World Economic Forum

The Internet Is Fast Approaching 50. How Might It Look At 60?

By Peter Lyons and Dr. Riad Hartani

The Internet is fast approaching 50. How might it look at 60? Of course, it is hard to say definitively, but exciting, nonetheless to consider some possibilities. Born out of an advanced U.S. defense research project in the late 60s then lurching into the awkward early-web of the 80s/90s, the internet eventually evolved to include a mish-mash of communication protocols, applications and platforms as we know today. It is hard to say whether it’s the internet applications that have driven the evolution of the devices, protocols and infrastructure or vice a versa. Probably a combination of both.

Surviving internet technologies, standards, and protocols have, for the most part, obeyed the laws of natural selection; a lot has been tried while few have proliferated. What might we expect over the coming decade? It turns out that internet infrastructure includes a number of technologies that evolve in a mostly linear manner, with a 5-10 year roadmap that is fairly well understood. Such progress is mostly a function of standards ratifications, chipset development cycles, go to market activities and user adoption scaling, all of which occurs over years. What is far more difficult to predict are the applications, platforms, and business models, built to run on the future networks, that will gain mass adoption. Even less clear, is the capacity of incumbent players, vertical industries, and regulators to adapt.

During the January 2018 Consumer Electronics Show there was growing consensus that 5G-ready devices would become available in early 2019, fast tracking to an era where the internet begins morphing from a communication platform primarily for humans into a communication platform greatly optimized for devices. Beyond giving consumers the ability to download an HD movie to their smartphones in a few seconds, 5G will enable our homes, offices, cars, and bodies to seamlessly connect to each other and the cloud(s).

As we move to a hyperconnected internet of “things” the most direct risk to the evolution of the internet might be its breakup by governments, into walled national internets due to some combination of regulatory, cybersecurity or protectionist factors. Political and economic turbulence could trigger a cascade of regulatory and investment uncertainty widening digital infrastructure divide and shortfalls in human capital development. This could sharply increase economic inequality and undermine social stability as growing segments of society are unable to meaningfully participate in new waves of innovation and value creation. The dilemma facing industry, policymakers, and civil society is how to ensure the evolution of the internet in the global public interest, while keeping the open design principle that made the Internet what it is today.

The Promise Of Big Data Becomes Actualized

Beginning in the early 2020s, 5G networks, between 10-100x faster than the mobile broadband networks of today, will open the flood gates of data. According to the November 2017 Ericsson Mobility Report, by the end of 2023 there will be 1 billion 5G devices worldwide and contributing to 8X more mobile data traffic than today. Cloud computing power will scale up to absorb and manage this surge, machine learning models will improve exponentially, and innovation cycles across industries will accelerate.

For starters, we will begin having more intuitive interactions with machines as digital experiences increasingly shift from observation to immersion. Voice-based interaction will become as natural and ubiquitous as touchscreen interactions are today. Our devices will not only “hear and respond” to our voices, but also discern changes in our emotional or physiological states. Rapid advances in computer vision and machine learning mean our devices will have the ability to “see and recognize” what they are looking at in near real time. This will allow them to seamlessly present us a meaningful information overlay of the world around us. Of course, the same ability to “see, hear, recognize, and respond” will enable our devices to read our faces and interpret our emotional states to adjust the information or experience presented. Such interactions between humans and computers will require extremely high throughput, low latency connectivity between our devices and Machine Intelligence residing in the clouds. It will also leverage rapid advances in computing architectures that will probably see the first foray into realistic applications of quantum computing.

Data from billions of sources with an endless diversity of applications will gather and flow across communications networks like tributaries merging into rivers with relentless energy and power. Imagine the volume and density of information collected, aggregated, analyzed, and acted upon by an autonomous vehicle as it tries to make sense of a road, other vehicles, and pedestrians. The AI powering such systems will improve with the consumption of ever larger volumes of data generated by vehicles, infrastructure, and passengers.

The flood of high-fidelity real-time data from all these devices, sensors, and clouds, will power the economic engine of the fourth industrial revolution. Put another way, the combination of 5G and AI means data will become a new form of capital.

5G, Blockchain And Distributed Clouds

If data becomes a new form of capital, blockchain technology could provide a mechanism for securely storing, managing, and deploying that capital, and enabling new business models. Blockchains enable decentralized, peer-to-peer communications that verify the integrity of data and allow new ways of transmitting and storing value. Smart contracts take this a step further and allow automated exchange of value and services between unrelated parties, according to predefined rules. A handy analogy is the humble vending machine, which when presented with a predefined amount of change automatically dispenses a bag of chips in exchange.

Blockchain will also provide consumers new privacy tools to manage access and monetization of their personal data. When applied in the context of high speed and low latency 5G networks, blockchain based tools could enable consumers to securely rent out any unused processing and storage assets on their devices. Content creators and application developers will have more control over how their products are used and monetized.  This is likely to significantly impact the economics of industries such as digital advertising, cloud management, sharing economy and e-commerce.

Expect The Unexpected

Towards the end of the next decade, the internet will evolve into an IoT-centric, autonomic nervous system for society, disrupting the economics all vertical industries. New web-scale applications, not imagined nor obvious today, will take advantage of the new capabilities afforded by technologies like 5G, AI, IoT and Blockchain. New champions will emerge as leading technology players are displaced. The next generation of application and content developers will have grown up mobile broadband and social media first, with a much more fluid sense of connection, collaboration, and community. Their vision of the future will be built on decentralized, freely collaborative, and AI-assisted innovation. The networks and technologies of the next decade may dramatically reshape the social and economic incentives for both technology creators and users. Expect the unexpected.

Peter Lyons is Technology, Media, and Digital Industries lead at the World Economic Forum. Dr. Riad Hartani is Co-Founder, Xona Partners


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