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The Daily

Firm Staffed Entirely By Robots Raises $130 Million

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jun 1, 2016

Robot_financePerhaps we humans have been thinking of the robot uprising the wrong way. From Terminator to I Robot to The Matrix, the day the machines turn against their masters has always been conceived of as a military conflict, one that pits squishy humans against hordes of implacable death robots. But a new startup already attracting serious investment dollars raises the possibility that the human-machine war may not be fought through tanks and guns but through banks and funds. What if humans aren't destroyed in the end but simply out-competed? 

There is a company right now that has raised over $130 million in funding: a venture capital firm that literally runs itself. There is no CEO, no CFO, no board of directors, no managers senior or otherwise, no entry-level staff--in fact, no humans at all, according to Quartz. Called the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO), it is coded with only one imperative: maximize value. Those with stakes in the company vote democratically on proposals like asset allocation, and the autonomous company does the rest. Gone is the adversarial relationship between shareholders and management, because there is no management. Gone is internal fraud risk because why would a computer steal money for itself when it doesn't even have a definable "self" in the first place? Gone is human error in operations, because there are no humans. For that matter, this also means no human resources issues. 

Of course, while internal fraud risk is gone, IT risk would be ramped up--indeed, the company itself would practically be made out of IT risk. While shareholders and management would no longer be at odds, shareholders would likely get into contentious arguments over the best course of action. And while human error would be eliminated operationally, the humans telling the company what to do are likely not omniscient and will probably make at least a few bad calls. 

On this last point The Economist notes that similar schemes have run into problems in the past. Proposals take time and energy to consider, it said, which hampered participation from stakeholders. There's also the matter of capital flight: The Economist pointed out that investors can withdraw their money instantly if it's not yet committed to a project, meaning that its fortunes might be a little volatile. 

Another issue to consider is that it makes its investments using a crypto-currency called Ether, a competitor to the more popular Bitcoin that operates on what it calls "smart contracts," agreements enabled and enforced via block chain technology. Like all digital currencies, converting it into sovereign currencies can be a little more challenging than converting one sovereign currency to another. This may limit its applications in the mainstream finance world, though as digital currencies pick up steam and offer more options, this may not be a long-term concern. 

But DAO may also face legal and regulatory risk. A business attorney writes in an opinion piece that the way the company is structured may mean it's not technically a legal actor. If DAO is ever sued, he said, just who exactly will the plaintiff target? If it goes bankrupt, who is liable? An article in American Banker also points out that, with no humans involved in the company, a lot of the protections corporations have under the law wouldn't apply to DAO. 

The American Banker article also raises the possibility that the entire first round of funding may be illegal: its initial round of investment consisted of swapping "DAO Tokens" in exchange for Ether, establishing its initial funding base. This, said the American Banker, looks an awful lot like selling securities to raise funds from unaccredited investors, which is illegal. While the offer explicitly said the tokens do not represent equity in any organization, it does allow people to vote on decisions, and get rewards if those decisions bear fruit. If it's not a security, it's something that bears such a resemblance to a security that regulators like the SEC or CFTC may become very interested in this nascent company. 

But maybe regulators just need to catch up. While DAO is certainly an extreme example, computers have been taking up increasing space in what had previously been a human-dominated finance sector. High-frequency trading, for example, now makes up 75 percent of all market volume, according to Fortune. An article in Law360 said that 70 percent of all futures trading is done electronically as well. A joint report from the New York Fed, Federal Reserve Board, SEC and CFTC said that on a normal day 50 percent of "total trading in both the cash and futures markets" in U.S. treasuries is done by firms that engage almost exclusively in high-frequency trading. 

Financial advising is another area where machines are increasingly replacing humans. A study by Deloitte said that the top 11 robo-advisor firms had about $19 billion in assets under management. While this is anemic compared to the more than $25 trillion in retail investable assets in the U.S., it noted that the sector is growing fast: 65 percent from the end of the first quarter to the end of the last in 2014. With major players now entering the arena, the Deloitte report said it will play a disruptive role in the industry. The Washington Post cited a study saying that said by 2020 robo-advisors will have over $2.2 trillion in assets under management. 

For now, though, humans remain an integral part of the economy. All these trades and investments still ultimately come down to an application of muscle, bone and brain somewhere down the line. Even if that application is simply to press the "on" button. But perhaps, with an eye toward the future, it may be prudent to start investing in canned food, bottled water, and wilderness survival guides. Just in case