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Oleg Demidov

International Information Security and Global Internet Governance Program Coordinator, PIR Center

In 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense set up ARPANET to ensure strategic command and data transmission capability in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike. Over 40 years later, the Internet, its direct descendant, has become a pillar of technological development and a powerful globalization tool that is rapidly changing the world and society. What will the next 40 years bring the Internet? Will this digital driver of progress crash down or alter civilization forever? And if this latter, then what shape will these changes take? Although the Internet’s development pattern is difficult to predict, some key contours and trends are already discernable today.

In 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense set up ARPANET to ensure strategic command and data transmission capability in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike. Over 40 years later, the Internet, its direct descendant, has become a pillar of technological development and a powerful globalization tool that is rapidly changing the world and society. What will the next 40 years bring the Internet? Will this digital driver of progress crash down or alter civilization forever? And if this latter, then what shape will these changes take? Although the Internet’s development pattern is difficult to predict, some key contours and trends are already discernable today.

Outlining the future of the Internet, even in the short- and medium-term perspectives, is an arduous affair, as it involves a host of processes, phenomena and technologies that make it impossible to discuss the Internet as a discrete entity. The Internet is fast becoming the artery of human communication, the key axis of interaction with multiple strands of format and content, i.e. chat, commerce, games, conflicts, etc. Apart from systemic crises such as nuclear war or global depopulation, no disaster scenario would reverse this trend in the foreseeable future. Hence, it is appropriate to begin with the trends and processes in global information exchange which are obvious and do not involve hypothetical constructions.

The Global Net Expansion: Accessible and Omnipresent

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In the near future, the Internet will expand both spatially and geographically, while even today’s technologies and infrastructures, i.e. fiber optics, satellite, and mobile technology, provide access to the Internet in most regions of the planet. The continued development of 4G wireless communications (WiMAX, LTE) and whatever follows will only increase this spread. This process is likely to continue until these powerful, ramified and cheap relay systems (or more profound wireless innovations) virtually cover the whole planet. The Internet will become available at virtually all heights and depths – in aircraft, down mines and in submarines. In fact, none of these developments involve long-term forecasting, as the U.S. Air Force has used inter-flight data links in its Network-centric warfare system since the mid-2000s. In other words, the issue is one of converting these innovations to civilian uses.

The Internet’s continued geographical and spatial expansion should deliver some significant practical effects. Primarily, states and other social organization systems will be stripped of the ability to isolate themselves from the Internet, as is currently attempted by China and Cuba that control Internet access domestically via technological restraints specific to the cable infrastructure and cellular communications using limited relay signal. Notably, the North Korean authorities have proved helpless in combating the practice that has developed in the country’s border areas where residents use the signal from Chinese cellular towers to send messages into the outside world thanks to smuggled Chinese-made mobile phones. When the North Korean territory becomes vulnerable to the permeation of dozens of wireless networks with installations in other countries, protection from the Internet will be even more difficult, as the population is secretly acquiring cell phones. It will present a challenge to all governments attempting to tightly regulate the Internet within their countries. The Internet has already reached into outer space, with the NASA Interplanetary Internet (IPI) project that was launched at the International Space Station in 2009. In November 2012, the station crew employed IPI to manipulate a robot in Darmstadt, Germany. NASA is planning to utilize IPI in preparing for a future lunar mission.

The Right to Access: The Internet as a Universal Service

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Absolute accessibility to the Internet, alongside its impact on social and political processes, social links, communications and economy, will finalize the incorporation of Internet access into the international system of human rights. This process is already underway, since in 2003-2009 Finland adopted a law and by-laws for the Transportation and Communications Ministry that have de facto given the Internet general communications services status on a par with mail and the telephone. Every family is granted guaranteed access to the Internet (at least 100 Mb/s from 2015). Citizens’ Internet access is also guaranteed in law in Costa Rica, Estonia, France, Greece, Spain and Switzerland. On June 3, 2011, the United Nations adopted a resolution based on a report by UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue, declaring that states have a "positive obligation to promote or to facilitate the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the means necessary to exercise this right, including the Internet," and that the Internet is an “enabler of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education." The 2011 OSCE Report on Freedom of Expression on the Internet states that "everyone should have a right to participate in the information society and states have a responsibility to ensure citizens’ access to the Internet is guaranteed,".

These processes will be accelerated by the expansion of the Internet across the globe. According to forecasts, by 2017, the Internet will be accessible for half the planet's population (3.5 billion). The authors of the OSCE Report believe that, by 2020, this figure should rise to five billion. A decade later, Internet reach (coverage) in industrialized countries will be nearly 100 percent, which should make the Internet part of habitual activities for all age and social groups including pensioners, children and the low-income population.

The Internet of Things: Barriers and Prospects

Development of 4G wireless communications (WiMAX, LTE) and whatever follows will only increase this spread.

The development of these trends is sure to see the Internet become an essential technological agent of human interaction, i.e. a universal commodity like money, for example. What kind of technological changes should we expect in the distant future? We currently have a network of networks integrated thanks to a common infrastructure, a system of IP addresses and domain names, hypertext protocol stacks and various applications. The Internet’s architecture incorporates seven levels – from physical infrastructure channels to program applications, search engines, social networks, etc. It seems unfeasible to predict future transformations at these levels, even looking ahead 30 years, let alone longer-term forecasts, although one trend – the Internet of Things – already appears discernible.

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The Internet of Things is not a concept of the future but a phenomenon of today that has great potential to develop in the years to come. This concept rests on the abrupt growth in the quantities, types and functions of devices hooked up to the Internet. Domestic equipment such as refrigerators, air-conditioners, vacuum cleaners, clothes and footwear, utensils and stationary will be provided with processors for Internet access that will raise their efficiency and autonomy. The process will also expand to encompass personal transport, offices and homes, roads and other infrastructure and logistics entities. Over time, facilities of combined natural-manmade origin are likely to take on a virtual identity, i.e. soccer fields, urban parks, sports grounds, agro-industrial complexes, etc. The motivation for this process is obvious and practical or economy-oriented. Smart facilities with Internet access would be more self-sufficient and more efficient – a refrigerator ordering foods, a vehicle with a computerized autopilot to select a route through online reports on traffic jams, a steam cooker that autonomously selects a recipe and prepares dinner by a preset time.

The prospects for the second industrial revolution are no less impressive. Transnational corporations’ production lines will automatically communicate via the Internet (or their own cloud network) to adjust output volumes and rates, exchanging information on delayed feedstock supplies and failures at production centers, downloading and introducing local innovations from the corporate R&D department as sanctioned by the operator, analyzing market demand and competitors' logistics using available online data, etc. This Internet of Things opens the gate to global automated capitalism.

Today’s augmented reality technology is based on the familiar human-computer interface.

Since the Internet of Things is accompanied by snowballing numbers of networked devices, its development was thought to be hampered by the huge number of IP addresses. Used to provide access to most devices, IPv4 limits the number of IP addresses by 4.295 billion, which was the case in February 2011. The solution was identified thanks to IPv6, which was commissioned on June 6, 2012 and which is able to distribute 2108 unique addresses (a conservative estimate), i.e. over three million for each person on the planet. Therefore the fundamental barriers to the Internet of Things seem to have been removed, while the economic impetus to its development is immense. The Internet of Things boasts a market that is thought to cover dozens of billions or dozens of trillions of devices [1], that is worth trillions of dollars in terms of its aggregate economic effect. The impact on logistics, manufacturing, energy distribution and everyday life seem commensurate with the mass introduction of computers in business and industry.

Internet-Enhanced Reality

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World Wide Web

Largely linked to the Internet of Things, Augmented Reality is another promising facet of evolving Internet technologies. Currently, human perception of real objects and the aggregated knowledge of them are divided by time and space. We look at the river behind the window, and then glance at the pad to obtain data on the river from Wikipedia. But when numerous manmade objects are connected to the Internet and participate in this data exchange, they take on a representation, i.e. an information profile of their own. In contrast to the Internet of Things, virtual representation can be attached both to manmade and natural entities – geographical locations, mountains, rivers, etc. – through accumulation of data on them in the Internet.

The asynchronicity between the visual perception of an object and receiving data describing it is likely to be eliminated within 10-20 years at the commercial technology level. Currently, Augmented Reality is realized visually, as the receipt of visual data on the environment from the Internet is superimposed on the direct observation of it in real time. One example of this technology can be seen in the augmented reality glasses successfully tested by Google since 2012. In about 15 years’ time, it may be possible to wear special glasses or lenses or even have one's retina operated on, enabling the individual to simultaneously see the bridge behind the window and text and graphics or tables containing all the data on it stored in the Internet or other information system, such as its length, mass, strength, construction date, and daily number of pedestrians. Glancing at the nearby skyscraper, you will be able to see huge ads of the companies headquartered in the building. The firms’ virtual platforms will read you watching their offices and offer targeted services proceeding from available information on your electronic profile.

Beyond the Short-Range Horizon: Technology Frontiers and Intelligence Limits

There is good reason to believe that these technologies could be commercialized within 20-30 years, but then, what next? Today’s augmented reality technology is based on the familiar human-computer interface that involves an intermediary for data transmission and processing, i.e. human sense organs serving as a connector transforming brain signals into actions controlling the computer and data input devices. Future technologies will inevitably seek to optimize this process by eliminating excessive links and introducing a direct neuron (brain) interface, i.e. mental commands for the computer.

Combined with the concept of the Internet of Things, this solution should dramatically change the models for human interaction with the environment, and the organization of economic and commercial activities. Mental commands will be sufficient to find information on the Internet, warm up the chicken in the cooker, stop a power station turbine in the United States, and launch a drone attack in Afghanistan. It seems unimaginable, but humans are doing all of this today, albeit using their hands, eyes and input devices as mediators. As soon as a direct link between the brain and the computer chip is found, this liaison will become redundant. Work on preliminary technology in this area is already underway. With the help of direct neuron-based interface systems some are seeing with artificial eyes (1, 2) while others are operating artificial limbs. In 2011 in Moscow, the NeuroG project pioneered a demonstration of computer recognition of human mental images. The same year, researchers at the University of Washington Medical School presented technology that mentally manipulates the PC monitor cursor. Of course, these feats are as far from a neurocomputer interface in global data exchange as current thermonuclear fusion advances are from their industrial use. But this is just the beginning, whereas a period of 30-40 years in ICT terms means a formidable time horizon sufficient for several technology revolutions.

Future technologies will direct neuron (brain) interface, i.e. mental commands for the computer.

Moreover, ICT should deliver technological singularity, within a particular period of time, creating a turning-point in mankind’s development. In theory, progress is a continuous process, with its trajectory described as a hyperbola within the axes of progress rate and time. At the point where the function value on the rate axis nears infinity, we find singularity, i.e. conversion to a qualitatively new status. In technological development terms, this means the acceleration of progress to a level beyond which mankind can no longer monitor or control it. IT advances seem to be destined to achieve full-fledged artificial intelligence capable of developing and generating knowledge independently of human involvement. Widely believed to be a child of computer technologies, this artificial intelligence will encompass all the information and resources on the Internet, and will consequently grow at almost instantaneous velocity [2] generating a knowledge and information explosion that will have unpredictable effects.

* * *

Is this good or bad? The evolution of the Internet and its descendants will certainly push the boundaries of human possibility. But will these new developments be used for mankind’s benefit? These technologies are equally advantageous for war, the surveillance and persecution of citizens and groups. They could cause unparalleled manmade disasters. Notably, just like all other technologies, the Internet is itself amoral, and its effects depend on the aims and methods of its operation. To date, the Internet has primarily been a tool for progress and development despite side effects like cybercrime and cyber-terrorism, its ambiguous role in the Arab Spring and the growing threat of cyber war. For this reason, the international community, including Russia, its government, diplomats, experts and citizens must do their best to prevent any reverse of this positive trend, all the more so since unrestrained development without the Internet is essentially unconceivable.

1. Waldner J.-B. Nano-informatique et intelligence ambiante. Inventer l’ordinateur du XXIeme siècle. L.: Hermes Science, 2007. P. 254.

2. Kurzweil R., Grossman T. Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. R Dale Books, 2010.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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