I remember being quite excited when I first read about Agoric Computing. From the authors' website:
Like all systems involving goals, resources, and actions, computation can be viewed in economic terms. This paper examines markets as a model for computation and proposes a framework--agoric systems--for applying the power of market mechanisms to the software domain. It then explores the consequences of this model and outlines initial market strategies.
Until today when Robin Hanson's blog post reminded me, I had forgotten that one of the authors of Agoric Computing is Eric Drexler, who also authored Comprehensive AI Services as General Intelligence, which has stirred a lot of recent discussions in the AI safety community. (One reason for my excitement was that I was going through a market-maximalist phase, due to influences from Vernor Vinge's anarcho-captalism, Tim May's crypto-anarchy, as well as a teacher who was a libertarian and a big fan of the Austrian school of economics.)
Here's a concrete way that Agoric Computing might work:
For concreteness, let us briefly consider one possible form of market-based system. In this system, machine resources-storage space, processor time, and so forth-have owners, and the owners charge other objects for use of these resources. Objects, in turn, pass these costs on to the objects they serve, or to an object representing the external user; they may add royalty charges, and thus earn a profit. The ultimate user thus pays for all the costs directly or indirectly incurred. If the ultimate user also owns the machine resources (and any objects charging royalties), then currency simply circulates inside the system, incurring computational overhead and (one hopes) providing information that helps coordinate computational activities.
When later it appeared as if Agoric Computing wasn't going to take over the world, I tried to figure out why, and eventually settled upon the answer that markets often don't align incentives correctly for maximum computing efficiency. For example, consider an object whose purpose is to hold onto some valuable data in the form of a lookup table and perform lookup services. For efficiency you might have only one copy of this object in a system, but that makes it a monopolist, so if the object is profit maximizing (e.g., running some algorithm that automatically adjusts prices so as to maximize profits) then it would end up charging an inefficiently high price. Objects that might use its services are incentivized to try to do without the data, or to maintain an internal cache of past data retrieved, even if that's bad for efficiency.
Suppose this system somehow came into existence anyway. A programmer would likely notice that it would be better if the lookup table and its callers were merged into one economic agent which would eliminate the inefficiencies described above, but then that agent would itself still be a monopolist (unless you inefficiently maintained multiple copies of it) so then they'd want to merge that agent with its callers, and so on.
My curiosity stopped at that point and I went on to other interests, but now I wonder if that is actually a correct understanding of why Agoric Computing didn't become popular. Does anyone have any insights to offer on this topic?
It seems like market forces could even actively damage existing cooperation. While I'm not terribly familiar with the details, I've heard complaints of this happening at one university that I know of. There's an internal market where departments need to pay for using spaces within the university building. As a result, rooms that would otherwise be used will sit empty because the benefit of paying the rent isn't worth it.
Possibly this is still overall worth it - the system increasing the amount of spare capacity means that there are more spaces available for when a department really does need a space - but people do seem to complain about it anyway.