Wet Code: an illustration

Engineers and lawyers look at rules, definitions, and meaning very differently; the majority of my effort at the moment is dedicated to bridging the gap. Part of this arises from the fact that law and programming are very different disciplines; but part of it also arises from the borderline-normative claims made by Nick Szabo, the father of the smart contract, in respect of the relative merits of “dry code” – i.e. computer programs – as against “wet code,” i.e. human rules.

A refresher

“There’s a strong distinction to be made between ‘wet code,’ interpreted by the brain, and ‘dry code,’ interpreted by computers. Human-read media is wet code whereas computer code and computer-readable files (to the extent a computer deals meaningfully with them) are ‘dry code.’ Law is wet code, interpreted by those on whom the law is imposed, and interpreted (often somewhat differently) by law enforcers, but most authoritatively (and even more differently) interpreted by judges. Human language is mostly wet code but to the extent computer programs crudely translate from one language to another, keyword-ad programs parse text to made an educated guess as to what ads a user will most likely click, and so on, human language text can also be dry code. Traditional contracts are wet code whereas smart contracts are mostly dry code. Secure property titles and the domain name system are mostly dry code

“…I don’t think there is a ‘magic bullet’ theory of artificial intelligence that will uncover the semantic mysteries and give computers intelligence in one fell swoop. I don’t think that computers will mysteriously “wake up” one day in some magic transition from zombie to qualia. (I basically agree with Daniel Dennett in this respect). Instead, we will continue to chip away at formalizing human intelligence, a few ‘bits’ at a time, and will never reach a ‘singularity’ where all of a sudden we one day way wake up and realize computers have surpassed us. Instead, there will be numerous “micro-runaways” for particular narrow abilities that we learn how to teach computers to do, such as the runaway over the last century or so in the superiority of computers over humans in basic arithmetic. Computers and humans will continue to co-evolve with computers making the faster progress but falling far short of apocalyptic predictions of ‘Singularity,’ except to the extent that much of civilization is already a rolling singularity.”

Szabo is awesome. As ever, though, academic descriptions are never as enlightening as practical experience. For my part, the world of “dry code” is slowly but surely opening up thanks to TextWrangler; but, barring inviting you guys into the office (which would not be especially fun), how best to provide an entertaining window into the world of “wet code” (sorry to disappoint, but Law and Order, Boston Legal or Ally McBeal bear absolutely no relation to the real McCoy)?

Fortunately, this hilarious Op-Ed video published today by the New York Times delivers.


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