I was for­tu­nate to wit­ness the birth of the Internet up close. When the Web start­ed, it had only pages of text inter­con­nect­ed with hyper­links. But it had no peo­ple. I phoned one of the first Internet start-ups, with a mis­sion to add peo­ple to the Web.

Exactly twen­ty years ago, the com­pa­ny launched the first social-networking soft­ware, which includ­ed instant mes­sag­ing, voice over IP, chat rooms, web-based events, col­lab­o­ra­tive brows­ing. You see the inter­face from twen­ty years ago. And the that’s where we start­ed. I sold the com­pa­ny. I bought it back. I sold it again. Then I got tired of buy­ing and sell­ing and decid­ed to go back to basic science.

I was very for­tu­nate to receive two ERC Advanced Grants. The first one to work on bio­mol­e­c­u­lar com­put­ers, which are molecular-scale com­put­ers that can be pro­grammed to release drug mol­e­cules when and where they’re need­ed. The work received broad recog­ni­tion fol­low­ing. The sec­ond ERC grant is to dis­cov­er the human cell lin­eage tree. Knowledge of the human cell lin­eage tree will address many fun­da­men­tal impor­tant prob­lems in biol­o­gy and med­i­cine. For exam­ple, what is the ori­gin of metas­tases, which are the root cause of can­cer lethal­i­ty. And that’s an ongo­ing project.

But what hap­pened in the twen­ty years I was doing basic sci­ence? The inter­net has mush­roomed from zero to more than two bil­lion peo­ple. But what kind of civ­i­liza­tion did it become? If a bil­lion peo­ple decide they want to change the rules of a social net­work or replace its man­age­ment, can they do it? I don’t think it’s even conceivable.

So I think it’s fair to say that in the twen­ty years that have passed the inter­net has matured into its Middle Ages, in the sense that it now con­sists of feu­dal com­mu­ni­ties with feu­dal lords that con­trol every­thing, and bil­lions of serfs that have no a civ­il rights and can vote on nothing.

We know from his­to­ry that the Middle Ages were fol­lowed by the Age of Enlightenment. And one of the great thinkers of its time, John Stuart Mill, declared three basic rights. The right of thought and expres­sion. The right to pur­sue one’s tastes and inter­ests. (Both are sup­port­ed by the Internet in free coun­tries.) And the third, the right to assem­ble, or to unite. The right of assem­bly is a pre­con­di­tion for democ­ra­cy, because with­out the right to assem­ble you can­not take col­lec­tive action. You can­not form polit­i­cal parties.

My main point is that Internet tech­nol­o­gy today does not sup­port the right of assem­bly, and there­fore it can­not and does not sup­port democ­ra­cy. The rea­son is that even though we can eas­i­ly form groups on Google, Facebook, you name it, we don’t know who the peo­ple on the group are. A per­son [may not] be the per­son he says he is, or maybe mul­ti­ple per­son­ae are real­ly fakes oper­at­ed by the same person.

Fortunately, help is on its way. The United Nations and the World Bank have a goal to deploy elec­tron­ic iden­ti­ties for all of human­i­ty by two 2030. With elec­tron­ic iden­ti­ties, one can eas­i­ly ver­i­fy the per­son who is on the Internet and have con­firmed iden­ti­ty, and there­fore even­tu­al­ly sup­port the free­dom of assem­bly on the Internet. And then fol­low­ing it, we will also hope­ful­ly be able to form Internet democracy. 

But what kind of democ­ra­cy should the Internet fol­low? The Internet does not have the size and dis­tance lim­i­ta­tions that require rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy. On the oth­er hand, every­one vot­ing on every­thing all the time, although tech­ni­cal­ly pos­si­ble, is not prac­ti­cal. So which way should Internet go?

There is a new form of democ­ra­cy emerg­ing now on the Internet, which is a hybrid of rep­re­sen­ta­tive and direct democ­ra­cy, in which peo­ple can either vote direct­ly or del­e­gate their vote to some­one else they trust. Vote del­e­ga­tion can be once or ongo­ing, and can always be revoked or over­writ­ten. It requires very com­plex soft­ware and algo­rithms to do it. But what’s the Internet for if not for that?

So, del­ega­tive democ­ra­cy is like direct democ­ra­cy in that every vote is done by every­one, either direct­ly or via del­e­ga­tion. And it’s like pre­ven­ta­tive democ­ra­cy in that most of the time your votes are done by del­e­gates that you del­e­gate your vote to. There is a very small group of efforts in this area right now, but I believe that once elec­tron­ic IDs are broad­ly deployed, there will be a Cambrian explo­sion of democ­ra­cy on the inter­net, and we’ll have amaz­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic forums and com­mu­ni­ties that great­ly sur­pass Internet-less democracy.

Try to envi­sion a future in which the entire­ty of human­i­ty is unit­ed by say, a Facebook-like demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mu­ni­ty. It’s like the United Nations except the mem­bers will not be nations, it will be the peo­ple them­selves. And what I’d like to ask you is whether this vision of unit­ed human­i­ty is com­pelling to you, and what would you be will­ing to do to make it happen?

Thank you very much. 

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