local gang starts charging a property tax to all shopowners, it may even get away with it in certain parts of the world, but no significant portion of the population will treat it as legitimate, whereas if a government starts doing the same the public response will be tilted in the other direction.

Bitcoin is an interesting case here. In general, it seems to be much closer to a DAO than a DO. However, there was one incident in 2013 where the reality proved to be rather different. What happened was that an exceptional block was (at least we hope) accidentally produced, which was treated as valid according to the BitcoinQt 0.8 clients, but invalid according to the rules of BitcoinQt 0.7. The blockchain forked, with some nodes following the blockchain after this exceptional block (we’ll call this chain B1), and the other nodes that saw that block as invalid working on a separate blockchain (which we’ll call B2). Most mining pools had upgraded to BitcoinQt 0.8, so they followed B1, but most users were still on 0.7 and so followed B2. The mining pool operators came together on IRC chat, and agreed to switch their pools to mining on B2, since that outcome would be simpler for users because it would not require them to upgrade, and after six hours the B2 chain overtook B1 as a result of this deliberate action, and B1 fell away. Thus, in this case, there was a deliberate 51% attack which was seen by the community as legitimate, making Bitcoin a DO rather than a DAO. In most cases, however, this does not happen, so the best way to classify Bitcoin would be as a DAO with an imperfection in its implementation of autonomy.

However, others are not content to classify Bitcoin as a DAO, because it is not really smart enough. Bitcoin does not think, it does not go out and “hire” people with the exception of the mining protocol, and it follows simple rules the upgrading process for which is more DO-like than DAO-like. People with this view would see a DAO as something that has a large degree of autonomous intelligence of its own. However, the issue with this view is that there must be a distinction made between a DAO and an AA/AI. The distinction here is arguably this: an AI is completely autonomous, whereas a DAO still requires heavy involvement from humans specifically interacting according to a protocol defined by the DAO in order to operate. We can classify DAOs, DOs (and plain old Os), AIs and a fourth category, plain old robots, according to a good old quadrant chart, with another quadrant chart to classify entities that do not have internal capital thus altogether making a cube:

DAOs == automation at the center, humans at the edges. Thus, on the whole, it makes most sense to see Bitcoin and Namecoin as DAOs, albeit ones that barely cross the threshold from the DA mark. The other important distinction is internal capital; a DAO without internal capital is a DA and an organization without internal capital is a forum; the G8, for example, would qualify as a forum. DCs in the graph above are “decentralized communities”; an example of that might be something like a decentralized Reddit, where there is a decentralized platform, but there is also a community around that platform, and it is somewhat ambiguous whether the community or the protocol is truly “in charge”.

Decentralized Autonomous Corporations

Decentralized autonomous corporations/companies are a smaller topic, because they are basically a subclass of DAOs, but they are worth mentioning. Since the main exponent of DAC as terminology is Daniel Larimer, we will borrow as a definition the point that he himself consistently promotes: a DAC pays dividends. That is, there is a concept of shares in a DAC which are purchaseable and tradeable in some fashion, and those shares potentially entitle their holders to continual receipts based on the DAC’s success. A DAO is non-profit; though you can make money in a DAO, the way to do that is by participating in its ecosystem and not by providing investment into the DAO itself. Obviously, this distinction is a murky one; all DAOs contain internal capital that can be owned, and the value of that internal capital can easily go up as the DAO becomes more powerful/popular, so a large portion of DAOs are inevitably going to be DAC-like to some extent.

Thus, the distinction is more of a fluid one and hinges on emphasis: to what extent are dividends the main point, and to what extent is it about earning tokens by participation? Also, to what extent does the concept of a “share” exist as opposed to simple virtual property? For example, a membership on a nonprofit board is not really a share, because membership frequently gets granted and confiscated at will, something which would be unacceptable for something classified as investable property, and a bitcoin is not a share because a bitcoin does not entitle you to any claim on profits or decision-making ability inside the system, whereas a share in a corporation definitely is a share. In the end, perhaps the distinction might ultimately be the surprisingly obscure point of whether or not the profit mechanism and the consensus mechanism are the same thing.

The above definitions are still not close to complete; there will likely be gray areas and holes in them, and exactly what kind of automation a DO must have before it becomes a DAO is a very hard question to answer. Additionally, there is also the question of how all of these things should be built. An AI, for example, should likely exist as a network of private servers, each one running often proprietary local code, whereas a DO should be fully open source and blockchain-based. Between those two extremes, there is a large number of different paradigms to pursue. How much of the intelligence should be in the core code? Should genetic algorithms be used for updating code, or should it be futarchy or some voting or vetting mechanism based on individuals? Should membership be corporate-style, with sellable and transferable shares, or nonprofit-style, where members can vote other members in and out? Should blockchains be proof of work, proof of stake, or reputation-based? Should DAOs try to maintain balances in other currencies, or should they only reward behavior by issuing their own internal token? These are all hard problems and we have only just begun scratching the surface of them.


  1. What would be much more insightful is the study of human organization that exists today: among other things cooperations and nation states. These entities are study in economics and political theory. Then there is not so much confusion, because we might realize how the future is an extension of the past, and not a random assembly of ideas.

    • This classification specifically talks about the extent of automation in organizational structures. Classification of organizational structures themselves is, of course, a very useful task, but one that is orthogonal to classifying the level of automation. Theoretically, corporations, governments, cooperatives, nonprofits, etc can all be fully or partially automated, though some are simpler to do than others. You notice I basically lumped Mondragon and the Chinese Communist Party into the same box here (“boring old organizations”), so that should show clearly which set of differences I’m targeting.

  2. To expand: what is totally missing here is that we already have virtual autonomous agents. They are called cooperations and created by governments. Google is amorphous blob of people, computers and ideas which only exists as a database entry in a LLC register. Google Inc. has to answer in court for the action of management and employees. This kind of system has been in place since the beginnings of join-stock owernship. Thus, this is where all the confusion arises from – a misunderstanding of social systems, and the potential new role of computers for intermediating those relationships.

    • What you are describing is the general concept of an “emergent entity”, which I agree is a very old and powerful idea, and I would even say it does not depend on government classification in order to exist. The thing is, all 8 boxes I outlined above are emergent entities of some form. Google is an organization in this classification, not an autonomous agent, because (1) the work is done by people, and (2) the management is done by people. Something like Uber, on the other hand, I would place halfway between an organization and a DAO (although it’s not decentralized) because the primary decision-making process, the matching of drivers with passengers, is done automatically, though not all aspects follow that model.

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  4. The section on DACs is lacking some perspective that is critical.

    1) Assumption that equity gains are the same thing as profitability, after all it could just mean the dollar is falling in value.
    2) Assumption that whether your call it an organization or a company, it must produce more value than it consumes
    3) How can you measure whether it is producing more value than it is consuming? This is a difference between ‘perceived value of a token increasing’ and the act of ‘selling a service for a profit’ are independent as Bitcoin proves, the value of the token is increasing despite clear destruction of $500M per year by miners. If you divided that $500M among those actually using the service it comes out to about $5 per transaction.
    4) This statement is telling “to what extent are dividends the main point, and to what extent is it about earning tokens by participation?” The question that must be asked is *who* is paying people for participation and what value did they provide for participating? It comes down to the organization issuing tokens that are supposed to have VALUE and then constantly transferring value from those who they have already issued tokens to new users. You can call them tokens, take the perspective of the miners as ‘earners’ but it still ignores the reality that someone must pay so others may earn.

    • You’re applying legal terms to Bitcoin, but they should be clearly seperated. Bitcoin is not an equity contract – not as we know them. Before Bitcoin contracts required higher authorities for enforcement. But the Bitcoin system does not have legal recourse, which is the crucial defect in the DAC idea. You have to be able to measure income. That’s impossible, because in Bitcoin any income can easily be re-routed to a different address. Corporations are funds of money, so that the portions are seperated equally according to their agreement. For this reason DAC’s will not work, not unless you have a lot of other things. We’re very far away from any such systems.

      • ‘share’ is not a legal term and existed prior to governments defining legal terms. A ‘share’ is a concept. Ignore the terms, create klingon words for them and instead focus on the meanings.

        A DAC can measure income from transaction fees (clearly possible). I made a point that what makes a DAC different from a ‘corporation’ is that they can hold no secrets or foreign assets outside of the entries on its own ledger and any value the market happens to place on those entires.

        A DAC is not an equity contract either because there is no trusted parties holding assets and making decisions on behalf of the shareholders and hence no contract… except perhaps a social contract like bitcoin has.

    • > How can you measure whether it is producing more value than it is consuming?

      I believe this is probably the single most fundamental hard problem of economics, specifically once public goods are taken into account (note that under this condition, “socially useful” and “profitable” are NOT necessary synonymous). A closed-form solution is literally worth trillions of dollars to society.

      • Actually, sorry, it’s one of the two fundamental hard problems. The second hard problem is, knowing that something is good, figuring out how to incentivize it.

  5. There is no objective unit of value and thus it is not just hard, but logically impossible to calculate value outside of individual profit. In other words a DAC must rake in more fees than it pays out to operate.

    Now if you design a DAC with no rewards what so-ever and no fees then you end up with spam. If you have just enough fees to prevent spam and you destroy 100% of them (Ripple) then that is perhaps the most profitable model… except some costs are still externalized such as bandwidth, storage, and sever time. Presumably people pay these costs automatically so they don’t have to be factored into the bottom line because the service is its own reward.

    I would claim that ‘unprofitable’ is not socially useful because it means that society put more resources into something than it got out and thus the overall size of the pie shrunk. Also note that the only way to sustain a system with profit is donation or theft. Donations are not sustainable and theft is not moral.

    • I still don’t understand your reasoning with DAC’s versus Bitcoin (and Bitshares). Bitcoin is more like a club, producing money and using that money. In my mind a DAC would produce any product (preferably online, which makes it much easier). My problem with Bitshares, ethereum and especially Ripple is that there is a larger group around the currency which has special interest (with varying degrees). Bitcoin is much more P2P in this sense, although far from perfect. In Bitcoin anyone can contribute – there is no center. In the corporate model there is a center. Not everyone can make major design decisions. Information is more private than public. I think there is something about the founder staying pseudonymous. It strongly highlights the belief in code and ideas rather than people. The more corporate projects seem constantly having to prove their trust-worthiness with promises, trying to convince the public with marketing. Bitcoin was released as source only, and there was never any promise made.

    • > There is no objective unit of value


      Suppose there exist 1 million farmers, and we know that there exists an opportunity to do scientific research on fertilizers in order to increase each of their profitability by $1. Because of the specific nature of this research project, we know for a fact that it will cost $100000 and it will increase the productivity of crops by an amount which, based on known market values, provided the benefit of $1 per person. There is also no way to prevent the results of the research from being quickly spread around once even one farmer has access to it. Thus, this research is clearly socially beneficial ($1000000 – $100000 = +$900000), but the problem is that no individual farmer has sufficient incentive to pay for it. Hence, things can be socially useful without there being any profitable business model around them, and so it is possible to generate social value without that value turning into monetary profit for anyone. So you can’t really use the economic calculation problem to claim that “you can’t really tell” if something is a net good or not; quite often econometric surveys, prediction markets and if you want to get really formal voluntary exclusion experiments work just fine.

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  11. I am not sure why an AI is considered to be the “Holy Grail” in this discussion, unless your idea of Holy is an intelligence completely devoid of life. Why would we as humans desire an actor or entity that has no human input? Humans and other living organisms ought to always be at the center since any organization or intelligence should necessarily serve life. The fact that humans are still required to make Bitcoin run is not a design flaw. I like the idea of robots performing tasks so we don’t have to, but humans should still control the off switch and make important decisions. I see a role for DAOism to eliminate gatekeepers and middlemen, but the Holy Grail is a world devoid of governments so humans can cooperate freely and use technology to establish consensual resource distribution, reputation based trust systems, and consensual defense and emergency response services. I don’t see how an AI plays a positive role in such a scenario.

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