When asked what the internet is most people would conjure up images of Google, YouTube and Facebook, but the internet is so much more than just the World Wide Web. The internet itself is an interconnected network of computers and other devices linked through electronic, wireless and optical technologies that stretch around the globe.
The internet began life decades ago used primarily for scientific and military means in a few locations, but in the 1990s with the advent of powerful, affordable home computers and the dawn of the World Wide Web, the internet crept into people’s homes and eventually enveloped the globe. The connection between various electronic devices allow us to communicate almost instantaneously over vast distances; sending and receiving emails, making phone calls, transferring files and, of course, through inter-linked hypertext documents (the World Wide Web to you and me).
So, what is the future for this interconnected network? Currently there is a great push towards something called the ‘Internet of Things’. You may have already noticed that objects such as kettles and fridges have started being supplied with wireless connectivity, and there are also now several television adverts for controlling your home heating, media and appliances from your mobile phone whilst you’re out and about.
But why does a fridge need WiFi? Well, there’s certainly no need to fear having your social media pages swamped with selfies from a web-enable fridge-freezer (#chilling). By having multiple devices connected to one another through wireless technology we will be able to access, monitor and control every aspect of our homes through the click of a mouse.
The Internet of Things, however, is not necessarily a modern idea. The first appliance with an internet connection was demonstrated in 1982 at Carnegie Mellon University, USA. A Coke drinks machine was modified to report its stock levels and temperature through a local internet connection. This idea continued to grow and develop over the following thirty years to the point we are at today, with fridges in our own home able to tell us when we should pick up some more milk from the shops.
The Internet of Things is not just a demonstration of control over our benign belongings though. It is an opportunity for gathering data. Within our own homes it would enable monitoring of various things such as when the heating goes on, when the shower is in use or if family members have gone out and left the lights on. This information would allow us to make decisions about how and when we need to use various services allowing us to save money, switch suppliers or tell someone to turn the lights off and spend less time in the shower! The data can also be fed back to companies and suppliers.
It doesn’t stop there. Work is already beginning on smart homes, buildings and cities, built incorporating sensors and devices to monitor anything from air quality to the weather. Devices are also slowly being used to monitor the health and location of farm animals and people, with work being done towards using existing devices to monitor the health of older generations within their own homes. Electronic clams can be used to monitor ocean currents and water quality and sensors can be used for DNA analysis for monitoring food, pathogens and the environment. With any number of these devices able to connect to each other and transfer data, information from any sensor could be analysed and acted on appropriately and almost instantaneously. If there has been a car accident, sensors in vehicles and roads can detect this and quickly re-route traffic within a city to ease congestion. Or perhaps you are about to exit your home and your phone reminds you that there is rain due and that you should take an umbrella. In 2015 the UK government invested £40 million towards research into the Internet of Things, showing that this is technology holds a great deal of opportunity.
That being said, every benefit of this technology is balanced with risk. With all this data being gathered, much of it consisting of personal information, who can access it? There have already been examples of the ability to hack many devices connected wirelessly, such as pacemakers and even car brakes. With such risks it is important to take data protection and internet security seriously. However, there is always a trade-off between convenience and privacy and we may have to pay a price in accepting heightened security measures.
Another thing to consider is the potential for manipulation. With all of this information it would be easy to make purely data driven decisions and even open the potential for social control. There are also dangers of devices spying on people in their own homes.
On top of this there are the environmental factors of all these new connected devices, with a prediction of there being 20 to 30 billion devices connected to the Internet of Things by 2020, there will be increased demand in materials as well as an accelerated replacing and disposal of components to keep up with current systems.
Of course there are many more predictions for the future of the internet. Internet education has been posited as a way of increasing educational resources while reducing the demand for teachers, as well as being able to provide a more tailored education to individuals. The Internet allows a community of ‘nations without borders’ to flourish online, connecting and empowering the world. There are fears that increasing the reach of the Internet also increases the influence of trolls and hackers looking to abuse the system. There is a possibility that two groups could emerge online; the regular Joe’s looking to watch the odd cat video and check Facebook, and the technologically savvy who could potentially become a web-powered elite able to take advantage of others online. There is significant effort currently to educate people of all ages as to the benefit of learning a bit of simple coding, which may become as important in the future as learning to walk, talk, add and subtract. There is also a strong movement towards augmented reality, such as glasses which can overlay information onto real life as you go about your everyday business. With all this data flying around and so many devices interconnected, the technology that runs the internet (such as optical fibres, servers, electronics) will have a lot to do to keep up, but that’s a story for another day.
The Internet has had a major impact on everything over the last several decades from communication and business to art and culture. It is clear that, whatever may come, the Internet will continue to be a major pillar for our global society in the future.