How the Blockchain revolution will decentralize power and end corruption
History shows us why we can't trust centralized power. So what can we trust?
Brian Behlendorf: What are the strengths of the blockchain technology? The strengths are that we can take many business processes today—and by business processes you might even include land titles and buying and selling a home, you might include provenance tracking of products like diamonds and food supply, that sort of thing. One of the real strengths is being able to take these systems that today depend very much on bureaucracy and paperwork—very human processes for sure, but processes that get bogged down—and actually automate them and cut the cost of a lot of this, but also, by automating them, improve the auditability of them.
People pay a lot of money to have third-party auditors come in and make sure that the claims that are in their books are actually real. It’s a tremendous burden and it’s why bureaucracy often requires three signatures to do anything interesting. To send a shipping container, for example, from Asia to the United States, about half the cost of that is in the paperwork involved in coordinating between 20 to 30 different organizations for sign off, from the biller materials all the way to the person it’s delivered to.
If blockchain technology can help us automate these systems, make them more efficient, it may also ensure that we keep the opportunities for fraud and the opportunities for corruption to a minimum. If we make it hard to steal people’s land, or to ship illicit product in shipping containers—or simply in approving a permit for construction on your home, holding that up for days or months until you pay me an expediter fee—which all too often happens in home remodeling—if we can make these processes a bit more automated, more transparent, then I think we can do a lot to improve society in these ways.
And that kind of wraps together two or three different advantages of this. The other advantage is: it’s a fun space to be in. There’s a lot of dynamic thinking going on, a lot of new companies, a lot of technologists talking about very far-off concepts, and it’s finally a place to get people excited about technology, especially as it is so much about decentralization.
What are the challenges? One of the challenges right now for sure is that it’s early days with the technology. There are a couple of places where there’s clearly a lot of value being created, there’s clearly a lot of activity, say, in the cryptocurrency space, but in many ways, again, like the early days of the web we don’t yet know what the big winners will be from the technology, but we know that this is something everybody will need in one way or another.
So the challenge right now is that there are a lot of options, and many of them are fairly immature when it comes to actually building and running them for big systems. That’s one reason we’ve chosen, at Hyperledger, to focus on: what are the simplest things we can do now and ship out as product that people can use that they can actually run?
And the second thing is really understanding that—and this is really hard for many industries and many actors in industries—every use case I could give you around where blockchain technology is applicable, you could always come back to me as a technologist and say, “Wouldn’t this be more efficient, faster, cheaper to do as a central database? Isn’t somebody just going to pull a Google or pull an Amazon and build a central database to track all the fish supply catches and shipping this or that?”
And the answer is always yes, that it is more efficient and cheaper, but it’s also expensive when you think about the cost of having, politically and from a business perspective, having a central actor in a marketplace. Many marketplaces simply don’t want that.
The banks of the world don’t want one big bank at the center. People who care about their land title worry about the corruptibility of the land title office. In certain countries that’s a big issue.
Blockchain technology allows us to build these same kind of systems but in a world where we don’t want to or we can’t trust central actors. And that’s hard to wrap your head around, especially because everyone believes they can be trusted. “Hey, if I’m the center of a market you can trust me! What do you mean you can’t trust me?” It feels like a very personal affront, perhaps, even to say that. But it’s essential, I think, to realize you can’t really grow your market beyond those who can really trust you if that’s your business model.
So that’s, I think, hard for some people to get the conceptual model around, just like it might’ve been hard in 1993 to understand what it means to send an email to someone on the other side of the planet or to buy a television or buy a car through a website. You would’ve been told you were crazy to think that people would be doing that in 1993, now we take it almost for granted. So these are the challenges, but I see many people addressing these challenges.
But most recently I was a venture capitalist. And so I looked at a lot of different companies, including companies in the Bitcoin space, and increasingly the blockchain space, and I was kind of bored by all the examples I was given until I saw one company approach us and talk about land titles and emerging markets. Land titles—why would that be interesting?
Well, there’s an economist named Hernando de Soto who wrote a book 'The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid', who talked about how in many countries citizens don’t have title to the land that they might have been living on for generations.
Where a title is something we understand as a set of documents recorded by a county registrar or in a government office that allows us to prove not only to someone we’re hoping to sell some property to that we actually own it, but also prove to a mortgage lender that we have this property, and we’d like a loan and if we fail to pay the loan then they get the property. That’s something that many people in the emerging markets do not have access to or historically have not.
So many countries started to digitize and introduce land titling systems and realized they had a problem where if that was digital it was also very easy for somebody to corrupt.
It’s easy for a government bureaucrat who desired a piece of property, perhaps for their son to have some beachfront property north of the capital or because an oil company wanted to come in and drill, it was pretty easy for them to step in and erase all history of somebody’s ownership of property in a way that—because it’s digital—disappears forever. When something is paper, yes, you can set fire to a paper record, but it’s actually really hard to completely eliminate a rich paper trail in something like land title.
So this is a problem and the solution to that problem that this company had come up with was to implement a land title system as a distributed ledger, as a database—but one that is shared immediately, every time something is recorded into this database it's shared with a large circle of other companies and agencies and NGOs that act as witnesses for that transaction.
And if somebody’s land was taken away from them, A, it would be noticed very quickly; that person would have a history of what happened on that property and they would be able to see that immediately, but B, if their signature wasn’t on the right document, it wouldn’t even be accepted as a transaction on that network.
So land titling, and the reason I bring it up here is this is interesting when you’re talking about a country like Honduras or the Republic of Georgia or Estonia like other countries that have started to adopt this for economic development reasons, but think about the mortgage crisis in 2008.
For any of you who have seen the movie 'The Big Short', you remember these scenes of panic selling of these instruments which were tranches of risk in the mortgage industry where nobody really had a clear understanding of what the underlying assets were, the houses and the mortgages that pointed to those houses; who owned the paperwork for those mortgages? Who owned the title on those homes? This was data that was lost inside of these bureaucracies that didn’t have the manpower to respond to the queries, and in many cases you ended up with people selling assets for pennies on the dollar and for people with homes with 95 percent paid-off mortgages getting eviction notices from somebody who owned less than a percent of the interest in that mortgage.
All of this to say there are many people who believe that if blockchain technology had been implemented at the beginning of the 2000s for the land title and mortgage industry, not only would you have had the data there to understand who owned these assets, but those mortgages, if they had been built as smart contract systems and those tranches of risk as smart contract systems, that unwinding process where everybody felt like they needed to move out of that asset might have been a more orderly, programmatic, 'Here’s all the data, here’s how it plays out; now we don’t have to sell it for pennies on the dollar, we can sell it for ten percent off of the price that we thought it was actually worth.'
And that might have saved a lot of peoples' homes, avoided a lot of real friction in the market but also a lot of the volatility that we saw. And so the opportunity for distributed ledgers to both give us new capabilities but also help us with auditing, help us with the stability of markets, even in scenarios where trust is really at a premium—that’s the real potential here. And this might sound like back-office or science fiction kind of scenarios, but that’s what’s driving a tremendous amount of interest in the industry today.
When the world has gone corrupt, who can you trust? Blockchain is stepping up. The word might ring a bell for its connection with Bitcoin, but internet pioneer Brian Behlendorf is looking at this technology beyond its use in cryptocurrency. Blockchain is an open ledger system where transactions are irreversibly recorded and immediately shared to a distributed network of witnesses (companies, agencies, individuals). The beauty of this idea is in its decentralization—if no one person or institution holds power, then that power cannot be abused. The potential for this technology is enormous: it could significantly lower corruption and eliminate fraud in many industries like banking, freight, construction, and even trace the provenance of goods like diamonds. "Blockchain technology allows us to build these same kind of systems but in a world where we don’t want to or we can’t trust central actors," says Behlendorf. Here he describes how a blockchain system is being used to protect civilian land titles in developing nations, and demonstrates how blockchain could have prevented or severely lessened the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. Brian Behlendorf is the executive director of Hyperledger; for more info, visit hyperledger.org.
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Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.
The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.
So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet.
By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.
- 2050 is predicted to be a bleak milestone for the oceans - but it's not too late to avert disaster.
- Here are 10 actions the world can take to strengthen and preserve our oceans for generations to come.