Holodecks, Satellites and the Semantic Web: Five Innovators Foresee the Internet’s Future

April 24, 2014

The Internet is a moving target, constantly changing and evolving. As I contemplate its likely trajectory over the next 10 years, I hope whatever form it takes, it continues to exhibit the original values we established in its earliest years. These include the principles of ethics, trust, openness, free access, and shared content. However, I do fear and worry that we are already seeing trends toward certain governments controlling Internet access, conflicts between privacy and security, content and pricing control by a few large players, and more.

At the same time, I foresee a healthy blurring across many disciplines and domains. These “white spaces” open up tremendous opportunities and possibilities: the blurring of physical and virtual reality; the blurring of geography and national identity; the leapfrogging of technologies in developing nations; the rise of autonomous machines and intelligence; the pervasiveness of mobile devices and access; the ubiquity of smart spaces with everything Internet-connected.

The next decade will likely be characterized with extreme mobility, mass personalization, video addiction, location-based services, surprising applications, and continued dramatic societal and lifestyle changes -- and all this wonderful technology will disappear into the infrastructure and be there to serve and assist us wherever, whomever and whenever we are.

Today in Hong Kong 24 new inductees were welcomed into the Internet Hall of Fame, which was launched by the Internet Society in 2012 to recognize individuals who have pushed the boundaries of technological and social innovation through the design and advancement of the global Internet. Because I was a member of the original inductee class, the Hall of Fame asked me to interview some of this year’s inductees about their visions for the future of the Internet, and what obstacles might stand in the way of these ideals. Hailing from Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America, these inductees provided interesting insights into how the Internet is likely to evolve over the next decade in their corners of the globe, and what we as a global society need to do to prepare for the coming challenges of this evolution.

What is your hope for the future of the Internet in your part of the world?

Dorcas Muthoni (Kenya), founder of e-government and business software services firm OpenWorld: My hope is that robust connectivity gets to the last mile and becomes a part of everyone’s life. Mobile devices appear to hold the greatest chance as De Facto end-user devices. I really hope that Africans begin to produce more Internet content and applications.

Karlheinz Brandenburg (Germany), MP3 creator: The Internet provides great means of communication. My hope is it will continue to do this. This requires access for all and freedom of speech, with a minimum amount of ‘forbidden content.’

Demi Getschko (Brazil), member of the team that brought the first Internet connection to Brazil: The Internet has grown in Latin America and the Caribbean at a higher rate than the world average. Our primary mission now is to make invaluable network principles and characteristics -- openness, freedom of expression and accessibility -- stronger and more stable, and to encourage the freedom to innovate. Open innovation will allow young people around the world to better compete in the new economy.

Dennis Jennings (Ireland), designer/developer of the National Science Foundation Network: I hope the Internet will remain a global open and free communications infrastructure for existing applications, as well as new and exciting ones. I hope European Internet stakeholders will take the lead in addressing the issues of data retention, privacy, crime, security and personal safety, and will work to eliminate some of the more egregious behaviors by commercial, telecommunications, security and governmental actors that have undermined European citizens’ trust in the Internet.

Srinivasan Ramani (India), who helped establish the first international Internet connection from India: Information Technology and Services (ITS) and IT-Enabled Services (ITES) contribute more to the Indian GNP than the monetary value of all food grain produced; yet unlike agriculture, which employs over 500 million people and feeds the whole population, ITS and ITES employ only a few million people directly. I hope the Internet’s impact will drive improvements in education, increase the size of the IT/ITES sectors, and make them better serve the Indian population.

How will the Internet evolve in your part of the world? What kind of impact will it have in 10 years?

Muthoni: With more users, hopefully the Internet will be more affordable as market dynamics shape pricing structures. In the next 10 years, Internet infrastructure will be more robust and widely available. I see cloud and mobile applications as the core of the Kenyan and African software industry.

Brandenburg: Most data has gone from text to audio (music) to video. The future will bring us even more into the same direction: telepresence (the "Holodeck" for everybody). I don’t think communication via digital media will replace real world meetings, but we will enjoy communicating over fixed or mobile data lines much more than we can today.

Getschko: In 10 years most people should be able to access the Internet. It is a fundamental tool for the empowerment of citizens, bringing together access to education and culture. We have seen and continue to see the strongest growth of content in local language and issues of community interest. Social networks, in particular, will continue to bring together people and give them the power to express their positions.

Jennings: We will enter an age of “infinite” computing power and communications bandwidth (with 2+ Gbit/sec download speeds likely in cities, and 200+ Mbit/sec download in rural areas), and “unlimited” data storage. This will enable radically new and unanticipated applications and services on all devices, but dramatically increase risks to personal privacy and freedom. The (so-called) Internet of Things, including robotic things, will further transform our lives, but bring new privacy and security issues that need to be anticipated.

Ramani: The coverage and quality of Internet access over the cell phone is not great in many parts of the world. Innovation is required to fix this. I will bet on low altitude satellites. They don’t give you 4G bandwidth, but can give text-level data to everyone who needs it all over the world! Early work on the Internet dealt with information plumbing—getting the data out there, accurately and reliably. Plumbing made civilization possible, but what really matters is what the plumbing carries. Technology for education that is being created using facilities that the Internet offers will have a big impact. So, will the semantic web -- which deals with coding information so that it “makes sense” to computers.

What will it take for your vision to be realized?

Brandenburg: We need governments all over the world to agree on basic rules for the freedom of communication. Without efforts to get there, we will see a time of censorship and limited freedom.

Getschko: In Brazil, distances are quite large and the population is distributed throughout the country. It will be crucial to employ new and innovative technologies to overcome these obstacles and we will need help from government programs to disseminate the necessary infrastructure. We also need to work at the local level to lower the barrier of access to equipment and services, and to train future users.

Jennings: Addressing and finding a balance between commercial, societal and other interests will take significant effort by all stakeholders, and greater clarity on various roles will be needed. The Internet community must ensure that the capability for global, open and free, end-to-end, any-to-any Internet communications infrastructure is preserved; governments must work together to establish a cooperative regulatory environment—national and international—that balances various competing interests, and must develop a cooperative global security and policing environment that denies criminals the freedom to operate at will; and global civil society must find ways to keep all Internet stakeholders honest and accountable, including and especially governments.

Ramani: It is possible and necessary to set up a Wi-Fi access point in every school and public library, limiting access to specific domains such as .edu. What President Kennedy said about roads will apply to the Internet as infrastructure: "It is not our wealth that built our roads, but it is our roads that built our wealth."

Dr. Leonard Kleinrock pioneered the mathematical theory of packet networks, the technology underpinning the Internet. An original developer of the ARPANET, his UCLA lab’s host computer became the first ARPANET node in September 1969 and a month later he directed the first transmission to pass over the network. He was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.

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