The Human Web: Proving Humanness In The Digital Landscape

The Human Web: Proving Humanness In The Digital Landscape

Steven Smith, Head of Protocol at Tools For Humanity.


The age of AI is upon us. With the rapid advancement of technology comes incredible new opportunities, but it also brings new realities to address.

One such reality is the increasing challenge of distinguishing between human and synthetic interactions online. This difficulty leads to negative outcomes such as increased risk for fraud and lack of trust online for internet users. Taylor Swift and Super Bowl fans alike are some of the latest victims of online scams, losing upwards of thousands of dollars from fake ticket traps.

Retailers and other e-commerce providers are also suffering. Retailers are losing an estimated $100 billion per year from return fraud, bots and coupon stacking. We need solutions for these unintended consequences, and the framework for thinking about the complexities of technology today already exists.

Understanding The Six Webs

At the 1999 World Economic Forum in Davos, Bill Joy, an incredibly accomplished technologist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, introduced the “Six Webs.” This was a proposed taxonomy of the internet that included:

• The Near Web, which is the internet you see when you lean over a screen.

• The Here Web, the internet that is always with you as it’s accessed through a portable device like a cell phone.

• The Far Web, which is the internet you see when you sit back from a big screen, such as a TV.

• Webs categorized by usage, including business-to-business (B2B), device-to-device (D2D), and streaming or interactive webs (the Weird Web).

This was extremely forward-looking given that some of these webs didn’t even exist yet. At the same time, Joy expressed his concerns about the potential dangers of unchecked advancements in robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology, particularly in his article, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” published shortly after the Davos presentation. In the article, he predicts “the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years” and expresses worries about what this could mean for humanity.

The Need For A Seventh Web

In 2024, AI’s capabilities in persuasion and interaction are rapidly approaching (and in some cases surpassing) human levels even before these systems reach super-human intelligence. This evolution poses unique challenges, as AI systems can now convincingly pass Turing tests, such as Captchas, once thought to be reliable measures of human presence.

I believe these advancements underscore the emerging need for a seventh web: the “Human Web.” This is focused on humanness and providing the ability to distinguish real people from bots online.

This goes beyond traditional approaches to verification like a web of trust. While these are applicable for certain use cases, they lack the robustness needed to withstand the sophisticated capabilities of modern AI systems. First, there is no concept of Sybil resistance, which is the measure of a network’s ability to withstand attacks made by creating multiple identities. Second, AI, by its very nature, cannot physically verify itself in the real world—a task that requires a human presence.

To address the challenge of humanness, I believe we need an underpinning for the Six Webs based on a hardened Sybil signal capable of global scale. This is where the Human Web comes in—a paradigm shift to reliably identify humanness and differentiate people from bots online.

This seventh web is still up to us to define. But, to ensure it is as strong as possible to protect people from deepfakes, bots and other bad actors, it should be decentralized and accessible to the entire world while not compromising individual privacy.

Looking Ahead

We need to stop playing catch-up with AI and start identifying solutions. Realizing this seventh web will require that technology leaders get ahead of the curve by innovating and investing in solutions to prove humanness beyond those commonly used today. Developers of everyday online apps and services need to implement novel tools and technologies to ensure humans are safe and can easily be differentiated from bots online.

As with any new technology, adoption will take time. But unlike the ever increasingly complicated Captchas—which served their purpose initially—the technology that will unlock the Human Web needs to be low-friction and intuitive.

Final Thoughts

As we reflect on Bill Joy’s insights and their relevance today, the importance of systems that prove humanness and have the potential to safeguard the human element in our interconnected digital landscape becomes unmistakably clear. It’s not just about distinguishing humans from machines; it’s about ensuring that the digital world remains a space for genuine human connection and interaction—the essence of the Human Web.

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