Kirk Klasson

Beyond the Cyber-Cryptoverse, the Next Incarnation of the Internet Awaits

Over the years this blog has dealt with the nature of change and innovation as a primary feature of the high tech industry.

In Hacking the Future 2.0 we suggested that the means for creating change of unimaginable magnitude have become increasingly open, accessible and ubiquitous. And you don’t have to look far to see the evidence. In the past year we have learned of the existence of living CRISPR embryos and China recently asserted that AI could well factor in a future accidental war; things that only Hollywood might have imagined a few years ago.

In Innovation: Power Laws, the Adjacent Possible and the Accumulation of Continuity we examined the idea that the present need not precede the future, that they might exist simultaneously as an imperceptible adjacency, we merely need to discover that which has been there all along. After all, Newton didn’t invent gravity and Einstein didn’t invent relativity, phenomena that existed well before mankind, their genius was to figure out how one might go about perceiving and understanding them.

It is beginning to appear that we are living in a moment of an emerging future adjacency. One that we have created but one still sufficiently inchoate that it is not widely recognized and still subject to the vagaries of circumstance and fate. Perhaps it is a phantom and may not even materialize. Perhaps the mere mention of its existence will cause it to vanish. But we appear to be on the threshold of the next incarnation of the Internet; one that is an extension, abstraction and derivative of the existing edifice. Should it emerge the implications could be profound. Or then again, some adjacent adjacency might render the whole thing moot. One never really knows, so perhaps you can decide.

Bitcoin is to Blockchain as Blockchain is to…

Analogies can unlock many secrets if they expose the true nature of what they juxtapose. We explored this notion a little bit in Innovation and Analogy: One of These Things Is a Lot Like Another. The introduction in 2008 of Bitcoin, a fanciful crypto-currency, created, of necessity, the facility for a trusted, transparent, distributed and queryable means of exchanging coins and attesting to the value of transactions between trading partners and speculators, Blockchain, a distributed ledger technology (DLT) that transcribes and records transactions.

One of the obvious advantages of this arrangement is that there are no centralized trust authorities required to initiate or consummate transactions. The trust is built into the ledger and the ledger is self-authenticating, each block of the ledger “signs” any subsequent transactions providing an “auditable” chain of custody. This is particularly valuable as it eliminates institutionalized trust authorities that can be slow, cumbersome and expensive.

As with any abstract medium of exchange, Bitcoins or tulips or dollars are only worth what they can realize through conversion to something with acknowledged, marketable asset specificity, real estate, equities, commodities, precious metals, rare art, etc. This was true for obsidian in the late Neolithic and remains true even for the likes of crypto-currencies which are draining the world’s electricity reserves even while we speak. Crypto-fanatics would argue that other crypto-coins are conversion worthy options but given recent events including hacks and lock-outs, your average consumer will likely stick to more conventional mediums of exchange.

If you take crypto-currencies out of the equation what you are left with is a trusted, transparent, distributed and queryable facility for exchanging information and attesting to the veracity of those exchanges. Seems kind of familiar doesn’t it? Seems a little bit like the Internet. Only without the need for Google.

Reality bites…

As with any prospective leap in technology there is the aspirational and the practical. Most real innovation occurs on the frontier that lies between these two domains. Aspirationally, the notion of a transparent and trust worthy Internet without the need for nosey intermediaries monetizing every click is quite appealing. The reality of distributed ledger technology (DLT) ever fulfilling this promise remains far from certain. Blockchain has had a rather halting history with numerous technical impediments. For starters there are several competing pretenders each pursuing their own unique technical vision causing adoption to be fragmented by application and industry. Distributed databases, the basic underlying technology, have their own idiosyncrasies not the least of which is they are notorious slow. Initially introduced as impervious to hacks, Blockchains have been compromised on several occasions and by a variety of techniques. And the nagging issue of monetization isn’t going to go away. If these issues are going to be successfully addressed, somebody is going to need to be compensated and the model and method of remuneration isn’t even close to being fully figured out.

On the other hand, DLT’s offer some very intriguing possibilities especially if they are repurposed and not captive to crypto-currency applications. It has long been recognized that the value of the Internet could be exponentially improved if the information it contained could be rendered in context. (see: Prophets on the SILK Road – October, 2012) This is the very basis for the notion behind the Semantic Web. The utility of that context becomes extensible the more domains that it incorporates. Turns out, Blockchains or their generic equivalent DLT’s are being adopted in a very domain specific fashion. Starting with the finance industry and moving to other transaction oriented chains of commerce they have evolved to incorporate domain specific contextual references.

For instance, Smart Contracts are queryable algorithmic references now embedded in most domain specific blockchains. But these domains need not be strictly based on transaction-oriented activity. Recently, in Identity and Sovereignty we explored the use of DLT’s to create machine readable identities, a wholly unique DLT domain and application and one that promotes the use of zero knowledge proofs for purposes of authentication and attestation without the need for a centralized trust authorities.

Several academic and industry notables have proposed DLT’s be architected to incorporate semantic properties and information. One of the first is Hector E. Ugarte, founder of the BLONDie Project, who back in 2017 proposed that the next iteration of the World Wide Web be based on Linked Semantic Blockchains. Others, such as Henry Kim, Marek Laskowski and Ning Nan in “The Co-Evolution of Blockchain and Ontologies” have proposed that going forward DLT’s be engineered to incorporate semantic concepts and techniques. Taking things one step further they suggested that semantics can be on-chain and off-chain, embedded in the blocks and transactions like a Smart Contract as well as separate as an independent yet integrated DLT of its own domain.

Here’s where things get interesting…

Years ago, the notion behind the original Semantic Web was that web entities would declare themselves through RDF, the Resource Descriptive Framework, a triple based expression (subject-object-predicate) of attributes which would allow other web entities to discover and make use of them. More recently, AI researchers have proposed that this same framework be employed as part of the meta data in neural nodes of Machine Learning facilities (see AI’s Inconvenient Truth – July 2018). The use case for neural nodes would be roughly the same as in the original Semantic Web, facilitating discovery and invocation by other nodes in combinatory computation while also defining and constraining the input /output properties of the node.

Several recent proposals have suggested that RDF be used to create more semantically aware blockchains. This would add an interesting dimension to existing DTL architectures. RDF would allow block entities to declare “what I am” in addition to their transactive properties of “where I’ve been” and “what I’ve done” creating a semantically complete view of the social life of blocks. How much fun is that? In addition, this semantic profile would be sufficiently complete to allow semantically aware neural nodes to discover and through orchestration learn what they’ve been up to and match that behavior to other patterns discoverable in blockchain dataverse.

What this means is that Machine Learning or Deep Learning could be embedded and resident in the web itself. And all those AI jockeys angling for their turn at the Tensor Flow sausage maker could go about their business unencumbered by the logistics and data handling of today’s cloud-based AI machinations.

Money Ruins Everything…

The technical challenges abutting this emerging future are numerous but by no means insurmountable. The need to concatenate DTL domains of transactions, identity and semantics is well established. A small but growing number of projects and players are already busy crafting frameworks for domain federation and integration. Another cluster of companies are pounding the kinks out of web data extraction and in-line data aggregation. (see Privacy, Blockchains and Balkanization – December 2017) And a small handful of shops are racing to put AI on-block, whatever that means, and scoop the entire industry. And one very cheerful gorilla just announced a host of blockchain search tools affectionately dubbed Blockchain ELT intended for use over crypto-currency chains but suitable for generalized DLT deployments.

So it seems that the technical impediments to our adjacent future are all but solved. But time and opportunity don’t necessary travel in a straight line. The current iteration of the Internet has lasted so long because it is fundamentally primitive in concept and execution. Every proposed nuance that increases its value and complexity has stumbled, including the Semantic Web. To assume that DLT, no matter how enhanced and augmented, is a robust enough scaffolding to support this entire edifice may be too far a reach.

Should a semantically enhanced Internet appear it won’t occur as one big upgrade. Galactic IT won’t send out a universal message to get everyone off the DNS cause “we’re gonna bounce the Big One.” Instead, innovation and evolution will likely occur as it does today, one chain of commerce at a time, circumstances ripe for the hegemony of competing philosophies, standards, money and code. Things like inter-chain integration of consensus models might prove to be a sticking point. But it won’t be the only one. Quick. Name the one person who made a serious pile of money exclusively through the original introduction of the Internet and not all the ancillary technology? Tim Berners-Lee? He got knighted but he never made Forbes top 50 list of billionares. And that might prove to be another obstacle worth addressing.

But there will be tell tails of progress along the way. The successful adoption of non-crypto-coin DTL’s in abstract domains such as identity would be evidence of serious progress. Like wise, an off-chain semantic DTL for a circumscribed chain of commerce would be another. A demonstrable, working multi-chain integration and federation would suggest the emerging future is attainable.

Who knows perhaps in three to five years we will be celebrating the birth of a new Internet, one more cerebral and conversant than we could possibly imagine.

But serious minds and serious money have often been wrong before.


Cover image, Flammarion Engraving colorized version, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, all other images, statistics, illustrations and citations, etc. derived and included under fair use/royalty free provisions.



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