The future of the internet is here

The Internet of the future is an intelligent network capable of proactively acting on our needs, following us wherever we go, helping provide focused health care and possibly ushering in a new energy paradigm.

That's the vision James Canton, the CEO of the San Francisco-based think tank, the Institute for Global Futures, shared with the students in the executive program of Singularity University Wednesday. A broad-reaching, theoretical talk that touched on many of the same elements of an all-encompassing network more or less overlaid on people's consciousnesses as science fiction by the likes of Vernor Vinge, Canton's vision nonetheless seemed plausible, particularly in light of the curriculum of so-called exponential technologies being taught here.

Canton's vision of this future Internet begins with four key drivers: Telepresence, mobility, artificial intelligence and specific vertical market segments such as health care.

In a straw poll of the 40-odd students in the SU program, the majority felt that mobility was the most important of those drivers, and Canton said that made sense given that the world currently has Five billion people on the Internet and that that number could skyrocket in the next few years. The idea, then, would be for the Internet of the future to comprise large numbers of networks talking to nodes that are independently communicating with each other, "having their own conversation," he said.

Indeed, Canton predicted a future in which the Internet is embedded just about everywhere: in every imaginable kind of devices, from TVs to phones to walls in rooms and that every kind of product or device-or even people-one can think of has an IP address. He added that while such a picture might seem distant, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already approved a chip that could be embedded in people's bodies. In Miami, he said, the latest craze is women wearing clothes with chips embedded that can be scanned to verify their identities so that they don't have to carry purses.

Similarly, he said that government workers in Mexico City can't get into buildings without having some sort of wearable identification chip.

It will be a key component, then, of the future of the Internet, Canton predicted, that everything will have an IP address and that, therefore, we will be living in what he called a "blended reality," where information is constantly streaming at and around us across physical and digital artifacts.

Today, Canton said, in order to find information online, we have to turn on our computers and go look for it. "But what if you didn't have to do that," he asked the executive students. "What if it found you?"

The idea, he said, is a worldwide system of intuitive networks that pay attention to us, and know our likes and desires, and proactively feed us the information we need to act on them.

"We're on the cusp of that," he said, the Internet "intuitively sensing who you are, and what your needs are and paying attention to your behavior and to what you think is important."

And such systems wouldn't just be with you at home, but would travel with you everywhere, he suggested. The kinds of devices we see as discrete today, our phones, our computers, TVs and cars, will "at the end of the day, all...get mashed up," he said.

That means, he said, that each of us will have our own "personal Internet layer...that lives in your own personal Internet cloud [and] deciphers what's next" for us.

It's not clear when such a system will be functional, he admitted, given that it would require a great deal of artificial intelligence that has not yet made its way into consumer technology, but it's not that far off, he suggested. In fact, he said that as much as 30 percent of the technology necessary for such things to be part of our every day lives has already been built. And what's in the lab today, he pointed out, is in the marketplace tomorrow.

And, he said, the model for such AI-based systems will be one that already dominates the planet: biology. The networks of the future will mimic living ecosystems, he said.

At Singularity University, the students are getting high-level, intense lectures on fields of study like nanotechnology, biotech, AI, robotics, bioinformatics and the like, all of which fall under the rubric of exponentially-growing technology, and the Internet of the future Canton was illustrating is essentially a mashup of these technologies, he said.

As a result, the Internet will be smart in a way we can barely imagine today and could finally help us solve systemic crises like health care and poverty while also helping create thousands, or even millions of new companies in the process, or even entirely new markets that never existed before.

As the Earth's population expands, it will result in the blossoming of dozens of new megacities, Canton said, but current data infrastructures are incapable of handling the needs of those new metropolises. "There is not enough storage or bandwidth to deal with this reality," he said. "We have to get how we enable that future to emerge."

Perhaps as many as 80 percent of the next 100 megacities will require next-generation Web infrastructure, he predicted, and society will have to find ways to "migrate to that infrastructure."

Ultimately, the "one key bucket of technology" that may drive the future of the Internet is quantum mechanics, Canton said, and that will create new dynamics like humans being able to "design space and time" and the possibility that the contents of the entire U.S. Library of Congress could fit on something no bigger than a thumbnail.

In the process, we may be able to access and process in real time so much medical data that we will have the wherewithal to eliminate huge numbers of deaths or illnesses.

Some may feel that it's too early to be defining these things, but Canton clearly isn't one of them. He said that we are currently living in the "middle ages" when it comes to computing networks, and that we are surrounded by dumb devices and machines that cannot think for themselves.

But he said an "Internet 3" will be a "collaborative web" that will have at its root a cooperation between people and our machines.

His vision of an "Internet 4" will include evolutionary networking that has a major self-organizing principle and which has human reproduction as an inspiration. And "Internet 5" will mimic living ecosystems and feature smart and aware physical spaces, embedded intelligence and systems that can do things like transfer energy amongst themselves as they need them. "It's not that far out," Canton said. "I believe it's already started."

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