The Web has provided numerous benefits over the years, but users have also experienced issues related to privacy, cybersecurity, income inequality, and addiction which negatively impact their quality of life. In important ways, the Web has yet to meet its potential to support human health.
Now, engineers are in the process of developing a new version of the Web, called Web3, which would seek to address the Web’s current shortcomings through a mix of new technologies.
It could also create new problems. Industrial revolutions, including new versions of the Web, have trade-offs. While many activists tend to focus on the negative aspects of Web3 technologies, they overlook some of the potential benefits to health and the environment that aren’t as easily quantifiable such as less stressful lives, fewer hours required for work, and a higher standard of living. What emerging technologies are in the mix to define the new era of the digital age, and how will they contribute to our overall health and well-being?
In order to answer these questions, I have identified three major trends that may help define the future landscape of Web3. These include more powerful machine intelligence that could drive improvements in healthcare, decentralized banking systems that allow consumers to bypass middlemen, and self-driving cars with potential to reduce pollution. However, it is the successes of the enabling technologies that support these goals—improvements in AI, blockchain and smart contracts, and fog computing—that will ultimately define Web3.
Machine Intelligence and Diagnosing Diseases
While the internet is the physical network equipment and computers that keep the world connected, the Web is one of the services that run on the internet. In 1989, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and, when Web1 went live in 1991, it consisted of pages of text connected by hyperlinks. It remained that way until 2004 with the introduction of Web2, which provided social media websites and let users generate content in addition to consuming it passively.
The Semantic Web could expand the impact of new cognitive skills for machines by feeding data to AI in more readily accessible formats. This will make machines better at solving hard problems such as diagnosing and treating complex diseases.
For the most part, Web2 is what we still have today but, from the beginning, Berners-Lee, now an MIT professor, envisaged a much more sophisticated version of the Web. Known as the Semantic Web, it would not only store data, but actually know what it means. The goal is to make all information on the Internet “machine-readable,” so it can be easily processed by computers, like an Excel sheet full of numbers as opposed to human language. We are now in the early stages of the Semantic Web, which incorporates his vision. For example, there is already a cloud of datasets that links thousands of servers without any form of centralized control. However, due to the costs and technological hurdles related to converting human language into something that computers can understand, the Semantic Web remains an ongoing project.
Currently, AI is only able to perform certain tasks, but it can already make healthcare business practices more efficient by leveraging deep learning to analyze data in supply chains. DeepMind, the company that developed AI for defeating chess masters, has also made huge advances in figuring out protein folding and misfolding, which is responsible for some diseases. Currently, AI is not that useful for diagnosing and treating many complex diseases. This is because deep learning is probabilistic, not causal. So, it is able to understand correlation, but not cause and effect.
Like the Web, though, AI is evolving, and the limitations of deep learning could be overcome in the foreseeable future. A number of government programs and private initiatives are dedicated to better understanding human brain complexity and equipping machines with reasoning, common sense, and the ability to understand cause and effect. The Semantic Web could expand the impact of these new cognitive skills by feeding data to AI in more readily accessible formats. This will make machines better at solving hard problems such as diagnosing and treating complex diseases, which involve genetic, lifestyle, and environment factors. These powerful AIs in the realm of healthcare could become an enduring and important feature of Web3.
Blockchain, Smart Contracts and Income Inequality
The Web2 version of the digital age was certainly impactful in altering our lifestyle both positively and negatively. This is predominately because of the business model used by companies such as Meta (formerly Facebook) and Google. By providing useful products like search engines, these companies have lured consumers into giving away their personal data for free, and the companies use this information to detect buying patterns in order to sell advertising. The digital economy made high tech companies billions of dollars while many users became underemployed or jobless.
In recent years, a similar model has been emerging in the realm of genetics. Personalized genomic companies charge a relatively small fee to analyze a fraction of our genes and provide probabilities of having specific medical conditions. While individual data is not valuable, cumulative data is helpful for deep learning. So, these companies can sell the anonymous DNA data to pharmaceutical companies for millions of dollars.
As these companies improve their ability to collect even more data about our genetic vulnerabilities, the technologies of Web3 could protect consumers from giving it away for free. An emerging technology called blockchain is able to provide a Web-based ledger of financial transactions with checks and balances to ensure that its records cannot be faked or altered. It has yet to reach mass adoption by the public, but the computer scientist Jaron Lanier has proposed storing our genomes and electronic health records in blockchain, utilizing electronic smart contracts between individuals and pharma healthcare industry. Micropayments could then be made to individuals for their data, using cryptocurrency.
These individual payments could become more lucrative in the coming years especially as researchers learn how to fully interpret and apply a person’s genetic data. In this way, blockchain could lead to improvements in income inequality, which currently drives health problems and other challenges for many. A number of start-ups are using this business model which has secure data and eliminates middlemen who don’t create any value, while compensating and protecting the privacy of individuals who contribute their health data.
Autonomous Vehicles, Fog Computing and Pollution
A number of trends indicate that modernizing the transportation industry would address a myriad of problems with public health, productivity and the environment. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) could help usher in this new era of transportation, and these AVs would need to be supported by Web3 technologies.
Automobile accidents are the second leading cause of death worldwide, with roughly 1.3 million fatalities annually, according to the World Health Organization. Some estimates suggest that replacing human drivers with AVs could eliminate as many as a million global fatalities annually. Shared AVs would help to reduce traffic congestion that wastes time and fuel, and electric vehicles would help minimize greenhouse gases.
To reap the benefits from replacing gas vehicles with electric, societies will need an infrastructure that enables self-driving cars to communicate with each other. Most data processing in computers is performed using von Neumann architecture, where the data memory and the processor are in two different places. Today, that typically means cloud computing. With self-driving cars, when cameras and sensors generate data to detect objects on the roads, processors will need to rapidly analyze the data and make real-time decisions regarding acceleration, braking, and steering. However, cloud computing is susceptible to latency issues.
One solution to latency is moving processing and data storage closer to where it is needed to improve response times. Edge computing, for example, places the processor at the site where the data is generated. Most new human-driven vehicles contain anywhere from 30 to 100 electronic control units (ECUs) that process data and control electrical systems in vehicles. These embedded systems, typically in the dashboard, control different applications such as airbags, steering, brakes, etc. ECUs process data generated by cameras and sensors in AVs and make crucial decisions on how they operate.
Self-driving cars can benefit by communicating with each other for navigation in the same way that bacteria and animals use swarm intelligence for tasks involving groups. Researchers are currently investigating fog computing which utilizes servers along highways for faster and more reliable navigation and for communicating data analytics among driverless cars.
The Future Landscape of Web3 is Uncertain
The future of Web3 has many possibilities. However, there is no guarantee that blockchain, smart contracts, and fog computing will achieve public acceptance and market saturation or prevail over other technologies or the status quo of Web2. It is also uncertain if or when the breakthroughs in AI will occur that could eradicate complex diseases through Web3.
An example of this uncertainty is the metaverse, which combines blockchain with virtual reality. Currently, the metaverse is primarily used for gaming and recreational use until its infrastructure is further developed. Researchers are interested in the long-term mental health effects of virtual reality, both positive and negative. Using avatars, or virtual representations of humans, in the metaverse, users have greater control of their environment and chosen identities. But, it is unclear what negative mental health effects will occur. As far as regulations, the metaverse is still in the Wild West stage, and bullying or even murder will likely take place. Also, there will be a point where virtual worlds like the metaverse will become so immersive that we won't want to leave them, according to Meta’s Zuckerberg.
The metaverse would rely on virtual reality technology that was developed many years ago, and adoption has been slower than some experts predicted. But most emerging technologies, including other examples related to Web3, follow a similar, nonlinear pattern of development that Gartner has represented in graphical form using the S-curve. To develop a technology forecast for Web3, you can follow the progress along the curve from proof of concept to a particular goal. After a series of successes and failures, entrepreneurs will continue to improve their products until each emerging technology fails or achieves mainstream adoption by the public.
What mix of emerging technologies ultimately defines Web3 will likely be determined by the benefits they provide to society—including whether and how they improve health—how they stimulate the digital economy, and how they address the significant shortcomings of Web2.
Our moral ‘hardware’ evolved over 100,000 years ago while humans were still scratching the savannah. The perils we encountered back then were radically different from those that confront us now. To survive and flourish in the face of complex future challenges our archaic operating systems might need an upgrade – in non-traditional ways.
Morality refers to standards of right and wrong when it comes to our beliefs, behaviors, and intentions. Broadly, moral enhancement is the use of biomedical technology to improve moral functioning. This could include augmenting empathy, altruism, or moral reasoning, or curbing antisocial traits like outgroup bias and aggression.
The claims related to moral enhancement are grand and polarizing: it’s been both tendered as a solution to humanity’s existential crises and bluntly dismissed as an armchair hypothesis. So, does the concept have any purchase? The answer leans heavily on our definition and expectations.
One issue is that the debate is often carved up in dichotomies – is moral enhancement feasible or unfeasible? Permissible or impermissible? Fact or fiction? On it goes. While these gesture at imperatives, trading in absolutes blurs the realities at hand. A sensible approach must resist extremes and recognize that moral disrupters are already here.
We know that existing interventions, whether they occur unknowingly or on purpose, have the power to modify moral dispositions in ways both good and bad. For instance, neurotoxins can promote antisocial behavior. The ‘lead-crime hypothesis’ links childhood lead-exposure to impulsivity, antisocial aggression, and various other problems. Mercury has been associated with cognitive deficits, which might impair moral reasoning and judgement. It’s well documented that alcohol makes people more prone to violence.
So, what about positive drivers? Here’s where it gets more tangled.
Medicine has long treated psychiatric disorders with drugs like sedatives and antipsychotics. However, there’s short mention of morality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) despite the moral merits of pharmacotherapy – these effects are implicit and indirect. Such cases are regarded as treatments rather than enhancements.
It would be dangerously myopic to assume that moral augmentation is somehow beyond reach.
Conventionally, an enhancement must go beyond what is ‘normal,’ species-typical, or medically necessary – this is known as the ‘treatment-enhancement distinction.’ But boundaries of health and disease are fluid, so whether we call a procedure ‘moral enhancement’ or ‘medical treatment’ is liable to change with shifts in social values, expert opinions, and clinical practices.
Human enhancements are already used for a range of purported benefits: caffeine, smart drugs, and other supplements to boost cognitive performance; cosmetic procedures for aesthetic reasons; and steroids and stimulants for physical advantage. More boldly, cyborgs like Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson are pushing transpecies boundaries with new kinds of sensory perception. It would be dangerously myopic to assume that moral augmentation is somehow beyond reach.
How might it work?
One possibility for shaping moral temperaments is with neurostimulation devices. These use electrodes to deliver a low-intensity current that alters the electromagnetic activity of specific neural regions. For instance, transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) can target parts of the brain involved in self-awareness, moral judgement, and emotional decision-making. It’s been shown to increase empathy and valued-based learning, and decrease aggression and risk-taking behavior. Many countries already use tDCS to treat pain and depression, but evidence for enhancement effects on healthy subjects is mixed.
Another suggestion is targeting neuromodulators like serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is linked to prosocial attributes like trust, fairness, and cooperation, but low activity is thought to motivate desires for revenge and harming others. It’s not as simple as indiscriminately boosting brain chemicals though. While serotonin is amenable to SSRIs, precise levels are difficult to measure and track, and there’s no scientific consensus on the “optimum” amount or on whether such a value even exists. Fluctuations due to lifestyle factors such as diet, stress, and exercise add further complexity. Currently, more research is needed on the significance of neuromodulators and their network dynamics across the moral landscape.
There are a range of other prospects. The ‘love drugs’ oxytocin and MDMA mediate pair bonding, cooperation, and social attachment, although some studies suggest that people with high levels of oxytocin are more aggressive toward outsiders. Lithium is a mood stabilizer that has been shown to reduce aggression in prison populations; beta-blockers like propranolol and the supplement omega-3 have similar effects. Increasingly, brain-computer interfaces augur a world of brave possibilities. Such appeals are not without limitations, but they indicate some ways that external tools can positively nudge our moral sentiments.
Who needs morally enhancing?
A common worry is that enhancement technologies could be weaponized for social control by authoritarian regimes, or used like the oppressive eugenics of the early 20th century. Fortunately, the realities are far more mundane and such dystopian visions are fantastical. So, what are some actual possibilities?
Some researchers suggest that neurotechnologies could help to reactivate brain regions of those suffering from moral pathologies, including healthy people with psychopathic traits (like a lack of empathy). Another proposal is using such technology on young people with conduct problems to prevent serious disorders in adulthood.
Most of us aren’t always as ethical as we would like – given the option of ‘priming’ yourself to act in consistent accord with your higher values, would you take it?
A question is whether these kinds of interventions should be compulsory for dangerous criminals. On the other hand, a voluntary treatment for inmates wouldn’t be so different from existing incentive schemes. For instance, some U.S. jurisdictions already offer drug treatment programs in exchange for early release or instead of prison time. Then there’s the difficult question of how we should treat non-criminal but potentially harmful ‘successful’ psychopaths.
Others argue that if virtues have a genetic component, there is no technological reason why present practices of embryo screening for genetic diseases couldn’t also be used for selecting socially beneficial traits.
Perhaps the most immediate scenario is a kind of voluntary moral therapy, which would use biomedicine to facilitate ideal brain-states to augment traditional psychotherapy. Most of us aren’t always as ethical as we would like – given the option of ‘priming’ yourself to act in consistent accord with your higher values, would you take it? Approaches like neurofeedback and psychedelic-assisted therapy could prove helpful.
What are the challenges?
A general challenge is that of setting. Morality is context dependent; what’s good in one environment may be bad in another and vice versa, so we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Of course, common sense tells us that some tendencies are more socially desirable than others: fairness, altruism, and openness are clearly preferred over aggression, dishonesty, and prejudice.
One argument is that remoulding ‘brute impulses’ via biology would not count as moral enhancement. This view claims that for an action to truly count as moral it must involve cognition – reasoning, deliberation, judgement – as a necessary part of moral behavior. Critics argue that we should be concerned more with ends rather than means, so ultimately it’s outcomes that matter most.
Another worry is that modifying one biological aspect will have adverse knock-on effects for other valuable traits. Certainly, we must be careful about the network impacts of any intervention. But all stimuli have distributed effects on the body, so it’s really a matter of weighing up the cost/benefit trade-offs as in any standard medical decision.
Is it ethical?
Our values form a big part of who we are – some bioethicists argue that altering morality would pose a threat to character and personal identity. Another claim is that moral enhancement would compromise autonomy by limiting a person’s range of choices and curbing their ‘freedom to fall.’ Any intervention must consider the potential impacts on selfhood and personal liberty, in addition to the wider social implications.
This includes the importance of social and genetic diversity, which is closely tied to considerations of fairness, equality, and opportunity. The history of psychiatry is rife with examples of systematic oppression, like ‘drapetomania’ – the spurious mental illness that was thought to cause African slaves’ desire to flee captivity. Advocates for using moral enhancement technologies to help kids with conduct problems should be mindful that they disproportionately come from low-income communities. We must ensure that any habilitative practice doesn’t perpetuate harmful prejudices by unfairly targeting marginalized people.
Human capacities are the result of environmental influences, and external conditions still coax our biology in unknown ways. Status quo bias for ‘letting nature take its course’ may actually be worse long term – failing to utilize technology for human development may do more harm than good.
Then, there are concerns that morally-enhanced persons would be vulnerable to predation by those who deliberately avoid moral therapies. This relates to what’s been dubbed the ‘bootstrapping problem’: would-be moral enhancement candidates are the types of individuals that benefit from not being morally enhanced. Imagine if every senator was asked to undergo an honesty-boosting procedure prior to entering public office – would they go willingly? Then again, perhaps a technological truth-serum wouldn’t be such a bad requisite for those in positions of stern social consequence.
Advocates argue that biomedical moral betterment would simply offer another means of pursuing the same goals as fixed social mechanisms like religion, education, and community, and non-invasive therapies like cognitive-behavior therapy and meditation. It’s even possible that technological efforts would be more effective. After all, human capacities are the result of environmental influences, and external conditions still coax our biology in unknown ways. Status quo bias for ‘letting nature take its course’ may actually be worse long term – failing to utilize technology for human development may do more harm than good. If we can safely improve ourselves in direct and deliberate ways then there’s no morally significant difference whether this happens via conventional methods or new technology.
Where speculation about human enhancement has led to hype and technophilia, many bioethicists urge restraint. We can be grounded in current science while anticipating feasible medium-term prospects. It’s unlikely moral enhancement heralds any metamorphic post-human utopia (or dystopia), but that doesn’t mean dismissing its transformative potential. In one sense, we should be wary of transhumanist fervour about the salvatory promise of new technology. By the same token we must resist technofear and alarmist efforts to balk social and scientific progress. Emerging methods will continue to shape morality in subtle and not-so-subtle ways – the critical steps are spotting and scaffolding these with robust ethical discussion, public engagement, and reasonable policy options. Steering a bright and judicious course requires that we pilot the possibilities of morally-disruptive technologies.
There’s hardly a person out there who hasn’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That type of pollution is impossible to miss. It stares you in the face from pictures and videos of sea turtles with drinking straws up their noses and acres of plastic swirling in the sea.
It demands you to solve the problem—and it works. The campaign to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans has resulted in new policies, including bans on microplastics in personal care products, technology to clean up the plastic, and even new plastic-like materials that are better for the environment.
But there’s a different type of pollution smothering the ocean as you read this. Unfortunately, this one is almost invisible, but no less damaging. In fact, it’s even more serious than plastic and most people have no idea it even exists. It is literally under our noses, destroying our oceans, lakes, and rivers – and yet we are missing it completely while contributing to it daily. In fact, we exacerbate it multiple times a day—every time we use the bathroom.
It is the way we do our sewage.
Most of us don’t think much about what happens after we flush the toilet. Most of us probably assume that the substances we flush go “somewhere” and are dealt with safely. But we typically don’t think about it beyond that.
Most of us also probably don’t think about what’s in the ocean or lakes we swim in. Since others are swimming, jumping in is just fine. But our waterways are far from clean. In fact, at times they are incredibly filthy. In the US, we are dumping 1.2 trillion of gallons of untreated sewage into the environment every year. Just New York City alone discharges 27 billion gallons into the Hudson River basin annually.
How does this happen? Part of it is the unfortunate side effect of our sewage system design that dates back to over a century ago when cities were smaller and fewer people were living so close together.
Back then, engineers designed the so-called “combine sewer overflow systems,” or CSOs, in which the storm water pipes are connected to the sanitary sewer pipes. In normal conditions, the sewage effluent from homes flows to the treatment plants where it gets cleaned and released into the waterways. But when it rains, the pipe system becomes so overwhelmed with water that the treatment plant can’t process it fast enough. So the treatment plant has to release the excess water through its discharge pipes—directly, without treatment, into streams, rivers and the ocean.
The 1.2 trillion gallons of CSO releases isn’t even the full picture. There are also discharges from poorly maintained septic systems, cesspools and busted pipes of the aging wastewater infrastructure. The state of Hawaii alone has 88,000 cesspools that need replacing and are currently leaking 53 million gallons of raw sewage daily into their coastal waters. You may think twice about swimming on your Hawaii vacations.
Overall, the US is facing a $271 billion backlog in wastewater infrastructure projects to update these aging systems. Across the Western world, countries are facing similar challenges with their aging sewage systems, especially the UK and European Union.
That’s not to say that other parts of the planet are in better shape. Out of the 7+ billion people populating our earth, 4.2 billion don’t have access to safe sanitation. Included in this insane number are roughly 2 billion people who have no toilet at all. Whether washed by rains or dumped directly into the waterways, a lot of this sludge pollutes the environment, the drinking water, and ultimately the ocean.
Pipes pour water onto a rocky shore in Jakarta, Indonesia.
What complicates this from an ocean health perspective is that it’s not just poop and pee that gets dumped into nearby waterways. It is all the things we put in and on our bodies and flush down our drains. That vicious mix of chemicals includes caffeine, antibiotics, antidepressants, painkillers, hormones, microplastics, cocaine, cooking oils, paint thinners, and PFAS—the forever chemicals present in everything from breathable clothing to fire retardant fabrics of our living room couches. Recent reports have found all of the above substances in fish—and then some.
Why do we allow so much untreated sewage spill into the sea? Frankly speaking, for decades scientists and engineers thought that the ocean could handle it. The mantra back then was “dilution is the solution to pollution,” which might’ve worked when there were much fewer people living on earth—but not now. Today science is telling us that this old approach doesn’t hold. That marine habitats are much more sensitive than we had expected and can’t handle the amount of wastewater we are discharging into them.
The excess nitrogen and phosphorus that the sewage (and agricultural runoff) dumps into the water causes harmful algal blooms, more commonly known as red or brown tides. The water column is overtaken by tiny algae that sucks up all the oxygen from the water, creating dead zones like the big fish kills in the Gulf of Mexico. These algae also cause public health issues by releasing gases toxic to people and animals, including dementia, neurological damage, and respiratory illness. Marshes and mangroves end up with weakened root systems and start dying off. In a wastewater modeling study I published last year, we found that 31 percent of salt marshes globally were heavily polluted with human sewage. Coral reefs get riddled with disease and overgrown by seaweed.
We could convert sewage into high-value goods. It can be used to generate electricity, fertilizer, and drinking water. The technologies not only exist but are getting better and more efficient all the time.
Moreover, by way of our sewage, we managed to transmit a human pathogen—Serratia marcescens, which causes urinary, respiratory and other infections in people—to corals! Recent reports from the Florida Keys are showing white pox disease popping up in elk horn corals caused by S.marcescens, which somehow managed to jump species. Many recent studies have documented just how common this type of pollution is across the globe.
Yet, there is some good news in that abysmal sewage flow. Just like with plastic pollution, realizing that there’s a problem is the first step, so awareness is key. That’s exactly why I co-founded Ocean Sewage Alliance last year—a nonprofit that aims to “re-potty train the world” by breaking taboos in talking about the poop and pee problem, as well as uniting experts from various key sectors to work together to end sewage pollution in coastal areas.
To end this pollution, we have to change the ways we handle our sewage. Even more exciting is that by solving the sewage problem we can create all sorts of economic benefits. In 2015, human poop was valued at $9.5 billion a year globally, which today would be $11.5 billion per year.
What would one do with that sh$t?
We could convert it into high-value goods. Sewage can be used to generate electricity, fertilizer, and drinking water. The technologies not only exist but are getting better and more efficient all the time. Some exciting examples include biodigesters and urine diversion (or peecycling) systems that can produce fertilizer and biogas, essentially natural gas. The United Nations estimates that the biogas produced from poop could provide electricity for 138 million homes. And the recovered and cleaned water can be used for irrigation, laundry and flushing toilets. It can even be refined to the point that it is safe for drinking water – just ask the folks in Orange County, CA who have been doing so for the last few decades.
How do we deal with all the human-made pollutants in our sewage? There is technology for that too. Called pyrolysis, it heats up sludge to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, which causes most of the substances to degrade and fall apart.
There are solutions to the problems—as long as we acknowledge that the problems exist. The fact that you are reading this means that you are part of the solution already. The next time you flush your toilet, think about where this output may flow. Does your septic system work properly? Does your local treatment plant discharge raw sewage on rainy days? Can that plant implement newer technologies that can upcycle waste? These questions are part of re-potty training the world, one household at a time. And together, these households are the force that can turn back the toxic sewage tide. And keep our oceans blue.