3 visions for the future of the Internet


The Internet may be the greatest creation of modern technology, and it is a work in progress. At the heart of its ongoing development are three different visions of what the Internet might become. In this article, we’ll explore the three ideas guiding the technological and architectural future of the Internet: Web 3.0, Web3, and the semantic web.

Web 3.0: The future of the Internet

Web 3.0 is the most expansive of the three visions for the Internet. It encompasses and cross–pollinates the ideas of the other two. In essence, Web 3.0 takes the ideas of Web 2.0 and says, “What’s next?”

Web 2.0 generally refers to the web that was developed during the early part of this century. This iteration of the web introduced more user-modifiable applications such as social media. It also brought forward key technological innovations like Ajax. Web 1.0, built on straight HTML and cumbersome JavaScript snippets, looks utterly different from the advanced Web 2.0 applications of today.

Presumably, we are in the process of developing Web 3.0, culminating in applications that will make the web as we know it today seem prosaic. Although the term Web 3.0 is sometimes associated with specific ideas or technologies, it ultimately refers to the next generation of Internet software and interfaces.

Evolving Web 2.0

There’s no question that modern applications using the latest techniques are far more advanced than those of the first-generation of Web 2.0. But are they radically different? Are they different in kind? Not really. What we see today is more like Web 2.5 than the full-on evolution to Web 3.0.

So, what are the pivotal technologies of the current Web 2.5 iteration? One is the cloud. While it’s become so commonplace as to be nearly invisible, virtualized infrastructure really came into its own in the last 10 years. The cloud is definitive to how web applications work today.

Two more definitive Web 2.5 technologies are reactive frameworks (like React) and NoSQL data stores. Both were significant refinements in their field that made a big impact.

These three technologies—cloud computing, NoSQL and reactive programming, are the pillars of Web 2.5. We can expect them to continue to play a big role in the next iteration of the Internet, but they are not the essence of Web 3.0.

That essence is hard to pin down because we are in the process of discovering it now. But we do have enough in front of us to see it in broad strokes. At least, we have enough to go out on a limb and make a call.

Blockchain is the third and most forward-thinking technology underlying Web 3.0. It does things on the Internet in a fundamentally different way from what we’ve seen before. But blockchain is technically not Web 3.0. Its proponents have adopted a different term for the evolution they envision, called Web3.

Web3 is not Web 3.0

In the time-honored tradition of overloading terms for maximum confusion, Web 3.0 and Web3 mean similar but different and vaguely defined things. The two terms are frequently used synonymously, just two different ways of referring to the same overarching idea.

But the distinctions are worth keeping, because Web 3.0 really refers to the overall character of the next web, whereas Web3 refers to the parallel realm of blockchain innovations.

Web3 will have a significant impact on the final meaning of Web 3.0. In practice, Web 3.0 will incorporate Web3. If blockchain ends up having a big enough role in the future of the Internet (which I believe it will) Web 3.0 could end up being Web3. 

We’ll discuss blockchain’s influence more, but first let’s consider the third player in the current evolution of the Internet.

The semantic web

The semantic web is an idea that comes to us from the creator of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee (and others). Essentially, the semantic web incorporates meta-data into the information that applications issue. This meta-data describes the meaning, intent, and relationship of the data (the semantics), and thereby transforms the Internet into a machine-navigable web of interrelated resources.

In essence, the semantic web seeks to transform the Internet from a database into a knowledge base. It is a natural extension or elaboration of the existing web, and probably has the most official claim to Web 3.0 given its pedigree. Moving the implementation forward in practice is tricky, however, because it increases effort without benefitting the application or its developers. It requires a rethinking of how applications are architected. To some extent it also requires abandoning familiar technologies (like RESTful APIs that are not really RESTful). In the long-term, technologies like JSON-LD and HTMX will mediate the adoption of semantic web ideas, which lead to a more meaningful web. 

Generative AI and the semantic web

When we consider the semantic web and Web3 together, we have two potent trends charting the future course of Web 3.0: decentralization (Web3) and data linking (semantic web). The first is an upstart, the other the standing heir.

In Berners-Lee’s introduction to the idea of the semantic web, he introduces the browser of the future, which will hold the contextual information to empower the user’s interactions. This semantic web, he writes, will know what it knows, “without needing artificial intelligence on the scale of 2001’s Hal or Star Wars‘s C-3PO.”

Funny enough, we’ve just passed a sort of tipping point with generative AI, and while it’s no C-3PO, genAI’s impact on the future development of the web will be significant. The drive to make data more semantic, contextual, and relatable took a huge step forward with the advent of modern AI, especially large language models. And it turns out we didn’t need to add semantic data, after all. Instead, we just created giant probability machines to simulate it after the fact. 

Where the semantic meta-data idea has only come together in a slow and piecemeal fashion, generative AI has taken the world by storm. Suddenly, the big pile of inert information encapsulated in URLs has come to life.

Without question, generative AI will influence Web 3.0. Whether it represents a total upheaval remains to be seen. We may in fact already be over the big hump (or hype cycle) for this generation of AI, and into the next phase of extrapolating its finer details. (Blockchain is in a similar life cycle. What Gartner calls the plateau of productivity.)

Blockchain, AI, and the future web

It remains to be seen exactly where the boundary will be drawn between traditional applications and blockchain applications (aka dApps—distributed apps), but we’ll eventually see elements of the blockchain touching virtually every aspect of the web. Right now, blockchain is heavily impacting the financial industry, where decentralized finance (DeFi) is upsetting the apple cart with near-instantaneous, low-fee transactions that don’t require a broker, bank, or clearinghouse.

Identity and authorization are probably next on the list to be fundamentally changed by blockchain. See things like Sign in with Ethereum (SiWE) for a taste of what’s to come.

Next up is AI, used as both a tool for building software and a tool used in software. In the first use, developers have already become accustomed to employing AI as a coding assistant (including its sometimes confounding mistakes). In the near future, we’ll probably see more sophisticated applications for design and architecture, data manipulation, and more. We can also expect AI-augmented applications to make the interface between people and data less awkward.

All of this brings us to an interesting question: which technology will exert more influence over the future of the Internet? I believe blockchain will ultimately play a more differentiating role. The reason is that generative AI takes existing procedures and makes them (sometimes radically) more effective. But blockchain does something fundamentally different: trustless, public, secure computing.

Conclusion

Web 3.0 implies the full use of Web 2.0 techniques (including user interactivity, cloud platforms, reactivity, and NoSQL) with the increasing incorporation of elements from blockchain, semantics and AI. Ultimately, Web 3.0 will be a union of blockchain and traditional applications, which better incorporate both semantics and generative AI. The winners will be technologies and teams that make a gradual melding and refinement of this concoction manageable.

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