Futurist Thomas Frey: In March of 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first online message that would eventually lead to the World Wide Web, it was similar to the first car leaving an inventor’s workshop.
The highway system for cars started on horse and buggy trails and the Internet was born on switching networks designed for telephones. With roads turning into sophisticated highways and phone lines morphing into fiber and wireless networks, we begin to get a sense as to where we’ve come from.
But when it comes to an Internet with a gazillion devices talking to another gazillion devices, streaming audio-video, and a global user base that is rapidly climbing, where are the opportunities that will arise from a next-gen Internet?
With the Internet being a multidimensional communications network, I like to think of it from the perspective of being inside a bag with people pushing on all of the outer walls simultaneously.
The future of the Internet is not any one thing, it’s many.
For this reason, I’ve broken the transformative nature of the Internet into eight causal dimensions, and I’ll use these dimensions to describe how each is expanding our understanding of this super complex mechanism.
Eight Expanding Dimensions
- Capacity – Data Transmission, Processing, & Storage
- Human Interfaces
- Privacy, Security, Trust, Ethics, & Standards
Nielsen’s “Law of Internet Bandwidth” says that users’ bandwidth will grow by 50% per year (10% less than Moore’s Law for computer speed). The new law fits data from 1983 to 2014.
The dots in the diagram show the various speeds of the Net ranging from early acoustic 300 bps modems in 1984 to the 120 Mbps lines in 2014. The data points are impressively close to the exponential growth curve for the 50% annualized growth stated by Nielsen’s Law.
NOTE: The y-axis is based on a logarithmic scale, making the straight line in the diagram an exponential growth curve.
It may seem ironic, but many users are still discovering the Internet for the first time. Penetration rates continue to climb from roughly 16 million in 1995 to around 3 billion today.
Even though some are expecting the number of directly connected users to level out around 4 billion over the next decade, the number of people indirectly connected will soon be nearly 100%.
Both Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are driving the effort to create a more pervasive Internet filled with satellites, drones, and balloon systems that connect us to even the most remote regions of the earth.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt predicts virtually everyone will be connected in some manner by 2020, with each of these 7 billion-plus unique nodes becoming a critical source of data collection and transmission.
3.) Capacity – Data Transmission, Processing, & Storage
An exabyte is the equivalent of 1 billion gigabytes. A zettabytes is 1 thousand exabytes.
After sifting through hundreds of conflicting reports on projected data capacity, I found it difficult to describe what’s happening in this space in ways that most people can understand.
As an example, Cisco projects “the data created by Internet of Everything will reach 403 zettabytes per year by 2018, up from 113 ZB in 2013. By 2018, these devices will create twice the amount of data end users send to data centers and be 47 times greater than total data center traffic.”
At the same time, over 90% of Internet traffic is video, and the Internet wasn’t designed for this level of video data.
“Big data” has no official definition. Rather, it refers to huge volumes of data that are created, captured, and analyzed.
Big data is becoming increasingly critical in the day-to-day operation of society, adding amazing levels of insight into social structures and fascinating details about the ever-changing human experience.
Recently President Obama signed an executive order to fund the world’s first “exascale” computer to come online in 2025.
Exascale computing refers to computing systems capable of at least one exaFLOPS, or a billion billion calculations per second. Such capacity represents a thousand fold increase over the first petascale computer that came into operation in 2008.
While this sounds impressive, it’s just one complex computer that will inevitably be outdated soon after it’s been built.
Transmission, processing, and storage are all interrelated. The Internet cannot progress unless all three are somewhat in equilibrium.
To put the exponential growth of Moore’s Law into perspective, researchers at FutureTimeLine project:
- By 2030, a micro-SD card (or equivalent device) will have the storage capacity of 20,000 human brains.
- By 2043, a micro-SD card (or equivalent device) will have a storage capacity of more than 500 billion gigabytes – equal to the entire contents of the Internet in 2009.
- By 2050 – if trends continue – a device the size of a micro-SD card will have storage equivalent to three times the brain capacity of the entire human race.
How resilient is the Internet itself to attack? Will it survive military strikes, deliberate hacker assaults, immense solar flares, or even a massive downturn in the global economy?
Perhaps the most insidious demon of all will be the relentless aging of legacy systems over time.
As of July 2015, there were 13 root servers that controlled the Internet. Originally there were 13 physical servers with 10 located in the U.S. and the other three located in Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Tokyo.
However, for durability purposes, there are no longer location-specific physical servers. Rather each server operates in multiple geographical locations using a routing technique called “anycast” addressing. This means that every root server uses redundant equipment to provide reliable service even if there is a failure of hardware or software.
Even though there are only 13 root servers per se, servers now exist in multiple locations on different continents, and the number is growing along with the demands of the Internet.
At the same time, all of the operational equipment driving the Internet has a definable life expectancy, as do the systems, people, and methodologies. This is no different than any other piece of infrastructure.
The overall management of the Internet is handled by ICANN, an international non-profit based in California. They are charged with ensuring the network’s stable and secure operation.
Over the coming decades, the durability issue will come front and center. Building a World Wide Web for long-term survivability, sustainability, and economic viability will be in everyone’s best interest.
5.) Human Interfaces
It all started with the keyboard, pushing buttons to form words, translating letters into meaningful phrases.
For those who did poorly with brain-to-keyboard coordination, our early text-based Internet was not a friendly place.
Then along came the mouse and hyperlinks, and the typing experience suddenly turned into a surfing experience. As connection speeds improved, we added graphics, animated gifs, charticles, and videos.
After countless years of research, we now have input devices that can understand common speech and the gaming world has turned gesture controls into a performance art.
So what comes next?
We still have a long ways to go before we will have a well-functioning brain interface, but we will take many baby steps every year as we inch our way in that direction.
Optical interface devices such as augmented reality and virtual reality are picking up steam. Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens, Facebook’s Oculus VR, and Samsung’s Game VR are all part of a growing cadre of devices aimed at rewriting how we experience the world.
As we add growing levels of intelligence to everything around us, our devices will begin making many of our decisions for us. For example, driverless cars will eliminate the need for us to make 10,000 micro decisions per hour while we drive.
Smart homes will know when to heat and cool a room, turn lights on and off automatically as we need them, and play perfect music at the perfect volume to match our ever-changing moods.
When the Internet first began, it was simple crude computers linking to other simple crude computers. Over time, mainframes gave way to personal computers, and wireless modems paved the way for smartphones, tablets, watches, and a myriad of other devices.
As the Internet of Things added connection to objects we never dreamed connectable, we began adding an entirely new dimension to the Web.
Sensor technology is expected to break through the “trillion sensor” threshold around 2024, creating data streams from virtually every surrounding surface.
We will soon see sensors embedded on the sides of house, bridges, cars, and even woven into the fabric of our clothing.
In addition to sensors, microchips will add computational power to whatever is being detected.
Skin sensors and body sensors combined with microchips will monitor a person’s health in real time.
3D printing will soon be embedding tiny sensors, microchips, and transmitters into commonly printed objects. Solar cells will be printed onto roofs, pavement readers will be printed onto roads, and identity transmitters will enable world travelers to avoid security and customs lines everywhere.
Future devices will tap into ambient power in a form of wireless energy, so we will no longer have a need for cords, or be limited by batteries, or have to remember to plug things in at night.
Every new sensor, microchip, transmitter, and receiver will add tiny new dimensions on the micro-scales, while satellites, drones, and balloon systems will add macro-scale dimensions.
7.) Privacy, Security, Trust, Ethics, & Standards
Over two years have now passed since Edward Snowden broke ranks with the NSA’s spy culture, showing the world what kind of holes we have in our so-call private lives.
At the same time, the number of bad actors intent on taking down major businesses and entire countries is climbing, and surveillance technologies are a hugely important tool for tracking down those with evil intent.
More security means less privacy, and more convenience means less security. Much like playing a constant rock-paper-scissors game, we are still a long ways from solving the privacy-security-convenience game.
So where does that leave our privacy?
Radical transparency advocates still believe that a fully transparent world will be a far safer place, exposing those with malicious intent long before any damage is done.
But a radially transparent world will mean knowing everything about every other person, including their bank accounts, credit card numbers, and passwords. In this scenario we lose our ability to own things, a foundational premise on which today’s world has been built.
Since the Internet runs on data, will it ever be possible to reach some sort of equilibrium between the constantly shift norms involving privacy, security, trust, and ethics?
In January, President Obama proposed a “Privacy Bill of Rights,” but so far it hasn’t received much support. Privacy is a global issue and not a standard that can be imposed by a single country.
In the future, we will need something akin to a “Geneva Convention on Privacy,” to establish global standards along with practical guidelines, legal definitions, definable limits, monitoring tools to signal whenever there is a privacy breach, and enforcement provisions for handling abuse.
Even though privacy gets most of the attention, it’s the incestuous relationship between privacy, security, trust, ethics, standards, and several dozen more philosophical underpinnings that are preventing the Internet from reaching its full potential.
Whether it’s human intelligence or artificial intelligence, or a combination of both, the Internet is the tide that raises all boats.
The Internet gives us the ability to function together in a form of swarm intelligence. Think of a “swarm” as a cohesive grouping of individuals, all working together as a dynamic unified system.
Nature had demonstrated that social creatures, by functioning together in closed-loop systems, can outperform the vast majority of individual members when solving problems and making decisions.
As humans, we don’t possess the natural ability to form real-time swarms, but Internet technologies can help fill in the missing pieces, using artificial means to form the critical interstitial connections.
Most people who try swarming agree – swarms are fun. In a study performed recently at California State University with college seniors, 60% rated the experience of swarming as “very fun” on a subjective scale, with no users expressing negative feelings.
In the coming years, human swarming will transition from an intellectual curiosity to a powerful tool that unleashes group intelligence in a wide variety of fields, applications, and settings.
A future Internet will even help us expand our understanding of what intelligence is and how to apply it.
When we look at technological innovations of the past 1,000 years, the Internet is probably the one that has had the greatest impact on everyday life in developed economies.
Cisco says that the number of mobile-connected devices exceeded the world’s population in 2014, so it’s safe to say that the rest of the world is not far behind.
As the Internet expands, the impacts will be even more significant than what we’ve experienced so far.
It will diminish the meaning of borders, and new “nations” of those with common interests will emerge online and exert influence far beyond the capacity of our current nation-states to control.
An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities with less money spent on buildings and teachers.
Major businesses and even entire industries will form, expand, and collapse far faster than ever before.
Every business, every institution, and every individual will feel the effect of our every expanding Internet.
But contrary to the way Hollywood likes to portray it, our future Internet is not Skynet. The Internet itself is neither good nor bad. It will be up to us to define how it affects each of our lives.