What Is the Future of the Internet? Experts Predict Next 50 Years

Xconomy National — 

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series examining the internet’s first 50 years and predicting the next half century. Join Xconomy and World Frontiers Forum on July 16 for Net@50, an event exploring the internet’s past and future.]

It’s a good thing journalists, pundits, and consultants can’t be held liable for the predictions we get wrong and the outcomes we fail to anticipate. Because if we could, we’d all be bankrupt.

Back in 2014, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s seminal paper proposing the World Wide Web, the Pew Research Center asked an array of technology experts to imagine the state of digital life in the year 2025. They predicted gains in education and peaceful political change, à la the Arab Spring. And they celebrated the power of global connectivity to make people smarter and more empowered. “I expect the miasma of myth and ignorance and conspiracy theory to recede to dark corners of the discourse of civilization, where nice people don’t go,” one veteran engineer ventured.

No one imagined—how could they?—that the Arab Spring would soon settle into the Arab Winter. Or that in 2016, data firms and political campaigns would illicitly obtain raw profile data of tens of millions of Facebook users and would use that data to target them with polarizing ads and posts—posts that, with the aid of misinformation posted by Russian-sponsored hackers, may have ultimately helped to swing the US electorate toward Donald Trump. Or that in 2019, cases of measles, an infection once virtually eradicated in this country, would reach a new 27-year high, as misinformed zealots pushed false claims about vaccines on social media.

The point is that it’s almost impossible to guess which technologies will be most important in the future, or how specific actors will use or abuse them. It turns out that the same platforms that help organizers stage democratic uprisings can be used to repress them. Fundamental design problems, such as the tendency of Facebook’s personalized news feed or YouTube’s video recommendation engine to amplify misleading and divisive messages, can act like unexploded ordnance, staying hidden until it’s too late.

As the saying goes: It’s easy to predict the future. The hard part is getting it right.

And yet here we are on the edge of another anniversary. On October 29, 2019, it will have been 50 years since engineers sent the first message over ARPANET, the US military-funded academic network that established the control and communications protocols behind today’s internet. At such moments, there’s an irresistible temptation to gaze both backward, asking how we got here, and forward, asking what the global network’s next half-century might be like.

We pundits know in our hearts that we can’t speak with much authority about how the internet will work, what its impact might be, or even whether it will still exist in the year 2069. But we understand that the internet and its expanding cloud of endpoints, especially our 2.5 billion smartphones, are the most important inventions of the last half-century, and that they will continue to alter the tenor of our lives. So, we spin our forecasts anyway—and may the gods of wisdom forgive us.

A Stubbornly Persistent Infrastructure

The first thing to be clear about is definitions. Here I’m not talking about “digital life” in all its ramifications, the way the Pew Research Center did. I’m talking about the internet: the set of interconnected computing devices that communicate using TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol).

That’s the feature that ties today’s internet back to ARPANET, where TCP/IP was developed and tested. Ingenious in its basic design, TCP/IP allowed any network with a “router” to exchange data packets with other networks, regardless of each network’s internal architecture—hence the term internet, for interconnected network. Routers concerned themselves only with sending packets of information through the network, hop by hop, and reassembling them at the right destination, at unique numerical addresses like 63.246.24.145. All of the real smarts in the network could stay in the computers at its edges.

Counting just four nodes at the outset in 1969—at Stanford University, the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara campuses of the University of California, and the University of Utah—ARPANET grew steadily, to about 40 nodes in 1973 and more than 200 by 1981. On top of this nascent network, engineers would introduce all sorts of new computing and networking protocols and languages, for things like email (SMTP), file sharing (FTP), local networking (Ethernet and the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP)), web pages (HTTP, HTML, and URLs), and domain names (DNS).

But the real acceleration came after 1985, when the National Science Foundation grafted several new “backbone” networks onto the existing network and opened them to public commercial use. By the time the original ARPANET was decommissioned in 1990, Berners-Lee at CERN had already written the first web browser, and the kindling was in place for the first dot-com boom, ignited by Netscape’s IPO in 1995.

Today’s internet has grown vastly in scope, connecting more than 3.9 billion people—51 percent of the global population—and 17 billion devices, according to data from the International Telecommunications Union and market research firm IOT Analytics. (The term “Internet of Things” cropped up when it became clear that the devices using the network would outnumber the people.) But all of this is built on the same remarkably robust technical foundation. Which leads to our first couple of predictions.

Assuming that civilization itself hasn’t been decimated by war, plague, or climate upheavals, then by 2069, everyone on the planet will have internet access. Or virtually everyone.

“We’ll never get all the way; it’s asymptotic,” says Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet local-area networking standard that carries internet traffic to virtually every computer in every office. “It reached about halfway in just 50 years, and assuming a certain symmetry to the adoption curve, that would say [it’ll take] another 50 years to complete the cycle.”

And the internet of 2069 will still bear the visible imprint of our internet, just as North America’s telephone system still relies on a 10-digit dialing system rolled out in 1947. That’s partly because, in systems with so many stakeholders, even the simplest changes can take decades. Engineers anticipated a shortage of Internet Protocol addresses as early as 1996. Yet the ongoing transition from traditional “IPv4” addresses to longer “IPv6” addresses, expanding the possibilities by a factor of 2 to the 96th power, is expected to drag on for many more years.

But it’s also because the internet’s ruling idea—that you can make networks interoperable by abstracting different communications functions into “layers,” each layer serving the one above it—is so sound. “There is this underlying infrastructure that knows how to signal a bit on the wire, which is Layer 1,” explains Radia Perlman, a fellow at Dell EMC who literally wrote the book on networking protocols, a 1992 classic called Interconnections. “And then Layer 2 says, ‘How can I send the whole message to my neighbor?’ And Layer 3 finds the whole path. I think that basic premise is flexible enough that it’s unlikely the internet will ever change.”

At the same time, Perlman admits she’s surprised that elements such as STP—a key networking concept she invented at Digital Equipment Corporation in 1985 to prevent loops inside Ethernet networks, thus allowing them to grow arbitrarily large—are still in place today. “It was a hack that I thought would live for, like, six months,” she says. “I had no idea how long it would last.”

Forces of Change

After this point, forecasting gets trickier. Will the internet backbone of 2069 still be made up of a web of fiber optic networks crisscrossing the continents and oceans? Yes, but probably with the addition of satellite-based networks and ultra-broadband wireless coverage blanketing every population center.

Will there be an even larger cloud of automated server farms at the network’s edges, each sucking down massive amounts of electricity? Probably, but with luck we’ll find low-carbon ways of powering them.

Will people in 2069 connect to the internet via exotic new devices, like augmented-reality and virtual-reality glasses? Sure, why not. Or maybe by then everyone will have moved on to neural implants.

The truth is that we can’t describe the internet of 50 years hence in precise detail, any more than ARPANET’s builders could have imagined Grumpy Cat or Pokémon Go. It’s probably more instructive to look at the major exogenous forces that could shape the internet’s growth, and then try to imagine scenarios in which those forces diminish, or become overpowering, or end up somewhere in between.

One of the forces is plain old innovation. The internet reaches billions of devices and provides fixed broadband speeds above 100 megabits per second in many countries thanks to Moore’s Law, the pattern under which available computing power has doubled every couple of years, while dropping in cost. The semiconductor industry has managed to keep up that pace of improvement for more than 50 years, but some experts believe we’re approaching the end of the line: the point at which we’ll run out of tricks for making transistors smaller and packing more processors into each device.

If Moore’s Law fizzles out, that could put a limit on the number of devices connected to the internet (since those devices won’t be getting continuously cheaper) and on the speed at which they exchange data (since bandwidth is partly a function of router processing speed). But it’s possible that some new, hard-to-anticipate event, such as an advance in quantum computing, will keep Moore’s Law going—or even accelerate it.

Another force is the eternal dance of competition between technology corporations, the monopoly power that usually afflicts markets when one company gets too far ahead of its competitors, and regulation by governments. Monopolies rise through innovation but always seem to end up impeding it. Arguably, it was the federal government’s antitrust cases against computing-industry giant IBM (NYSE: IBM) and telecommunications monopoly AT&T (NYSE: T) in the 1980s that cleared the way for the explosions in personal computing and internet commerce in the 1990s.

But then we entered a long era of listless antitrust enforcement, and now Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) has a near-monopoly in the search business, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) dominates e-commerce, and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) defines social networking. These companies could grow even more monolithic, powerful, and exploitative, perhaps abetted by further advances in artificial intelligence. Or, with a swing in the political breeze—say, toward a President Elizabeth Warren—they, too, could be reined in or swept away.

Corporations usually aren’t out to screw us—not consciously, anyway—but a lot of bad actors are. Cybercrime in the form of botnets, darknets, phishers, and fraudsters, not to mention state-sponsored hackers, will be yet another major force shaping the internet. It’s not surprising that scammers have colonized the internet, just as they have every other medium. The problem is that the underlying TCP/IP architecture was built around trust—because why would anyone at an ARPANET-connected university want to abuse their idyllic little network?—which meant there were no built-in arrangements for authenticating users.

“One of the early flaws in that ’60s design was anonymity,” Metcalfe says. “The intelligentsia of the internet has from the beginning believed that anonymity should be the default, and that’s backwards. Anonymity should be the exception. And that’s the cause of our privacy problems, our security problems.”

We’ve fought back with stronger passwords (which people can’t remember and don’t use) and all varieties of firewalls and malware-detection software (which are stuck in reactive mode, never able to get ahead of the hackers). But cybercrime will continue to be a huge friction point, adding to the costs and hazards of using the internet, until the advent of some form of unbreakable and ubiquitous security, such as quantum cryptography.

The internet will also be an arena for clashing ideologies about freedom of communication. It’s one of the miraculous stories of our time that the internet, an American invention based (for better or worse) on principles of trust and openness, has spread across the world so quickly, even to countries where the media are controlled by authoritarian regimes. But governments are learning how to tame it. In the name of “cyber sovereignty,” China has swung to the opposite end of the security spectrum, virtually eliminating anonymity. It has blocked services such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp, and promoted its own heavily surveilled alternatives, such as Weibo and WeChat.

Computer scientist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore, who famously said, “The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it,” may have been wrong after all. China’s Great Firewall could be a harbinger of a fragmented internet where borders stop not just people but information.

“We may well find nations that will cut [the internet] off, that will close, that will restrict themselves from interacting with others,” says Donald Norman, the University of California, San Diego-based usability engineer and author. “We already see that happening.”

And the internet is as vulnerable to physical challenges as it is to political whims. As global warming breeds greater weather extremes and more “natural” disasters like coastal storms and inland wildfires, both the major internet nodes and the connections between them could be disrupted. Underwater landslides along thawing coastal slopes could snap undersea cables. Hurricanes and cyclones could regularly inundate underground fiber conduits and urban data centers, as well as the landing points where undersea cables come ashore. Space junk could destroy communications satellites.

Future-proofing all of this infrastructure would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, almost guaranteeing that much of the needed work will be put off until it’s too late. “We’re extremely dependent on technology but at the same time it’s also quite vulnerable to any kind of environmental or climate change issues,” Georgia Tech environmental engineer Hermann Fritz told Popular Mechanics in 2018.

The Critic

Will we invent preventive measures or better technologies before the internet spins apart under the forces of nationalism, greed, and decay? Can we build a cybersphere that’s more resilient and more accessible to everyone, and that’s not as filled with hate and mistruths?

The answer depends on who you ask. Back in 2011, Norman wrote a column about corporate dominance on the internet called “I Have Seen the Future and I Am Opposed.” I recently Skyped him at his home in San Diego to see how he’s feeling about the internet’s prospects today.

Norman is no Luddite—the advocate for human-centered design went to MIT and worked as Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) first user experience architect before writing the book for which he’s best known, The Design of Everyday Things. But he does frequently play the part of Cassandra from Greek mythology, warning of the ways poor design choices and short-term thinking are keeping the internet from fulfilling its potential.

Norman worries, for example, that after 50 years of investment in software built around TCP/IP, it will be nearly impossible to rebuild the internet in a way that protects personal data, reduces spoofing and fakery, and holds all users accountable for abuses.

“The fundamental infrastructure was built with this kind of trust and openness available in mind,” he says. “Now that we’ve let everyone in, people discovered that they can steal data, they can modify documents, they can spoof identities, they can produce fake news. And once you have this infrastructure in place all across the world, you can’t change it easily.”

One of the more serious proposals for change is the idea of content-centric networking. But as if to prove Norman’s point, it’s been slow to gain a foothold. On the traditional internet, each piece of content is hosted in a single place, and a router’s job is to forward content requests to that host and then pass bits of the content back to the requester. In content-centric networks, routers can keep track of past requests and store frequently requested data, so that over time content moves closer to those who need it. Encryption and authentication are built in, theoretically making it harder for anonymous users to post fake or misleading information.

Researchers at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) built the first major content-centric networking platform in the late 2000s, and in 2017 it was acquired by Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), which says it wants to deploy the concept in 5G mobile networks. Other companies and research groups are pursuing the idea under broader labels such as named data networking (NDN) and information-centric networking (ICN). But it’s still at odds with the whole client-server model that defines today’s internet and cloud computing infrastructure, and it’s not clear how a content-centric model could be grafted onto today’s network without great expense.

Still, it may be time for something new, Norman says.

“I think we have to start over,” he says. “We may need very separate networks. The notion that there is one network for everything maybe is wrong. We used to have separate networks determined by the technology—hence radio was different than telephones, which was different than television, which was different than printed books. Today, we say, ‘Nah, it’s all information,’ because on the internet you can do all of that. Well, OK, but the content is really what’s important, not the technology.”

Norman, a student of evolution, notes that organisms tend to become more fit for their environments either slowly, over millions of years, or all at once, after a catastrophe.

“Often the biggest innovations come when some event happens that destroys half the life on the planet—meteors or volcanoes or whatever—and new life comes out,” he says. “That’s not a good way to change.”

What’s needed on the internet, he suggests, is a way to implement radical improvements before disasters force them on us.

The Optimist

Metcalfe didn’t just co-invent Ethernet at PARC and co-found a company, 3Com, to sell Ethernet networking hardware. He also formulated Metcalfe’s Law, the idea that the value of a network grows in proportion to the square of the number of connected users. Once you’ve planted a flag that large, you’re likely to be a lifelong believer in the internet’s basic beneficence.

And indeed, Metcalfe—whom I reached in Austin, where he leads innovation initiatives for the University of Texas at Austin—says he sees pathologies such as spam, fake news, and privacy breaches as temporary blips, artifacts of the internet’s unexpectedly rapid spread.

“I think that the thing that’s made these pathologies, has created them, is that connectivity has grown so quickly it has temporarily outstripped our ability to handle it,” Metcalfe says. “So, we’re catching up.”

Problems such as Facebook’s difficulties handling fake news or Google’s travails reining in hate speech on YouTube will inevitably be resolved through regulation or free-market competition, Metcalfe believes. The point is that monopolies “come and go,” he says.

“Right now, it’s Google and Facebook screwing up,” he continues. “Last time, it was the government that helped us break up the AT&T and IBM monopolies so that we could build the internet. That might happen again, or it could just be competitors. Microsoft could come back [in search and other areas]—Bing is going better than I thought!”

And while whole industries such as journalism, advertising, and retail commerce have been remade by the internet, Metcalfe believes that we’ve only begun to witness its power. Next on the list are healthcare, education, and energy. “They’re the big ones, much bigger than the [markets] the internet has already disrupted,” he says.

In healthcare, the mess of kludgy and disconnected electronic medical record systems will be standardized, Metcalfe predicts. “The internet is very good at connecting things,” he says. “So, all those incompatible health record systems will be crushed into a decent system. And the internet is going to allow us to shift our emphasis back on health, instead of being preoccupied by the administrivia of healthcare.”

In education, more and more career-critical material is available from organizations such as Coursera, Udacity, edX, Lynda.com, and Khan Academy. In the big picture, the internet is gradually “replacing bricks-and-mortar education,” Metcalfe says. “You can get an MBA or a master’s degree in mechanical engineering without even showing up on a campus. And the cost of an education is plummeting. Predictably, the education system is in denial, with professors running around saying how important it is that they have personal interactions with their students. Meanwhile, more and more students are getting their degrees online.”

Even century-old energy markets—assuming a few fundamental advances in energy storage—will be remodeled to imitate the internet’s model, he argues.

“We’ll be switching power packets around from random sources [based on] demand and time of day,” Metcalfe says. “Remember, when the internet was started there was no [data] storage. But look at the internet today—it is a big, distributed storage system. Even the storage on your cell phone is huge. So, energy storage is the big needed technology, and then it can be switched among consumers and producers.”

Metcalfe says he agrees with Norman that the internet itself needs an upgrade, but that “starting over is really hard,” thanks to the enormous momentum behind standards like TCP/IP and Ethernet. In the end, though, he thinks the internet will successfully disrupt itself, not to mention today’s most sclerotic industries.

“Connectivity is so powerful that it’s going to overcome those resistances,” he says.

The Hopeful Pessimist

But not all of the internet’s builders are so sanguine about its future—especially after the debacles of the last few years.

“Something like the internet was inevitable, and now society can’t survive without it,” says Perlman, whom I reached in Washington state. “And two years ago I would have said the internet is fantastic. It’s given everybody access to high-quality college courses. You can easily communicate with all of your friends and family. You can have a successful business without a store, and you can reach a global audience. If you want to buy an obscure product, you don’t have to travel 400 miles to find it. All of these things are fantastic.”

Now, however, the tradeoffs involved are more visible. “Everybody is a ‘journalist,’ so you can’t tell what’s true,” Perlman says. “You can create as many false identities as you want. Machine-learning algorithms try to keep you engaged as long as possible, so they radicalize you more and more, by tuning with tunnel vision on what they think you want. Bad actors are purposely trying to foment hatred. The polarization of society is getting worse and worse.”

It’s hard to blame any of this on the internet itself, which was designed merely to carry information, not to generate it or censor it. But that doesn’t make the problems any less terrifying.

Perlman relates a personal story that captures one of the new hazards of internet life. “I was searching for how to renew my driver’s license, and I was in a hurry, and I was tired. I typed into Google, ‘Renew Washington state driver’s license.’ And I clicked on the top result, which was a very well-organized website with a URL that looked perfectly reasonable, something like washington.licensing.org. I clicked on ‘Renew license,’ and I put in my address, my name, my credit card number.”

That’s when the special offers and unauthorized charges started popping up. When Perlman looked more carefully, she realized the site only sold information about how to get a license—it wasn’t actually affiliated with the state’s licensing department.

After several days and many calls to her bank’s anti-fraud department, Perlman undid the damage. “I’m actually reasonably sophisticated about security and networking, and I was tricked into giving my credit card to a criminal,” she sums up. “The thing is that people don’t search based on URLs. They search based on Google results. And bad guys get to be first in the search order because they pay Google.”

Network architects can’t invent their way around pitfalls like that; they have to be addressed at the level of design, business models, regulation, or policy—or some combination of those approaches. But public trust in the big internet companies, and in the agencies meant to oversee them, has been battered by years of scandal. “There are all sorts of really difficult problems that may or may not be solvable,” she says.

To Perlman, the glass-half-full way of seeing the situation is that there are still plenty of challenges for coming generations of programmers to tackle. “When I was young, I was nervous that everything would have been solved by the time I was grown,” she says. “But it’s great that there are still interesting problems to solve.”

Does that make her a “hopeful pessimist,” I wondered? “Maybe,” she says. “Or at least I pretend to be when I’m talking to young people.”

What seems inevitable is that the internet of 2069 will be even more pervasive and more deeply embedded in citizens’ lives than the internet of today. The stakes will be higher, even if the technology itself is less visible. The people of that day might not speak of finding things or sharing things “on the internet,” any more than we currently speak of “driving on the highway network” or “making a call on the telephone network.” But the internet, or its potentially various descendants, will be the fabric for almost all communication, collaboration, and commerce.

Whether it’s a net force for good or evil will depend on how adept we are at recognizing our mistakes—and learning from them.