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As the internet turns 50, experts weigh future advances and emerging issues

As the internet turns 50, experts weigh future advances and emerging issues

The next 50 years may bring pervasive connectivity, brain-computer interfaces and walled-off areas of the internet

Credit: Dreamstime

As the internet turns 50, the technology is only picking up steam and continuing to reinvent many aspects of our lives, from the way we do business, and the way we find dates and jobs, to the way we run for political office.

The internet was born when the first Arpanet link was established between the University of California, Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute at 22:30 hours on October 29, 1969.

UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock and his student Charley Kline sent the first message to Bill Duval, a programmer at Stanford University.

That first communication was the spark that ignited the growth of the internet and everything it has brought with it – email, sharing pictures on Facebook, buying books and toasters on Amazon, watching movies on Netflix, cat videos, mean-spirited memes and election-tampering bots.

The spark was lit in 1969, but the internet really began to transform our lives in the late ‘90s to early 2000s.

“Oh, the internet is turning 50, but that first internet connection between Stanford and UCLA was between two guys. It didn’t involve the whole planet,” says Genevieve Bell, a Senior Fellow at Intel Corp. and director of the Autonomy, Agency and Assurance Institute at the Australian National University.

“It really started to change our lives and shake our consciousness around the time when Google became a verb. It all exploded at the intersection of Google, smartphones, apps, Amazon, Facebook and eBay.”

It’s difficult to quantify how the internet has changed the world.

If someone needs directions, most no longer go to the car to pull out a map. If it’s the middle of the night, they don’t have to wait till their bank opens at 9 a.m. to find out how much money is in their checking account. What did the president say at a rally last night? Go online to read his comments. We file our taxes online. We order food online.

“The internet has changed our ideas of time and space and distance,” Bell says. “The internet can instantly tell us who was president in 1969, and what hours the new restaurant in town is open. We can watch a rover moving around on Mars. I can keep track of my friends in America from Australia.”

The internet also has created new communities, bringing together people from all over the world because they share a common love for the same band, Pez dispensers or a TV chef.

Of course, the existence of the internet also means anonymous online trolls can flood social media with hateful comments, and overseas bots can post negative and untruthful tweets about politicians and celebrities to incite anger, dissension and even violence.

And while enterprises of all sizes use the internet to streamline their supply chain management operations and connect customers more closely with their brands, they also have to deal with hackers stealing customers’ financial information, or competing corporations and nation states planting negative online comments or using the internet to spy on their product plans or financials.

Privacy, or the increasing loss of it, also is a problem thanks to the internet – or more accurately, thanks to the way we use the internet.

“As the years have passed, the internet has been getting smarter,” says David Reinsel, a senior vice president at IDC, a technology analyst firm. “You’re no longer just going somewhere. It’s watching you go somewhere, and it is learning about you by what you purchase and what you search and what you ‘like.’

"With everything you do online, you leave a trail of information. Your digital self is more you than your physical self now. And it’s pushing information at you based on what it knows about you."

Companies are using all of that personal information to strategically target individual users with specific advertisements and marketing.

“Before a company would create a product for men or for a particular generation,” Reinsel says. “Now with the information they’re getting about us online, they can tailor it down to the individual. Think about the day you walk into a restaurant and you’re greeted by name and you’re presented a menu that takes into account what foods you like and your allergies.

"We’re not there yet, but that’s where we’re heading. The downside, though, is if that restaurant tells your health insurance company that you ordered the banana split. I have a problem with that."

Companies have a lot of opportunities to siphon information about our likes and dislikes, our political leanings, our hobbies and our 2 a.m. shopping sprees because our laptops, tablets and smartphones have become something of an extra appendage. We’re rarely unconnected.

The thought of it makes many people anxious and feel at loose ends. Surveys have shown that while many people scroll online news sites, Twitter and Facebook over their morning coffee, others can’t even wait until they get out of bed to check to see what’s happening in the world or what memes are being posted. We’re addicted.

We’re so connected that entire businesses – AirBnB, Uber, GrubHub and online mega giant Amazon – exist totally online.

Pervasive internet connectivity, brain-computer interfaces

So if the internet has changed our lives this dramatically in the last 50 years or even the last 15 years, what could the next 15 or 50 years bring?

While the internet has created the opportunity for people to work productively and successfully all while being out of the office, the advancement of technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality will only add to the power of telecommuting tools like Skype, Zoom, instant messaging and Slack, according to Marc Weber, internet history program founder at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

“There are companies that are really using remote technology to change the way they work,” Weber says. “But when we get satisfactory virtual reality over the Web and other remote enabling technologies, there will be an even bigger change. If you make it easy to do telepresence or other ways to virtually connect people, that will change the way people work.”

While Google failed with the initial release of its Google Glass wearable technology, which was widely panned as awkward and creepy, Weber predicts that more, and better, wearable devices will hit the market, and that will help change the way we connect to the internet.

“Right now, we access the internet through these tiny screens we carry in our pockets,” Weber says. “Whether it’s something like Google Glass, advances in smart watches, or a brain-computer interface so we can surf the Web in our mind’s eye, there will be some new technology that makes it easier to access the internet.

"We couldn’t predict Airbnb and Yelp before smartphones became common. How can we predict what will happen when we can get information through our brain-computer interface? The next big advance in how we access the internet will change the medium again."

Kleinrock, who today is a distinguished professor of computer science at UCLA, has great hopes for the next 10 or 20 years of the internet. For starters, we’ll be even more connected than we are now, he says, and that’s going to enable another exciting round of technological growth.

Instead of simply being well connected to the internet at home, in the office or at the local cafe, we’ll have a strong, fast connection when we’re walking the dog, traveling in the country or out in the middle of nowhere.

Picture a day when you wake up on 5G, have 5G access in your car and out in the world. You’d have a continuous flow of information, with persistent authentication unlocking everything from your car to your office building and your mailbox.

Sensors in the front door to your house might check your walking gait and your heart rate, and then connect to a chip in your body, and unlock the door as you approach it.

“I foresee a pervasive global nervous system on this planet so wherever you go, the internet is available and accessible,” Kleinrock says. “And the internet of things will explode. We’ll be able to take cyber space that lives in your laptops and cell phones and embed it in the walls, in our cars and in our bodies with logic, memory, sensors, cameras, microphones and displays.

"You won’t have to see them or touch them. We’ll have this invisible network. Add to that the fact that we will have intelligent software agents that live in the network and alert you to things, seek out things you want and handle your priorities.

"It’ll be maybe 10 years before we have the proper interface, like speech and brain wave sensing, so instead of flapping my tongue, I’ll be able to communicate with my walls or car by just thinking about something."

Dark side of internet connectivity

However, Kleinrock also envisions negatives in this futuristic scenario.

What if that widespread access doesn’t apply to everyone or every country?

“I do worry that we’re in for trouble,” he says. “I’m concerned that nation states will put walls around their national networks and won’t communicate with others. China, Russia, Turkey, even the EU – what if you can’t move from one of these areas of the internet to another?

"If we break up into separate networks, we lose an awful lot. We lose the ability to roam around without boundaries, and that has made the internet so powerful."

Charles Severance, clinical professor of information at the University of Michigan, says he also fears that what he calls today’s golden age of universal internet connectivity will go away.

“I think there will be dark forces, whether companies or governments, that will control our connections,” says Severance, who teaches a course called Internet History, Technology and Security.

“What if there’s a day when people will only be approved to connect to Facebook? Try to go to another site and the connection won’t work. Whoever holds these shared resources will become traffic cops and they will make you bribe them or pay them for resources.”

“We are in the golden age of the internet,” Severance says. “In 50 years, we’ll say, ‘When I was a kid, you could connect from anywhere. You could put up any website.’ And kids will say, ‘What?’ It’ll be so sad that only old people will remember how great the internet was. I’m not looking forward to the next 50 years. I’m just really happy now."

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