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Blockchain technology and ethics

By Ben van Lier - Centric.

Ben van Lier
Ben van Lier
The US National Institute of Standards and Technology recently published a report entitled Blockchain Technology Overview [1]. The report starts with background on blockchain technology, saying that “the core ideas behind blockchain technology emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1989, Leslie Lamport developed the Paxos protocol, and in 1990 submitted the paper The Part-Time Parliament to ACM Transactions on Computer Systems; the paper was finally published in a 1998 issue” (2018:2). According to the authors of the NIST report, the model that Lamport developed was focused specifically on how networked computers reach consensus.

According to the authors, each instance where computers reach consensus through the use of algorithms and software that leads to the performance of a joint information transaction constitutes interaction between various parties. They write: “In practice, software handles everything and the user does not need to be aware of these details” (2018:18).

The possibilities offered by blockchain technology may have great impact on the further development of smart mobility as cars are becoming more and more autonomous, thanks to algorithms and software, in processing information transactions with different parties in a network. This also leads to the question whether, and if so how, ethical aspects play a role in the autonomous processing of these information transactions.

Smart mobility

At a meeting of the US-German standards panel in Berlin in April this year, Kuom [2] of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy dealt at length with the possible relationships between the development of the smart mobility concept and blockchain technology. In his presentation, he explained how German companies such as Daimler and BMW are exploring possibilities for the use and application of blockchain technology for things such as car sharing or access to various forms of transportation. Another focus point in these studies is parking, i.e. finding and paying for parking based on electronic booking and payment systems. He closed his introduction with the following words: “Mobility will change away from ownership-based models to service models in Blockchain in Smart Mobility” (2018).

In a blog post, Hacker Noon [3], too, writes about the potential of the combination of blockchain technology and smart mobility, highlighting the following case: “The latest example of this blockchain transparency across interactions is launched by Renault. The French automaker is piloting a digitized car maintenance program, which uses blockchain as a shared ledger to log all car repair and maintenance history in one place.”

In a working paper, Martin Gösele and Philipp Sandner [4] of the Frankfurt School Blockchain Center write the following about things such as car wallets and payments by cars: “With an integrated Wallet-App, cars are enabled to make payments on their own. With blockchain, payments concerning every aspect of the car’s mobility can be executed fast, secure and automatically.”

A report published by the Roland Berger consultancy firm [5] also draws attention to the combination of smart mobility and blockchain technology: “Blockchain Technology has clear applications in the area of secure communications, both vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-object. In the future, autonomous vehicles will communicate with other vehicles, traffic lights and other unauthenticated devices. One obvious use of blockchain is to secure this communication and ensure that it only occurs between relevant entities, so that it cannot be hacked into by unauthorized outsiders” (2018:12).

More autonomy

The examples mentioned here all work on the basis that when combined with an increasing number of algorithms and software, cars as physical devices will acquire increasing autonomy in performing operations and activities with other objects and with humans. The increasing autonomy of these cyber-physical systems enables them to, based on blockchain technology, reliably and transparently communicate with various parties and reach consensus with these parties on information transactions to perform. This does, however, mean that there needs to be mutual trust on the decision-making procedures to execute.


Connecting cars to networks in combination with smart algorithms and software creates increasing autonomy for those cars, turning them into cyber-physical systems that autonomously perform information transactions together with other systems. The joint decisions made based on algorithms and software prior to the information transactions ultimately impact on us as humans, which takes these decisions, according to Floridi [6], into the realm of the Ethics of Information. In his view, the world around us is increasingly developing into a “fully interactive and responsive environment of wireless, pervasive, distributed, a2a (anything to anything) information processes, that works a4a (anywhere for anytime), in real time” (2013:9). Floridi goes on to define a moral agent in this interactive world as “any interactive, autonomous and adaptable transition systems that can perform morally qualifiable actions” (2013: 135). Based on this description, cars as cyber-physical systems can, due to their increasing autonomy and intercommunication, interaction and transactions, also be considered moral agents. After all, developments are leading to these systems performing more and more operations or actions that can also be qualified as moral. These moral activities are the result of processes of complex communication, interaction and decision-making between systems that operate and collaborate in a distributed manner on a scale that is too great for any individual human to fathom.

The time may, therefore, have come for us to start thinking about a possible ethical framework, as I [7] have said previously, within which these autonomous systems can and are allowed to operate and make decisions independently. If we, for example, take our lead from Immanuel Kant’s [8] thinking, we can take a synthesis or convergence of reason (algorithms) and intuition (software) as the basis for the development of rules for these collaborating systems.

This basic synthesis enables us to better understand the new whole that is made up of the underlying components and their interrelationships that jointly make up the smart mobility concept. This understanding of how the new whole works is necessary to be able to gain a clear view of the potential impact of mutual collaboration and joint decision-making by cyber-physical systems. The basic synthesis, in turn, can be followed up with a new synthesis that, according to Kant, ensues from an amalgam of duty, will and autonomy. The need to perform a certain action is, according to Kant, based on the duty or practical compulsion that an individual cyber-physical system has or experiences and that drives it to perform actions within an interconnection with other systems. The duty of an individual cyber-physical system must, in Kant’s theory, be a practical and unconditional product of the necessary action.

According to Kant [9], the will of the system is its capacity to autonomously decide what the system will acknowledge or accept as good and its capability to implement the selected option. Morality, therefore, in Kant’s view, consists in the duty to perform activities or operations in relation to the will of the system to actually perform the selected operation. The basic synthesis of reason and intuition, and the trichotomy of duty, will and autonomy would have to apply to all interconnected cyber-physical systems that autonomously intercommunicate, interact, make decisions between them and perform information-based actions or operations.


The full scope of the possibilities of application of consensus algorithms and software is currently certainly not yet clear, but will undoubtedly extend far beyond the domain of cryptocurrencies. What is clear, however, is that consensus algorithms will help increase the autonomy of cyber-physical systems in independently and jointly performing operations or activities. Cyber-physical systems’ increasing level of autonomy triggers questions about the ethical aspects of the processes that lead to these decisions. Profound reflection on these (ethical) aspects can help us define the essence of this technology and its potential impact on us humans.

[1] Yaga, D., Mell, P., Roby, N., Scarfone, K. (2018) Blockchain Technology Overview. NISTIR 8202. https://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/ir/2018/NIST.IR.8202.pdf

[2] Kuom, M. (2018) Blockchains in Smart Mobility. US-German Standards Panel 2018. DLR Project Management Agency. Society, Innovation, Technology. Berlin, Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs.

[3] Blockchain DuDe - Blockchain Writing a New Chapter for Automotive Industries. https://hackernoon.com/blockchain-writing-a-new-chapter-for-automotive-industry-48a8151eec99

[4] Gösele, M and Sandner, P. (2018) Analysis of Blockchain Technology in the Mobility Sector. FSBC Working paper, April 2018. Sandner, P.

[5] Roland Berger Focus. September 2018. The blockchain bandwagon. Is it time for automotive companies to start investing seriously in blockchain?

[6] Floridi (2013) Ethics of Information. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199641321

[7] Lier, B. van (2018) Thinking about ecologies of autonomous cyber-physical systems and their ethics. Inaugural Lecture, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. ISBN

[8] Kant, I. (1781) Critique of Pure Reason. Dutch edition 2017. Translation Veenbaas, J. & Visser, W. Amsterdam Boom. ISBN 9789085060178

[9] Kant, I. (1785) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Dutch edition 2005. Translation Mertens, T. Amsterdam, Boom uitgeverij. ISBN 90 53522484

Ben van Lier works at Centric as Director Strategy & Innovation and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.

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Mercredi 19 Décembre 2018

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