The decentralized web will be as big a game changer as the internet was in the '90s

Cryptocurrencies have had their time in the spotlight. Now it's time to focus on solving bigger problems.

  • The internet has witnessed many big developments since it was created. The next big one will be decentralization.
  • Right now, the internet is centralized, which cause many issues, not the least of which is big companies having power over vast amounts of data.
  • Over the past few years there has been a major increase in the number of decentralized projects working on making the decentralized web a reality in the near future.

Tim Berners-Lee

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We've come a long way since Tim Berners-Lee created the internet back in 1990.

What was once nothing more than a mere twinkle in his eye has become the center-point of the lives of millions of people all around the world.

From giving us instant access to information and helping us stay in touch with our friends and family members who live on the other side of the globe to helping us to do our weekly shopping without having to get out of bed and enabling us to collect and breed digital cats, the internet has enabled many changes — for better and for worse.

However, now that we seem to have understood more or less how and when to use the web, communication is about to change all over again.

‘Decentralization’ is the new big buzzword

We've made some rapid developments in technology over the past few years.

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and of course, cryptocurrencies, have been all over the headlines and have attracted a huge amount of attention as a result.

Now, the next step for the web is decentralization — and it's kind of a big deal.

Why do we need a decentralized web?

With all our data in the hands of a small number of huge centralized corporations, we are at the mercy of hackers, increased surveillance, and increased censorship.

Since the recent reports of Google — a company that has always prided itself on bringing the fairest, most accurate search results in the world to its users — working on a censored search engine for China, there have been mounting concerns by human rights groups about the future of the web.

In an interview, Patrick Poon, a China researcher for Amnesty International, stated, "In putting profits before human rights, Google would be setting a chilling precedent and handing the Chinese government a victory."

Considering how much of a monopoly Google currently has on the web (think YouTube, Google News, Google Maps, Google Drive and Google AdWords), such news is quite startling — and a little scary.

The big question many people are finding themselves asking is: What's the alternative?

It turns out, an encrypted, blockchain-operated decentralized web could be the answer.

Who are the major companies involved?

Over the past couple of years, there has been a significant rise in the number of companies dedicating their time, money, and resources to creating decentralized alternatives for some of the most popular centralized products.

TRON is one of the projects dedicated to establishing a decentralized web.

As one of the largest blockchain-based operating systems in the world, it has high throughput and can currently support approximately 2,000 transactions per second, drastically surpassing the likes of Bitcoin and Ethereum, which can support only 3-6 transactions and 25 transactions per second respectively.

It also has high scalability and availability options which can support a huge number of users. The team's overall long-term goal is to make decentralized software more versatile in order to, ultimately, expand the industry.

The TRON team is made up of over 100 experienced international blockchain enthusiasts, who have a significant amount of experience and have been employed by internet giants such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu.

Earlier this year, TRON announced Project Atlas, in which they acquired file-sharing giant BitTorrent. The move marks the first major crossover between file sharing and decentralized technology, and has helped increase TRON's profile.

Meanwhile, companies like Graphite Docs have made a decentralized alternative to Google Docs that encrypts all your work, files, and messages, while still making them shareable.

Unlike a centralized service where your private information is at the hands of the provider, the files stored on Graphite Docs are completely owned by the user.

Similarly, projects like Skycoin are developing the backbone of a new decentralized internet, with a mesh network that pays users for supporting it. The Skycoin project and specifically its leading product Skywire has over 9,500 nodes online. One of the project's community members even built a dedicated page with a regularly updated map of all active nodes around the world.

Skywire's current testnet has functions similar to TOR but is actually much faster. Community members can build and operate their own simple DIY nodes called 'Skyminers' to access and expand the mesh network. Soon, they will also be able to purchase officially sanctioned Skyminers from Skycoin's website. During the testnet phase, running an approved Skyminer on the network earns Skycoin currency on a monthly basis. When mainnet launches these Skyminers will earn currency based on how much bandwidth they forward and process. This project, like many others with net-neutrality values at their core, is aiming to bring freedom and power back to the users and away from centralized, controlling ISPs and governments.

The future of the internet

We're still a long way off complete decentralization, but the popularity of the concept is becoming increasingly apparent.

As the problems of centralization become more obvious, it's likely that we'll continue to see a huge push towards a decentralized future as we move further into 2019.

Cryptocurrencies have had their time in the spotlight but now it's time to focus on solving bigger problems.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
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