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[liberationtech] Zenroom: a VM for smart contracts in human language

Jaromil jaromil at
Thu Feb 28 09:21:08 PST 2019

dear readers,

hoping is of interest for the good folks here, I'm sharing with you a
milestone we have reached in the DECODE European flagship research
project on blockchain technologies with the succesful implementation
(next week entering BETA stage) of a small, compact and free software
VM that can process advanced cryptographic transformations (elliptic
curve, pair based as well) expressed in human language, starting from

Here is a blog post about it

here is the software

We are about to make a new release this weekend and start real-world
pilot experiments in cooperation with the city of Barcelona, running
citizen petitions.

For me this has been a fantastic journey so far, I've dedicated myself
fully to writing this software for the past year and a half and with
colleagues at we are now uncertain about claiming its the
first crypto VM capable of processing human language as code. I'd be
grateful to anyone providing pointers to similar efforts in teh
history of distributed computing.

Here below a few words on the motivation, looking forward to reactions
here or in private.

# For the awareness of algorithms

The goal of this task is ultimately that of realizing a simple,
non-technical, human-readable language for smart-rules that are
actually executed in a verifiable and provable manner within the
Zenroom controlled execution environment.

To articulate the importance of this quest and the relevance of the
results presented, which I believe to be unique in the landscape of
blockchain smart-contract languages, is important to remind us of the
condition in which most people find themselves when participating in
the regime of truth that is built by algorithms.

As the demand and production of well-connected vessels for the digital
dimension has boomed, machine-readable code today functions as a
literature informing the architecture in which human interactions
happens and decisions are taken. The telematic condition is realised
by an integrated datawork continuously engaging the observer as a
participant. Such a "Gesamtdatenwerk" (Ascott, 1990) may seem an
abstract architecture, yet it can be deeply binding under legal,
ethical and moral circumstances.

The comprehension of algorithms, the awareness of the way decisions
are formulated, the implications of their execution, is not just a
technical condition, but a political one, for which access to
information cannot be just considered a feature, but a civil right
(Pelizza and Kuhlmann, 2017). It is important to understand this in
relation to the "classical" application of algorithms executed in a
centralized manner, but even more in relation to distributed computing
scenarios posed by blockchain technologies, which theorize a future in
which rules and contracts are executed irrevocably and without
requiring any human agency.

The legal implications with regards to standing rights and liabilities
are out of the scope here, while the focus is on ways humans, even
when lacking technical literacy, can be made aware of what an
algorithm does. Is it possible to establish the ground for a shared
language that informs digital architects about their choices and
inhabitants about the digital territory? Going past assumptions about
the strong role algorithms have in governance and accountability
(Diakopoulos, 2016), how can we inform digital citizens about their

When describing the virtualisation of economic activity in the global
context, Saskia Sassen describes the need we are observing as that of
an analytical vocabulary:

  The third component in the new geography of power is the growing
  importance of electronic space. There is much to be said on this
  issue. Here, I can isolate one particular matter: the distinctive
  challenge that the virtualization of a growing number of economic
  activities presents not only to the existing state regulatory
  apparatus, but also to private-sector institutions increasingly
  dependent on the new technologies. Taken to its extreme, this may
  signal a control crisis in the making, one for which we lack an
  analytical vocabulary.(Sassen, 1996)

The analysis of legal texts and regulations here shifts into an
entirely new domain; it has to refer to conditions that only
algorithms can help build or destroy. Thus, referring to this
theoretical framework, the research and development of a free and open
source language that is intellegible to humans becomes of crucial
importance and, from an ethical standing point, DECODE as many other
projects in the same space cannot be exempted from addressing it.

When we consider algorithms as contracts regulating relationships
(between humans, between humans and nature and, nowadays more
increasingly, between different contexts of nature itself) then we
should adopt a representation that is close to how the human mind
works and that is directly connected to the language adopted. Since
algorithms are the systemic product of complex relationships between
contracts and relevant choices made by standing actors (Monico, 2014),
the ability to verify which algorithms are in place for a certain
result to be visualised becomes very important and should be embedded
in every application: to understand and communicate what algorithms
and to describe and experiment their repercussions on reality.

more reasoning along these lines and from many different European
researchers can be read on


  Denis "Jaromil" Roio think &do tank
  Ph.D, CTO & co-founder    software to empower communities
  ✉ Haparandadam 7-A1, 1013AK Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  ✩ Profile and publications:
  𝄞 crypto κρυπτο крипто गुप्त् 加密 האנוסים المشفره
  ⚷ 6113D89C A825C5CE DD02C872 73B35DA5 4ACB7D10

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