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.
Brittany Trang was staring at her glass test tube, which suddenly turned opaque white. At first, she had thought that the chemical reaction she tested left behind some residue, but when she couldn’t clean it off, she realized that the reaction produced corrosive compounds that ate at the glass. That, however, was a good sign. It meant that the reaction, which she didn’t necessarily expect to work, was in fact, working. And Trang, who in 2020 was a Ph.D. researcher in chemistry at Northwestern University, had reasons to be skeptical. She was trying to break down the nearly indestructible molecules of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS—the forever chemicals called so because they resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water, and thus don’t react or break down in the environment.
“The first time I ran this, I was like, oh, like there's a bunch of stuff stuck to the glass, but when I tried to clean it, it wasn’t coming off,” Trang says, recalling her original experiment and her almost-disbelief at the fact she managed to crack the notoriously stubborn and problematic molecules. “I was mostly just surprised that it worked in general.”
In the recent past, the world has been growing increasingly concerned about PFAS, the pollutants that even at low levels are associated with a litany of adverse health effects, including liver damage, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pregnancy complications and several cancers. Used for decades in manufacturing and in various products such as fire retardant foam, water-repellant clothes, furniture fabrics, Teflon-coated pans, disposable plates, lunch containers and shoes, these super-stable compounds don’t degrade in the environment. The forever chemicals are now everywhere: in the water, in soil, in milk, and in produce.
As of June 2022, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization, found 2,858 locations in 50 states and two territories to be heavily contaminated with PFAS while many farmers had been forced to dump their milk or spinach because the levels of these compounds were in some cases up to 400 times greater than what’s considered safe. And because PFAS are so pervasive in the environment and the food we eat, they are in our bodies too. One study found some levels of PFAS in 97 to 100 percent of participants tested.
Because these compounds were made to be very stable, they are hard to destroy. So far, the only known way to break down PFAS has been to “cook” them under very harsh conditions. The process, known as pyrolysis, requires upwards of 500 degrees Centigrade, high pressure and absence of oxygen, which is energy expensive. It involves sophisticated equipment and the burning of fossil fuels. Trang, who worked in the laboratory of William Dichtel, managed to break PFAS at 120 degrees Centigrade (248 F) without using strong pressure. After she examined the results of her process with various techniques that help quantify the resulting compounds and confirmed that PFAS had indeed degraded into carbon and the corrosive fluorine that clouded her glass, she was thrilled that it worked in such simple conditions.
“That's really what differentiates our finding from everything else that's out there,” Dichtel said about their discovery at a press conference announcing the study last month. “When we're talking about low temperatures, we're at 120 degrees Celsius and sometimes even quite a bit lower than that, and especially ambient pressure.”
The process used by Trang’s team was the exact opposite of the typical organic synthesis method.
Trang’s journey into PFAS degradation began with a paper she read about the nuances of the chemicals’ molecular structure. A long molecule comprised primarily of carbon and fluorine atoms, along with oxygen and hydrogen, it has what Trang describes as a head and a tail. At the head sits a compound called carboxylic acid while the fluorine atoms make up the tail portion, with the atomic bonds so strong they aren’t possible to break without harsh treatment. But in early 2020, Trang read that a solvent called dimethylsulfoxide, or DMSO, commonly used in labs and industry, can make the carboxylic acid “pop off” its place. The DMSO doesn’t react with carboxylic acid but sort of displaces it, leaving the rest of the typically indestructible PFAS molecule vulnerable.
Trang found that its exposed fluorine tail would react with another common chemical compound, sodium hydroxide, causing a cascade of reactions that ultimately unravel the rest. “After you have decarboxylated the head, the hydroxide is able to react with the tail,” Trang says. “That's what sets off a cascade of reactions that degrades the rest of the molecule.”
That pathway took time to figure out. Trang was able to determine that the molecule carboxylic acid head popped off, but before she was able to figure out the rest, her lab and the entire Northwestern University went into lockdown in early March of 2020. “I was able to do three experiments before the shutdown,” she recalls. For the next few months, she sat at home, reading scientific literature to understand how to continue the degradation process. “I had read a bunch of literature and had a bunch of ideas for what may or may not work,” she says. By the time she could return to work, she had a plan. “I added sodium hydroxide in my batch of experiments when the lab reopened.”
The process used by Trang’s team was the exact opposite of the typical organic synthesis method. “Most organic chemists take two molecules and squish them together to make one big molecule. It’s like taking two Legos and putting them together to make one thing that was larger,” she says. “What we are doing is kind of smashing the Lego with two bits and looking at what was left to figure out how it fell apart.” The team published their discovery in the journal Science.
Although very promising, the process isn’t quite ready for industrial applications, and will take time to adapt, Trang says. For starters, it would have to be scaled up to continuously clean large quantities of water, sewage or other substances that can be contaminated with PFAS. The process will also have to be modified, particularly when it comes to removing PFAS from drinking water because as an industrial chemical, DMSO is not suitable for that. Water companies typically use activated carbon to filter out PFAS and other pollutants, so once that concentrated waste is accumulated, it would be removed and then treated with DMSO and hydroxide to break down the molecules. “That is what our method would likely be applied to,” Trang says—the concentrated waste rather than a reservoir because “you wouldn't want to mix DMSO with your drinking water.”
There are some additional limitations to the method. It only breaks down one class of forever chemicals, but there are others. For example, the molecules of perfluoroalkane sulfonic acids, or PFSA, don’t have a carboxylic head that DMSO can displace. Instead, PFSA have a sulphonic acid as their molecular head, which would require a different solvent that still needs to be discovered. “There is certainly the possibility of activating sulphonates in similar ways [to what] we've done [with] carboxylates,” Dichtel said, and he hopes this will happen in the future. Other forever chemical types may have their own Achilles’ heels, waiting to be discovered. “If we can knock that sulphonated headgroup off the molecule and get to the same intermediates we get to in this study,” Dichtel added, “it's very reasonable to assume that they'll degrade by very similar pathways.” Perhaps another team of inquisitive chemists will take on the challenge.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- A new mask can detect Covid and send an alert to your phone
- More promising research for a breakthrough drug to treat schizophrenia
- AI tool can create new proteins
- Connections between an unhealthy gut and breast cancer
- Progress on the longevity drug, rapamycin
And an honorable mention this week: Certain exercises may benefit some types of memory more than others