Why you should care

Because money and information help predict the future. 

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Question: Will SpaceX successfully launch and return a used first-stage rocket in 2016? Prediction: Most likely, yes.

Mr. Musk, the bettors on Augur believe in you.

Augur is an online gambling market, with $5 million of backing, that runs on Ethereum, a decentralized, peer-to-peer network whose anonymous users trade in “ether.” Users come up with propositions, most of which are driven by events. Who will win the election? When will Frank Ocean release an album? How low will Bitcoin drop this month? It’s one of several cyptocurrency platforms, including Hivemind and Gnosis, where users can anonymously gamble on events. Operating costs are low enough to make Vegas casinos feel shame. Finding out who uses them would be devilishly difficult, perhaps even impossible. For now, the wagers and payouts are in play money, not even cryptocurrency, but if that changes — legally or not — these anonymous prediction markets could capture part of a $250 billion pie, and perhaps more.

The creators of these sites claim motives far loftier than mere profit or a libertarian philosophy; their endeavor, they say, is part of a long and noble (if often futile) quest to know what the future holds. Their products are a kind of apotheosis of the “wisdom of crowds” hypothesis — that the views of large groups of people have high predictive power. Betting? It just makes for better predictions, says economist and futurist Robin Hanson, because those with the best information have the most incentive to wager. Augur, whose name derives from the Roman tradition of watching avian flight patterns to predict the future, is now trying to answer: “On which side of a question will people flock with their money?”

Prediction markets are not new, of course, and some previous incarnations have solid track records, as far as telling the future: InTrade, for instance, nailed the presidential election results in 2008 and 2012, with an impressive 49 out of 50 states going the way the bettors thought. But at least in the U.S., where online gambling is legal only in a handful of states, the law has tended to get in the way. In 2012, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission outlawed political prediction markets because they could create “an adverse effect on the integrity of elections.” In 2013, the Commission laid down the hammer and sued InTrade for “operating an improper, off-site options exchange.” Forced to jettison its American users, the company lost a huge chunk of its base and shut down that same year. Meanwhile, PredictIt, a popular prediction market for political questions, has so far evaded the letter of some regulations by capping betting at $850. No one can wag the dog very hard — but then no one makes too much money, either.

By dealing in play money for now, the new prediction market masters are hoping to minimize security issues and get through the training-wheels phase before attracting the wrath of regulators. But even with real cryptocurrency wagers and payouts, regulators will have a hard time hauling anyone into court and throwing them into jail — as prosecutors did with Ross Ulbricht. From 2011 until 2013, his infamous black market site, Silk Road, traded in all manners of commerce — kosher, illegal and immoral alike. Last year, Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for kingpinning, money laundering and the like.

To be sure, there are already plenty of ways for online gamblers to evade detection without resorting to cryptocurrency and the like. They ping their computers up to Canada using VPNs or get an agent or partner to place their bets for them, says Anthony Curtis, co-author of The Art of Gambling Through the Ages. But getting caught on Augur is even less likely than getting caught on Silk Road. Not only are transaction ledgers distributed among countless users, as in Bitcoin’s blockchains, Ethereum’s very software is distributed among its users. Shutting it down would require blocking every computer on it.

Clearly, the platform will appeal to bookies — if they still exist. Joey Krug, a founder of Augur, says he could see people from different countries using the platform to avoid exchange fees. But one of the thorniest questions relates to the prospect of insider trading. Those with inside information might not be able to buy up shares on the stock market, but under cover of anonymity, they could sell the knowledge on one of the next-gen predictive markets. A lawyer with knowledge of an impending merger could, for instance, pose a question like: Will the shares of X company rise above $100 this month? He could wager big cryptobucks on the outcome, and make bank when the merger goes through — all the while evading SEC detection. Others might use the platforms to block an event or collude against a company by anonymously betting big against it — and thereby create a signaling effect that spooks other shareholders. Prophecy fulfilled.

The founder of Hivemind, Paul Sztorc, says insider trading can actually be beneficial — he says there is “good insider trading” — because it can offset information asymmetries and lead to greater transparency. But are bettor markets worth the risks? Some, like John Kindt, a business and legal policy scholar, worry that legalized gambling can provide cover to all sorts of shady business, like organized crime, as it has in the past.

Augur’s users, who so far have uploaded more than 700 questions, are looking resolutely forward. “Will Augur crush all that stands in its way?” asks one user. The votes are few, but the prediction is 100 percent yes.

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