We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

The Future of the Internet

Hang tough, surfers: Here come adventures unimagined, dangers undreamed of, and a towering wave of chaos to test your nerve

By John Fleischman
Nov 1, 2000 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:24 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

A decade ago few people could have imagined the Internet of 2000— almost limitless information on a unique medium shared with anyone who can get there. But this remarkably disruptive technology has only begun to flex its power, and the big question so far in this millennium is clear: What's next for the Internet? To find out, Discover magazine and the Disney Institute convened a panel of creative, influential techies whose careers have proven they're pretty good at predicting the future. Read and prepare.

Who's Who on the Panel:

BRAN FERREN was until recently the president of research and development for the Walt Disney Company. He left to cofound a new company called Applied Minds, with partners Danny Hillis and Doug Carlston. Their focus is to invent new concepts and technologies that will make our world a better place.

FRANCINE GEMPERLE directs the Interaction Design Studio at Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Complex Engineered Systems, where she focuses on finding intuitive ways for people to work with technology. She conducts research in mobile and wearable computing and human-computer interaction.

MARTIN GREENBERGER holds the IBM chair in technology at the Anderson School of the University of California at Los Angeles. He is also senior fellow at the Milken Institute and president of the Council for Technology and the Individual, a nonprofit foundation addressing the human dimensions of technology.

TED HANSS is director of applications development for Internet2, an effort by more than 170 universities to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies. He is on loan to Internet2 from the University of Michigan, where he is in the information technology division.

JEFF HARROW is a senior consulting engineer with Compaq's technology and corporate development division. He holds patents for technologies in network management and user interfaces and is the author and editor of The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing, a weekly newsletter that explores computing trends.

ROBERT LUCKY is corporate vice president of applied research at Telcordia Technologies. Early in his career at Bell Labs he invented the adaptive equalizer, a key part of high-speed modems. He has led government and military science advisory boards.

MARVIN MINSKY is Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, where he works in the AI Lab and the Media Lab. He has often been called the father of artifical intellegence and is the author of several books, including The Society of MindS. JOY MOUNTFORD has been working in interface design more than 20 years. She was in charge of the Human Interface Group at Apple Computer, then led projects on interactive musical development for Interval Research Corporation in Seattle. She recently formed her own interaction design company, Idbias.

BRAN FERREN: One thing I'm wondering about these days is what sort of world the Internet is going to create. I look around and see free dialogues taking place between people everywhere. Will that lead us to one connected world? Will national boundaries collapse? Will new sorts of boundaries emerge as people form new and vital associations through their experiences on the Net?

ROBERT LUCKY: As an old telephone person, what amazes me is that in the past, when I called you on the phone, I had to know you and look up your number. But the Internet enables associations to form spontaneously. It might be people with whom I share a hobby or a particular belief, but it's there, ready to combust at any time, and there are thousands upon thousands of communities like that out there right now.

JEFF HARROW: What fascinates me is how the Internet has completely broken down geography. When I was a kid, you never even conceived of talking to people in another country. My son was playing an interactive game online a couple of nights ago, and he mentioned to me that his opponents were in France. He truly didn't give it a second thought. If we look forward to real-time machine translation, we'll see people actually conversing in different languages, further opening up our world.

BRAN FERREN: Still, we've just started. This Internet is just coming up to speed. So tell us, Ted, why we need Internet2.

TED HANSS: Imagine it's 1995, and you're a professor who has been using the Internet for several years. You send e-mail, you make your first Web page, and you want to start experimenting with audio and video across the Internet. You come to work Monday morning and find that another 50 million people have also discovered the Internet, and they're all sending e-mail and transferring files. What we need in higher education is a place to take bright ideas and see whether they're viable, to explore new modes of instruction, new ways of collaborating around the arts and performance. Internet2 is structured to allow people to connect with one another without loss of nuance, whether it is the raised eyebrow or the fidelity of the musical piece you're playing.

BRAN FERREN: So there's more to it than bandwidth?

TED HANSS: Much more than bandwidth. For instance, we're working on high-fidelity audio and video. To me, video is the killer app for the future of the Internet, but first we have to make video as easy to use as word processing is today. Astronomers come to me and say they want to be able to get access to a telescope on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii without climbing to 14,000 feet. The way to do that is to bring the video to the individual. How do you help them publish their results and share them with other astronomers? How do you help them show images from those telescopes on Mauna Kea in the classroom in a way that is digestible?

ROBERT LUCKY: I'm going to take this down to the techie level. The biggest problem has been getting bandwidth to the end user, and I don't think Internet2 has solved that yet. You want to get a gigabit— that's the real aim of Internet2— to the end user and see what they can do with it. I'm a great believer in the Field of Dreams approach. If we build it, they will come. If you put the bandwidth there, great things will happen.

JEFF HARROW: I think the important thing about Internet2 is having it there for purposes we can't yet even guess. To me, that's one of the magic pieces of Internet1, that someone in a garage in a country you've never heard of might tonight finish up a project, publish it as shareware on the Internet, and cause a dozen businesses around the globe to change their business model in the morning.

BRAN FERREN: The triumph of the Internet was that the authors were smart enough to work only on the lowest level protocols rather than anticipate things higher up the food chain, which permitted interoperability to an extent that no one ever expected.

MARVIN MINSKY: It's true. This thing developed in a wonderful, spontaneous, low-level way that resulted in much more flexibility than anything that could ever have been designed into it. The network is a miracle of unregulated enterprise, but it's also in great danger. You have to watch politicians who are saying, "We shouldn't give kids access to half the knowledge in the world in the library because they might see some porn."

BRAN FERREN: That is a fundamental issue. This technology is going to become more pervasive in our lives. It will appear on things we wear, on things we see, in cars we drive. And it brings with it both good and bad. You cannot go a week without reading about some new virus that is taking down systems, wiping out hard drives, and costing us millions of dollars. Because weapons systems have computers embedded in them, cyber-terrorists could cripple an advanced armed force in milliseconds. How do you enable a social structure to emerge so that, on balance, individuals, communities, and countries are safe but freedoms aren't abridged?

ROBERT LUCKY: The problem is that the technology is running faster than our mores and our ethical senses can catch up. And what's ethical behavior? It's like the wild Wild West out there. But I agree with Marvin. There are going to be a lot of politicians who want to step in and regulate things, and I'm very scared by that prospect.

BRAN FERREN: What do you do about the fact that the Internet provides a type of anonymity that encourages bad behavior?

JEFF HARROW: Old laws are being reinterpreted to work in the new world of cyberspace, and new laws are being enacted. As in the Old West, the marshal has come to town. Since an increasing number of people who are breaking society's rules in cyberspace are getting caught, it's working.

ROBERT LUCKY: I think the way to handle it is not regulation but handling exceptions after the fact.

MARVIN MINSKY: Right. For instance, we'll have to become much more severe about people who start viruses.

ROBERT LUCKY: Exactly. You go in and get a few of those people and discourage it.

JOY MOUNTFORD: But our legal and political systems are not set up to handle these situations. And you have to remember there are nut cases out there.

TED HANSS: I say protect the Bill of Rights. I don't want to see anything that erodes it, and some of this is on a slippery slope. I think law enforcement is already putting the Bill of Rights under attack, because they're getting access to things like positioning information. We've got to be vigilant about that sort of activity. On the other hand, I also believe that people who copy music with Napster are stealing. But there are copyright laws already. We don't have to shut down the Internet to address that.

BRAN FERREN: Are we going to need a personal identity on the Internet that cannot be concealed?

ROBERT LUCKY: I think in some contexts you will be required to verify yourself. You already have to prove your identity in financial matters.

BRAN FERREN: Does anyone disagree?

JEFF HARROW: If I go to make a phone call, I have an option, in most cases, to block the caller ID display. However, law enforcement can still trace that call if they need to. But if I want to, I can make a purely anonymous call by putting coins in a pay phone. I think identification on the Internet will evolve similarly, that in most cases your identity will be findable, yet anonymity will still be possible.

ROBERT LUCKY: You can think of a lot of historical cases where people have been persecuted because their identities were made known. So it's important that there be ways you can be anonymous.

JOY MOUNTFORD: The most important thing is for human beings to retain a measure of control, at least to know when they're being identified.

BRAN FERREN: Joy, could you talk for a moment about the question of the haves and the have-nots? The majority of the planet is not on the Net. In fact, a significant percentage of people on the planet cannot even read or write. The interesting thing about the Internet, of course, is that eventually you won't need to read or write in order to communicate richly with people over long distances. But is the Internet going to bring us closer together, or is it going to divide us?

JOY MOUNTFORD: Well, I suspect this is no different from any other major technology that has been introduced in a civilized country. Why is there still world hunger when we all throw food away? It's the same sort of thing. I think you'll see incremental ways of getting access to the Internet— booths at street corners, with cards that allow you to check in for a couple of minutes.

JEFF HARROW: The Internet has enabled some countries that otherwise might not have been able to more easily participate in the global economy. India, for example, is now a large producer of software that the rest of the world consumes. So you can see there's quite a bit of good that comes from the Internet breaking down geographic barriers.

ROBERT LUCKY: I think a very small percentage of people in India are actually empowered in this way.

BRAN FERREN: A poll of the panel: When do you think 50 percent of the population on the planet will be connected by the Internet?

ROBERT LUCKY: Well, you actually could sort of work this out mathematically. The Internet is growing at a rate of 60 percent annually, and there are half a billion users now. So you could project that, unless something changes, it will be six years. I just made that number up, by the way. You'd have to work it out, but that would be my algorithm.

JEFF HARROW: There is so much of the planet that is currently not even using the telephone— it's going to take time.

BRAN FERREN: Precisely. On the other hand, technologies tend to leapfrog. If you imagine an electronic book that is solar-powered, connects via satellite, simultaneously translates, initially badly and then better, that type of device ought to cost $100 or less in five years.

MARTIN GREENBERGER: The number of people, the number of households, with access to the Internet has increased a hundredfold in the last five years. Most of the use is here in this country, but that's going to change.

TED HANSS: I'd say 15 years because of alternative devices, handheld devices, and so forth that will blow past PCs.

BRAN FERREN: I have another question for you. Are we, because of the Internet, on the verge of information overload?

TED HANSS: Right now the Internet is the great disintermediator— the pump-your-own-gas of getting access to information, and we are overwhelmed by the sources out there. What that tells me is that we're not going to do away with editors and librarians; in fact, they have become more important to help us get the information we need. Eventually, though, we will get good intermediation back in this environment.

BRAN FERREN: So you don't think it's a big problem?

TED HANSS: I think it's an ephemeral problem.

ROBERT LUCKY: I think it's a terrible problem. There are a billion Web pages, and knowledge itself may be growing geometrically. I have a sense that the amount I have to know is growing faster than my ability to know it. What happens in science is you have to become more specialized. Your only hope of swimming through this river of information is to swim in such a narrow stream you're able to keep up with it.

MARVIN MINSKY: It's a terrible problem for everybody. However, it is not so bad in science. Before we understand basic principles, we have millions of partial descriptions of things. But after we get better theories, we don't need most of that stuff anymore, so we can throw out the million papers. In short, I think that the amount of junk knowledge grows very rapidly, but who cares?

BRAN FERREN: I guess one reason why one cares is that, as a scientist looking at a deteriorating signal-to-noise ratio, I think it may become harder to find the good stuff when it's overwhelmed by the stuff that isn't.

MARVIN MINSKY: Well, right now the way we have to do information retrieval is dumb because computers cannot yet understand text, except by using statistical tricks. Fifty years from now or maybe 400, there will be computers that can read the stuff, understand what it means, and find the good thing— then everything will change.

ROBERT LUCKY: I'm not sure if machines will ever be able to find what's good. That's the problem. Who determines what's the good stuff out there.

JOY MOUNTFORD: Another important question is, Are we losing our ability to generate the good stuff? Frank Thomas, a friend of mine, was one of the original Disney animators who created Bambi and Lady and the Tramp, among others. He's used a computer, too, and says that the problem is that often they're too quick. In the old days, to create the dwarf in Snow White, you lived with this character for a long time and thought through all the nuances. With computers you can generate all sorts of Snow Whites and the Seven Dwarfs instantly, but they may lack the level of refinement and the detail and the craft. I wonder if we're actually teaching people to truly understand and think about things.

BRAN FERREN: It has been argued that social interaction between people is being damaged because so many people spend all their time cruising the Net. Is the Internet hurting quality of life at the same time that it's enhancing it?

FRANCINE GEMPERLE: It's changing the quality of life, but I don't think it's hurting it. If I decide that I want to sit in my office and play on the Internet for the entire weekend, that's my choice. If I'm unsatisfied with my socialization over that weekend, I can spend the entire next weekend talking to people in person.

MARTIN GREENBERGER: Many people find their circle is expanding because of associations made or reinforced through the Internet. Entries in their address books are growing, and so are their professional and social calendars.

BRAN FERREN: Let's move on to the wireless explosion. Will it fundamentally transform the way we use the Internet?

ROBERT LUCKY: Definitely.

TED HANSS: Competition in wireless means that we're seeing many different options, from room-based to metropolitan-based. So the ability to be connected all the time, if you choose, will give you the ability to have information when and where you want it, as a consumer or as a publisher.

FRANCINE GEMPERLE: On the other hand, we have a wireless network at Carnegie-Mellon University so that, on the entire campus, by using a WAVE LAN card in any device, you can be connected. Last semester we gave wireless handheld computer devices to the students in two classrooms, and I did an anonymous survey. All the students admitted to wasting a lot of time, not paying attention to the lecture, gossiping, browsing the Internet. Then the question was: At the university level, is that appropriate?

BRAN FERREN: And wireless enabled that clearly because they didn't have to stretch a cord to the corner of the room.


BRAN FERREN: I wonder if what's going on today in the business of the Internet, broadband, and wireless is making it more accessible to everybody? Or will there be gatekeepers who control who gets on, what they get to, what it costs?

MARTIN GREENBERGER: Broadband, of course, is associated with cable, and the cable industry is not under the same injunctions that the telephone carriers are to make access available to everyone.

BRAN FERREN: So you think there is a clear and present danger that the forces of business can work against the Internet in its ability to help people and enter their lives in a way that benefits them?

MARTIN GREENBERGER: Not only can, but will— unless we are very careful. The end-to-end design of the Internet was specifically intended to allow everyone to have access, to spur innovation. It was remarkably successful. We've got to find a way to preserve that.

ROBERT LUCKY: The truly exciting thing is that we haven't even begun to explore the Internet, let alone its limitations.

BRAN FERREN: I don't think enough of us spend enough time thinking about that. The entire computer revolution, including the Internet, hasn't begun yet. We're not in the middle of it— we're at the dawn of it. It's like trying to comprehend the magnitude of the oceans if all you've done is stand on the beach watching the waves breaking.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.