Looking at the arc of the Internet’s 50 year history from its Arpanet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) origins in 1969 to the present, certain milestones stand out. One is the transition from the 50 kb/s Arpanet system and its NCP protocols to the Internet and its TCP/IP protocol suite in 1983 after a decade of development.1 The next major development in the mid-1980s involved three additional backbone networks sponsored by the US Department of Energy (ESNET), NASA (NASA Science Internet) and the US National Science Foundation (NSFNET) and concomitant intermediate level networks all operating at 1.5 Mb/s or more. By 1989, three commercial networks were in operation in the US: Performance Systems International (PSINET), UUNET and the California Education and Research Federation Network (CERFnet). In 1991, the World Wide Web was announced and in 1993, the MOSAIC graphical user interface browser was born. That led to the founding of Netscape Communications and its Netscape Navigator browser (and matching server) leading to a spectacular initial public offering in 1995. The ‘dot-com boom’ was on! Other browsers were developed such as Chrome, Internet Explorer, Edge and Firefox. Web search engines proliferated with AltaVista, Yahoo!, Google and Bing, among others. Social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter arrived in the mid-2000s just before the dramatic debut of the Apple iPhone in 2007.
As Internet speeds have increased, streaming video has become more feasible and now, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, billions of people are holding videoconference calls daily with products like Zoom, Meet, Teams, BlueJeans, Remo and many others. These applications are facilitated by global optical fibre networks with backbone speeds of 400 Gb/s or more, 4G, 5G and Wi-Fi links operating in the tens to hundreds of megabit and even gigabit ranges. Low earth orbiting satellite systems are forming including Starlink, OneWeb and Kuiper which will bring Internet access to every square inch of planet Earth. The space agencies of the world are already standardizing the protocols for an interplanetary Internet and work is ongoing to ensure that these new technologies do not contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions or electronic waste. The Scientific Committee on Frequency Allocations for Radio Astronomy and Space Science (IUCAF), which was co-founded by the ISC, is working to ensure that these new satellite systems can co-exist with existing radio astronomy technologies.
What can we expect in the 2020s? The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated our use of online tools that allow some of us to work from home or remotely. Online education, still evolving, got an unexpected boost during the pandemic, but demonstrated that despite successes, we have some distance to go to make remote schooling an effective experience. Among the bright lights we can count the Georgia Tech Online Master of Science in Computer Science programme, the Khan Academy, Udacity and Coursera programmes, among others. Elementary-, middle- and high-school online offerings have been harder to develop, not least because the schools are less well equipped and students more varied in their access to adequate Internet services. The COVID-Education Alliance (COVIDEA), of which the ISC is a partner, is working to ensure that lessons are learned from the pandemic that can help education institutions respond to similar challenges in the future.
Augmented reality, which superimposes knowledge on the real world, is becoming more feasible, as is virtual reality, in which almost anything is possible – the laws of physics need not apply. Machine learning has delivered speech recognition, text translation, medical diagnoses, voice-activated ‘assistants’ that answer questions and control appliances, chatbots, automatic captioning, self-driving cars, learning robots, and automatic warehouses and factories.
The Internet of Things is a coming tidal wave of programmable, networked devices and appliances that will populate homes, offices and manufacturing facilities. 3D printing, already a big market, will invert the normal manufacturing process by making devices local on demand rather than producing, warehousing and delivering them in traditional ways. In the history of computing, visionaries like Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart and J.C.R. Licklider imagined a world in which computers became cooperating partners in discovery and development. Their dreams are slowly being realized as we learn new ways to absorb and process information of all kinds.
To show how far machine learning in text space has progressed, Google recently reported that its PaLM 540B system has the ability to explain jokes and puns:
Explain this joke:
Joke: Did you see that Google just hired an elephant whale for their TPU team? It showed them how to communicate between two different pods!
Response (by PaLM 540B):
Prediction: TPUs are a type of computer chip that Google uses for deep learning. A ‘pod’ is a group of TPUs. A ‘pod’ is also a group of whales. The joke is that the whale is able to communicate between two groups of whales, but the speaker is pretending that the whale is able to communicate between two different groups of TPUs.
It’s one thing when computers can tell jokes but another when they can explain them! We are just at the beginning of a new era in which computers will become increasingly capable of communicating and working cooperatively with humans. This amplification of human capability holds enormous promise, but comes with the great risk that such powers will be put to work in ways that harm our society more than help it. We must collectively ensure that technological developments do not create existential risks. This is where the International Science Council comes in: as interlocutor and harbinger of the promise and peril of science and the fruits of its application.
Vint Cerf is one of the architects of the modern Internet, having co-designed the TCP/IP protocol which defines how computers communicate in a networked system. Since October 2005, he has served at Google, where he is now responsible for public sector business development for advanced, Internet-based products and services.