There are many reasons for the astonishing success of our species, but our ability to co-operate is surely one of the most profound. The phenomenon of co-operation is, itself, the manifestation of a gamut of intellectual-technologies (which Nicholas Carr, in his 2011 book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” describes as being those we use to think with, to find information, gather information, exchange information and so forth). “Intellectual technologies…” explains Carr, “…have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others…”
For the majority of human history, such technologies (language, writing and so on) were contained within a small group of the population comprised of the political and social elite, religious figures, scientists, philosophers to name a few.
Things remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years but “The last century…” observed Lewis Mumford (in his 1966 essay, ‘Knowledge Among Men’) “… has witnessed a radical transformation in the entire human environment, largely as a result of the impact of the mathematical and physical sciences upon technology… In terms of the currently accepted picture of the relation of man to technics, our age is passing from the primeval state of man, marked by his invention of tools and weapons for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, to a radically different condition, in which he will not only have conquered nature but detached himself completely from the organic habitat.”
The past half-century has been an astounding period of cognitive enlightenment where innovation after innovation added new dimensions to the human experience (across all social and intellectual dimensions). Of these innovations, it has been the technologies of mass-communication that have been the most dramatic in their influence. Carr quotes from Marshall McLuhan’s seminal work ‘Understanding Media’ describing how these advances, “…were breaking the tyranny of text over our thoughts and senses. Our isolated fragmented selves, locked for centuries in the private reading of printed pages, were becoming whole again, merging into the global equivalent of a tribal village. We were approaching the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.” These technologies of mass-communication have unified with the Internet- an anarchic network of interconnected devices which now links over 3.2billion people (close to 50% of the world population) . Carr describes how the Internet is ‘subsuming’ most of our other intellectual technologies, “…it’s becoming our typewriter and our printing press, our map and our clock, our calculator and our telephone, our post office and our library, our radio and our TV.” Even the very essence of ‘who’ we are is changing.
“… Electronic systems change not only what we know, but how we know it (Posner, 1990). With the steady expansion of cyberspace, the Enlightenment notion of the human subject-unified, consistent, and non-contradictory-is being increasingly replaced by ‘Netizens’, who may occupy numerous, even contradictory social positions and inhabit multiple, overlapping communities simultaneously. Foucault (1986, 22) put it well: ‘We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed…’” (‘Counterhegemonic Discourses and the Internet’, Barney Warf and John Grime, 1997). So what will be the impact of the Internet on our civilisation?
In these exclusive interviews we talk to Dr. Vint Cerf (Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, widely known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet”), Professor Robert ‘Bob’ Metcalfe (Co-inventor of the Ethernet, founder 3COM), Dr. Jeff Jaffe (CEO, W3C – The World Wide Web Consortium), Kevin Kelly (Co-Founder of WIRED) and Professor Luciano Floridi (Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information, University of Oxford). We discuss the essence of the internet, the most profound technological advance in the history of our species.
[bios]Vinton G. Cerf has served as vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google since October 2005 and was previously senior vice president of Technology Strategy for MCI. Prior to rejoining MCI in 1994, Cerf was vice president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI). As vice president of MCI Digital Information Services from 1982-1986, he led the engineering of MCI Mail, the first commercial email service to be connected to the Internet.
Widely known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet,” Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet (During his tenure from 1976-1982 with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Cerf played a key role leading the development of Internet and Internet-related packet data and security technologies). In December 1997, President Clinton presented the U.S. National Medal of Technology to Cerf and his colleague, Robert E. Kahn, for founding and developing the Internet. Kahn and Cerf were named the recipients of the ACM Alan M. Turing award in 2004 for their work on the Internet protocols. In November 2005, President George Bush awarded Cerf and Kahn the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their work. The medal is the highest civilian award given by the United States to its citizens. In April 2008, Cerf and Kahn received the prestigious Japan Prize.
Vint Cerf served as chairman of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2000-2007. Cerf also served as founding president of the Internet Society from 1992-1995 and in 1999 served a term as chairman of the Board. In addition, Cerf is honorary chairman of the IPv6 Forum, dedicated to raising awareness and speeding introduction of the new Internet protocol. Cerf served as a member of the U.S. Presidential Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) from 1997 to 2001 and serves on several national, state and industry committees focused on cyber-security. Cerf sits on the Board of Directors for the Endowment for Excellence in Education, the Broadband for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Corporation, StopBadWare, the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel governing board (2009-2011) and the Intaba Institute (for the Deaf). He serves on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director’s Advisory Committee and is a distinguished visiting scientist (it is in this latter role where he is working on the design of an interplanetary Internet) and serves as Chair of the Visitors Committee on Advanced Technology of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. He also serves as 1st Vice President and Treasurer of the National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.
Cerf is a recipient of numerous awards and commendations in connection with his work on the Internet. These include the Marconi Fellowship, Charles Stark Draper award of the National Academy of Engineering, the Prince of Asturias award for science and technology, the National Medal of Science from Tunisia, the St. Cyril and St. Methodius Order (Grand Cross) of Bulgaria, the Alexander Graham Bell Award presented by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, the NEC Computer and Communications Prize, the Silver Medal of the International Telecommunications Union, the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, the IEEE Koji Kobayashi Award, the ACM Software and Systems Award, the ACM SIGCOMM Award, the Computer and Communications Industries Association Industry Legend Award, installation in the Inventors Hall of Fame, the Yuri Rubinsky Web Award, the Kilby Award , the Rotary Club International Paul P. Harris Medal, the Joseph Priestley Award from Dickinson College, the Yankee Group/Interop/Network World Lifetime Achievement Award, the George R. Stibitz Award, the Werner Wolter Award, the Andrew Saks Engineering Award, the IEEE Third Millennium Medal, the Computerworld / Smithsonian Leadership Award, the J.D. Edwards Leadership Award for Collaboration, World Institute on Disability Annual award and the Library of Congress Bicentennial Living Legend medal.
Cerf was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2006. He was made an Eminent Member of the IEEE Eta Kappa Nu (HKN) honor society of the IEEE in 2009. In February 2011 he was named a Stanford Engineering School “Hero” for his work on the Internet.
Cerf holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Stanford University and Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science from UCLA. He also holds honorary Doctorate degrees from twenty internationally respected universities.
Bob Metcalfe is Professor of Innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise in The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering.
Dr. Metcalfe was an Internet pioneer at MIT starting in 1970 and in 1973 received his PhD from Harvard for “Packet Communication.” He invented Ethernet in 1973 and founded 3Com Corporation (now part of HP) in 1979.
Dr. Metcalfe has received numerous industry awards and recognition including the ACM Grace Hopper Award in 1980, the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 1988, the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1996, the National Medal of Technology in 2005, induction into to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007, and the Fellow Award from the Computer History Museum in 2008.
In November 2010 Metcalfe was selected to lead innovation initiatives at The University of Texas at Austin Cockrell School of Engineering. He began his appointment in January 2011.
Dr. Jeff Jaffe is Chief Executive Officer of the World Wide Web Consortium. In this role he works with Director Tim Berners-Lee, staff, and membership, and the public to evolve and communicate the W3C’s vision. He is responsible for all of W3C’s global operations, for maintaining the interests of all of W3C’s stakeholders, and for sustaining a culture of cooperation and transparency, so that W3C continues to be the leading forum for the technical development and stewardship of the Web.
After receiving a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT in 1979, Jeff joined IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center. During his tenure at IBM, he held a wide variety of technical and management positions, including vice president, Systems and Software Research, corporate vice president of technology, and general manager of IBM’s SecureWay business unit, where he was responsible for IBM’s security, directory, and networking software business.
Jeff then served as president of Bell Labs Research and Advanced Technologies, where he established new facilities in Ireland and India, and served as chairman of the board of the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium.
Most recently, Jeff served as the Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Novell. He was responsible for Novell’s technology direction, as well as leading Novell’s product business units.
Jeff was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Advisory Committee for the Presidential Commission for Critical Infrastructure Protection. He has also chaired the Chief Technology Officer group of the Computer Systems Policy Project, and has served on the National Research Council’s Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. He is a Fellow of ACM and the IEEE.
Dr. Jaffe holds a BS in Mathematics and an MS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in addition to his Doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kevin Kelly helped launch Wired magazine in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor for its first seven years. He is now Senior Maverick for Wired. In 1994 and 1997, during Kelly’s tenure, Wired won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence (the industry’s equivalent of two Oscars).
From 1984 to 1990 Kelly was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review, a journal of unorthodox technical news. The non-profit Whole Earth Review (formerly called Co-Evolution Quarterly) was a small, yet influential, journal that consistently published trend-making topics years before other publications noticed them. Under Kelly’s direction and editorship, Whole Earth was the first consumer magazine to report on virtual reality, ecological restoration, the global teenager, Internet culture and artificial life (to name just a few early trends in the 1980s).
In the late 80s, Kelly conceived and oversaw the publication of four versions of the Whole Earth Catalogs. These were award-winning compendiums evaluating all the best “tools” available for self-education. (Over a million Whole Earth Catalogs have been sold.) The kind of tools reviewed include hardware, power tools, books, and software — anything that leverages power to individuals. In 1988 Kelly edited, published, and wrote much of Signal, a Whole Earth Catalog of personal communication tools, which evaluated the technologies of faxes, satellite TV, cellular, digital retouching, online systems and the whole emerging world of digital technology. Signal was a precursor to Wired magazine. In 2003 Kelly launched the Cool Tools website to review one tool daily. In 2014 he published the best from 11 years of reviews as a large, oversized, 500-page Whole Earth Catalog inspired book in paper. The Cool Tools book was a #15 bestseller on Amazon.
Kelly was a founding board member of the WELL, a very early online service started in 1985 by the Point Foundation (Kelly was director of Point from 1985-1990). The WELL is considered to be the pioneer in developing online communities and social networks, and it influenced other early online companies such as AOL.
As director of the Point Foundation, Kelly was involved in initiating several techno-culture experiments. He launched Cyberthon in 1990, the first round-the-clock virtual reality jamboree. This brought together for the first time, all existing virtual reality prototypes and allowed 400 invited guests to try them out. It was the first chance the lay public had to try VR. Kelly was also co-founder of the annual Hackers’ Conference, a weekend rendezvous which in 1984 brought together three generations of legendary computer programmers for the first time.
Kelly is the author of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Economic and Social Systems, published in 1994. This wide-ranging book is about how machines, the economy, and all large human-made inventions are becoming biological. Fortune magazine called it “essential reading for all executives.” His second book, New Rules for the New Economy, was published in 1998. It outlines the new economics based in the digital world, introducing the importance of “free” prices. New Rules was a bestseller in the US and has been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, Swedish, Portuguese and Estonian. What Technology Wants, published in 2010, offers the first theory for technology, defining the nature of this force in the universe. His most recent book is The Inevitable (2016), about the unavoidable trends in the next 20 years.
Kevin Kelly’s writing has appeared in many national and international publications such as the New York Times, The Economist, Time, Harpers, Science, GQ, Wall Street Journal and Esquire. His photographs have appeared in LIFE and other national magazines. For speeches he is represented by Stern Speakers.
Kelly is a founding member of the board of The Long Now Foundation, which is a group of individuals encouraging long-term thinking. The Long Now is building a clock and library that will last 10,000 years. The first 10,000-year clock is now being built inside a mountain in western Texas. The purpose of the project is to foster long term responsibility.
Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, where he is the Director of Research and Senior Research Fellow of the Oxford Internet Institute, Governing Body Fellow of St Cross College, Distinguished Research Fellow of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Faculty of Philosophy, and Research Associate and Fellow in Information Policy of the Department of Computer Science. Outside Oxford, he is Adjunct Professor (“Distinguished Scholar in Residence”) of the Department of Economics, American University, Washington D.C.
Floridi’s research concerns primarily the Philosophy of Information, Information and Computer Ethics, and the Philosophy of Technology. Other research interests include Epistemology, Philosophy of Logic, and the History and Philosophy of Scepticism. He has published over a 150 papers in these areas, in many anthologies and peer-reviewed journals.
Floridi’s lifetime project is a tetralogy (not his term) on the foundation of the philosophy of information, called Principia Philosophiae Informationis.
Professor Floridi’s most recent books are: The Fourth Revolution – How the infosphere is reshaping human reality (Oxford University Press, 2014); The Ethics of Information (Oxford University Press, 2013, volume two of the tetralogy ); The Philosophy of Information (Oxford University Press, 2011, volume one of the tetralogy); Information – A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010); and The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics (edited for Cambridge University Press, 2010).
His previous books include Scepticism and the Foundation of Epistemology – A Study in the Metalogical Fallacies (Brill, 1996); Internet – An Epistemological Essay (Il Saggiatore, 1997); Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction (Routledge, 1999); Sextus Empiricus, The Recovery and Transmission of Pyrrhonism (Oxford University Press, 2002).
Between 2006 and 2010, he was President of IACAP (International Association for Computing And Philosophy). In 2009, he became the first philosopher to be elected Gauss Professor by the Göttingen Academy of Sciences. Still in 2009, he was awarded the Barwise Prize by the American Philosophical Association in recognition of his research on the philosophy of information, and was elected Fellow of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour. In 2010, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Springer’s new journal Philosophy & Technology and elected Fellow of the Center for Information Policy Research, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. In 2011, he was awarded a laurea honoris causa by the University of Suceava, Romania, for his research on the philosophy of information.
In 2012, Floridi was appointed Chairman of the expert group, organised by the DG INFSO of the European Commission, on the impact of information and communication technologies on the digital transformations occurring in the European society. Still in 2012, he was the recipient of the Covey Award, by the International Association for Computing and Philosophy, for “outstanding research in philosophy and computing”.
Floridi was then the recipient of the Weizenbaum Award for 2013 for his “significant contribution to the field of information and computer ethics, through his research, service, and vision” (the Award is given every two years by the International Society for Ethics and Information Technology). Still in 2013, he was elected Fellow of the British Computer Society (FBCS) and Member of the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences (MAIPS). In 2014, he was awarded a Cátedras de Excelencia by the University Carlos III of Madrid (UC3M) for his work on the philosophy and ethics of information. In 2015, he was elected Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow of the European University Institute.
For 2016 Floridi has received the Copernicus Scientist Award by the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Ferrara;
Professor Floridi is currently a member of Google Advisory Council on “the right to be forgotten” and of the Advisory Board of the Internet and Society Institute recently launched by Tencent. He is also the Chairman of the Ethics Advisory Board of the European Medical Information Framework.
In 2009-11, he was the PI (Principal Investigator) of the AHRC-funded project “The Construction of Personal Identities Online” and of the Marie Curie Fellowship Grant on “The Ethics of Information Warfare: Risks, Rights and Responsibilities” (FP7-PEOPLE-2009-IEF). In 2011-2013 he was the Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded project “Understanding Information Quality Standards and their Challenges”.
Floridi is currently the PI of the following projects: “The Ethics of Biomedical Big Data” (John Fell Main Award 2014-2015); “The logics of information visualization” (European Union H2020, MSCA-IF-2014, 2015-2017); the “Viral Messaging: its Nature and Dynamics” (Tencent Internet and Society Institute 2015-17); and “An Ethical Framework for the New Civic Responsibilities of Online Service Providers” (Google Academic Grant 2015).[/bios]
Q: What is the relationship of information to humanity?
[Prof. Luciano Floridi] We’ve always been an information society, though this fact has been hidden under the many layers of other things we have been. For example, we were an agricultural society as well as an information society, we were an industrial society as well as an information society, and so on.
Thinking of society as layers, or strata helps us understand this. The upper layer is what we see, what we identify our society with. A couple of millennia ago, this would have been agricultural (with the Egyptians), and then mercantile (with the Athenians), and onwards to Rome where the essential value of society was its land and resources. All of these societies were also information society- the Egyptians had their scribes, the Hellenic societies created the first recorded histories, the Roman empire had written law and communication, and so on.
We have always been information societies, but it has just now that this has become the primary way in which we define ourselves.
Q: What is the distinction between the online and offline worlds?
[Prof. Luciano Floridi] Imagine an estuary, the place where the river meets the sea. Asking whether the water there is salty or sweet means you cannot understand where you are, it is where the sweet water of the river meets the salty water of the sea and the vegetation and animals there have adapted to be able to live with that.
That special environment for us is On-Life, it’s the place where we’re not entirely online only, nor entirely offline only. There has been some criticism of this view. People have said that when they walk down the street or do the dishes, or spend hours and hours watching a movie or on Facebook that these are inherently separate activities… If you go back to our analogy, if you go up the river, you will find only the river… and if you go into the sea, there is nothing else but the sea. The point is not that the difference does not exist anymore, but that it is where the difference does not apply that interesting and very influential things happen today.
Our whole life is not ‘on-life,’ but on-life is becoming the space in which we spend most of our time. It’s also important to remember that there are billions out there in our world who have never even been able to make a phone call- so we need some perspective.
This special place between the online and offline words, our on-life is also where everything happens that affects not just our lives, but the lives of the other billions of people on the planet. The use of digital-media by terrorists, for example, affects everyone not just those with internet access. The same holds true for communications, and trade.
Q: How is technology helping us (re)invent culture?
[Kevin Kelly] A meta-trend in our lives today, is the fact that change is permanent. The way things are changing is itself changing too.
In my grandfather’s age, people lived not too differently to their grandfathers and so people did not need to think about the future too much. Now? When people are born, their lives will be completely transformed by the time they grow up. Everything is changing all the time, and in most ways faster- that’s part of our education and techno-literacy.
Technology is that ‘thing’ which changes around us while our human nature changes at a much slower pace. Our skill as a species is therefore to keep up with the pace of change of technology.
We are permanently newbies, permanently learners. We are never masters, but rather constantly learning and re-learning technologies as they emerge.
The ongoing process of abandoning what we know, and embracing the new, will be our story for the foreseeable future.
We’re far more anxious and uncertain about who we are now, than ever before. We have infinite possibilities and huge change and that means humanity is changing. The question of ‘who am I?’ didn’t need a concrete answer for many people, but now it does.
As humans, we are collectively having to redefine what ‘we’ mean. Now that robots can do ‘x,’ and we thought we were the only ones who could, what do we do now? What is our role in relation to these agents we’re inventing who can do things that we thought were previously our prevail.
People are living longer, have more time to be creative, have greater wealth and welfare, but without a doubt there will be abuses by criminals, organised crime, hackers, vandals and so on. The negative sides of society will lever the same trends as we are using to improve it.
Q: ‘What’ is the Internet and why did it grow so fast?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] The ‘Internet’ arose in response to a problem the defence department was trying to solve. We were looking at the possibility of using computers for command and control and the theory was that if you could use a programmed computer, or a collection of computers, to manage military resources- you may enable a smaller force to overcome a bigger one (the force multiplier). The first experiment was called the ‘ARPANET‘. This was a packet switching experiment. The second experiment was called ‘The Internetting’ project, started by Bob Kahn when he was the American Defence Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA). That project basically said, “…If I can put computers in places that the military uses they’ll have to work in aircraft, ships at sea, mobile devices, mobile vehicles as well as fixed land installations….” This meant you had to use satellite and radio technology in addition to fixed circuits to build the networks- and then find some way to interconnect them so the computers on any one of the networks could communicate with any other. That was the TCP/IP design, which was originally done in 1973, published in 1974 and elaborated over a period of several years- finally being implemented operationally January 1st 1983.
The reason the Internet grew so quickly is that it happened to come at a time when workstations were becoming increasingly popular. Ethernets had been around since 1973 and were also very widely available. The research community was enthusiastic about having computer resources closer to the users as opposed to the big time-shared mainframes of the day. During this same period of time, specifications for the TCP/IP protocols were widely and openly available without any intellectual property restrictions on their use. They gained a great deal credibility… because they worked! (Compared to the OSI initiative which was mainly paper, and even though it was initiated by the international standards organisation and apparently endorsed by a large number of countries including the US, it simply did not have the experience in the field). During that period of time from ’83 onward, especially after ’88- we saw serious commercialisation. We saw routers commercialised around 1986- by Cisco systems and their peers- which made them highly accessible and useful to not only the academic community, but also the private sector. Networking services, which had the province of governments primarily, became commercially accessible- at least in the US- around 1989. That unleashed a substantial demand because people were very interested in using computers for all kinds of things!
There are two things to observe. Firstly, the rate at which the Internet grew… the numbers of computers, users and pieces of equipment on the system doubled every year starting in 1988 for quite a while. Secondly, In 1991 or so, Tim Berners Lee released his “World Wide Web” design which sat on top of the internet and made it even more useful. This became commercially visible in the form of Netscape Communications in around 1994 and as soon as that company went public- the ‘dot boom‘ was triggered, and everybody wanted to invest in the Internet. Fast-forward to April 2000, and this all fell apart- investments were made without sensible business models. People were throwing money around hoping to have another big success like Netscape Communications…. The ‘dot bust‘ happened, which persisted for around five years, but even during that period of time- the Internet continued to grow. Perhaps not doubling every year, but certainly increasing at least 40% per year- as there was still a latent demand for that capability.
[Professor Bob Metcalfe] The internet is a nervous system for humanity, one we have built ourselves. It’s an extension of our minds using technology, allowing us to share the sum of human knowledge and endeavour online. At the time the technologies creating what we now call the ‘internet’ were conceived, nobody had any idea it would grow as fast as it would, and that pace of growth is continuing unabated.
[Dr. Jeff Jaffe] The Internet is the information infrastructure for our society. Human society relies on substantial infrastructures; as we became more advanced with automobiles for example, we needed roads and we also require energy infrastructure. Now that we’re an information society, we need a good information infrastructure- and that’s what the Internet does- it connects everyone.
Q: What is the nature of the internet?
[Kevin Kelly] While your pen, car and other objects are not autonomous, living things… the network… the sum of all technologies in the world is rather different.
Let’s take the example of a phone. There are thousands of sub-technologies needed to make the phone work, each of which has thousands of sub-technologies to make them work and so on. That phone then connects to a network with billions of devices, and we see these systems- in aggregate- behaving in predictable, evolutionary ways.
Technology tends to a use-case, or towards a role in the wider ecosystem of technologies and species and you see time and time again this pushback where we may try to use technologies for another end-purpose, but they revert to where they ‘want’ to be.
‘Copying,’ is one of those. The internet serves as the world’s largest, most advanced copy machine. If you have something that can be copied like music, movies or a book? It will be copied. That is baked deep into how the internet works. Computers move things around by copying them, and the internet is built on technologies that work by copying. You can’t stop this copying, and all the industries and companies that are trying to prevent things getting copied are all misguided- the internet wants to copy things. You have to embrace, accept and work-with that. You have to find alternative ways to monetise.
The internet is also the world’s largest tracking machine. Whatever can be tracked, will be tracked and you can’t stop that. We have to work with it.
Copying, tracking, flowing, sharing – these are things we can’t regulate out or prohibit. We have to embrace them and get to know them. By engaging with technology, we can steer it to our advantage.
Q: What is the web?
[Dr. Jeff Jaffe] The Internet had its roots in the ARPANET project over 50 years ago, and in this form- it was a network to physically connect computers, machines and allow them to share information with each other. It didn’t give a lot of specificity about how that information would be shared or what the information would be that would be shared. It was mostly the physical networking level that was important, getting information from one computer to another. The application layer then emerged, giving people a range of uses for this network beyond just sending information between machines.
The web has become the most pervasive application built on Internet infrastructure.
Q: What have been the greatest impacts the internet has had on our civilisation?
[Professor Bob Metcalfe] The internet has made the world more prosperous and free than it has ever been. It has also been our species’ greatest engine for freedom and expression.
We can’t imagine humanity without the level of interconnectedness we experience now, the internet has changed everything.
Q: How is technology impacting our sense of identity?
[Prof. Luciano Floridi] Each of us has a special individual, unique perception of oneself. Imagine explaining the taste of an apple to someone who has never tasted an apple… you can give analogies and say ‘it’s a bit like…’ but if you haven’t eaten an apple, you will never know what an apple tastes like. Likewise, your sense of self is a unique, irreplaceable, non-communicable experience. You can say that my sense of self is a bit like yours, but it’s me…
Our personal, internal, perception of ourselves is oversimplified outside by broad generalisations that allow us to have context in the time and place we are. For example, at a party you may meet someone who is ‘Mary’s husband…’ – that doesn’t tell you whether that person likes or dislikes artichokes! In real, successful, relationships, the discovery of the other is an endless process. Even the closest partners and the best of friends are always discovering new things about each other- we have such richness as human beings.
Even if we reduce ourselves to a long list of types, we end up with something like this. ‘Luciano is a Professor at Oxford, he drives a Volkswagen, he wears glasses, dresses in a suit and tie, is Italian but also British and so forth.’ This long description helps you identify that person, but you still do not know that person.
The commercial and political world needs to categorise us to advertise to us things that others want to sell to us or understand where we fit into the mechanism of state, but these categorisations are approximations at best and can esily be misleading. They certainly do not reflect who we really are.
If we start thinking of ourselves in terms of the projection that is presented to us by social media, we are losing our own identity.
Q: What created the innovation ecosystem at the time the internet was created?
[Professor Bob Metcalfe] The story of today’s innovation ecosystem starts in 1947, with the invention of the transistor, was one of the most important moments in technology history. This one invention changed everything, and came during the post-war period, when the world was rebuilding, and needed peace, freedom and prosperity.
This brings me to a gentleman called Georges Doriot, who came to the US from France, became a Brigadier General in the US Army (fighting in World War II). General Doriot founded the American Research & Development Corporation (the world’s first publicly owned VC) and also INSEAD, one of the world’s top business schools.
The ecosystem that created these enterprises, I like to call the ‘Doriot Ecology,’ – which has driven much of what we celebrate as ‘silicon valley’ style technological and entrepreneurial innovation at scale. In this ecology which we have seven major ‘species,’ each playing a unique role: funding agencies, research professors, graduating students, scaling entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategic partners and early adopters.
Within this ecosystem, innovations are driven by fiercely competing teams of various combinations of these species- what we refer to as start-ups.
The time I was in Silicon Valley, I remember it being a very special place, it had a sense of purpose- a mission- which perhaps it’s losing now- focussing too much on money, and less-so on that sense of value and purpose.
It goes without saying however, that innovation ecosystems simply cannot flourish without free enterprise, government support and the right incentives.
Freedom and prosperity are a virtuous cycle, and innovation is what energises them. The internet was built by start-ups out of research universities, and this is the future of innovation even today.
[Dr. Jeff Jaffe] Humans are social animals, and it’s in our nature that we want to communicate with each other. As different means of communication show up, they require different infrastructures.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and to support synchronous conversations between one person and another on these telephones, we created infrastructure, which served the population quite well for most of the 20th century.
Then the computer revolution hit. We had the mainframe in the 1960s, the minicomputer in the 1970s, and the early years of the personal computing revolution followed. There became a need for the people’s appendages (the machine) to communicate with each other. That needed a different infrastructure from a phone network which, by its nature, was optimised for synchronous voice communications. For machine-to-machine communications, there needed to be a different set of technologies, packet switching to support asynchronous communications between machines.
The Internet emerged at a time where the world began to need this packet switched infrastructure. Back in the ’60s and ’70s there were a number of different experimental research projects exploring this, and in the end- the notion of openness became defining. The Internet grew on the back of this openness.
Next, people then started to ask the question, ‘what do we do with this now? How do we share information?’
That was when Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s brilliant idea of establishing a world-wide-web, a universal mechanism to share and link information, came along.
Q: How has the Internet changed our relationship with information?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] Humans have always had a relationship with information, and it’s always been important to our society and culture. Even if you were a cave man, if you didn’t know that a sabre-toothed tiger was dangerous you wouldn’t live long enough to affect the gene pool! …Knowledge was always important, it just got more and more important as society developed. The internet is simply the latest in a series of information sharing capabilities which started with writing and came through major milestones like the Gutenberg press and other mass-media like newspapers, television, radio and so on. It has the interesting property that it permits interactive use, whereas most mass-media mechanisms are one-way through publishing, broadcast television, radio and so on. Internet, on the other hand, allows for two-way and group interaction.
The Internet created an avenue for group communication that hadn’t existed before. We could see it very early. Not long after ARPANET’s ’email’ was invented in around 1971-72, we started to see distribution lists emerge which had very clear social elements to them. In addition to being used for project management and sharing of technical information, they were also used for comments on science fiction stories, observations about restaurants and so on. It was very clear there was a social-element to even very early email! This was expanded over time until we now have these very elaborate systems we label ‘social networking’. These ideas have, though, been around for quite a long time. Online chatting, for example, was quite readily in-use way back in the early 1970’s. You could meet someone in a time-sharing system somewhere and type at each other, or a group could be typing- and everyone in the group could see. Many of the ideas that people think are ‘brand new’ to the internet are actually old, but have been incarnated at higher speeds and in different modalities such as audio, video and so on.
Q: What has been the impact of the Internet on the world’s economic and political landscape?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] It’s plain that politics is all about communication- so we’ve seen huge amplifying effects that the Internet and web permit. The Arab Spring is a fairly dramatic example of that, but the Obama campaign during 2008 also demonstrated how strongly one could use the Internet and related technologies in order to organise people. Alongside that immediate and obvious observation, but perhaps even more importantly from the standpoint of human progress, the exchange of scientific and technical information has been dramatically improved by having the ability to share data in substantial quantities and to analyse it. Certainly, Google’s efforts to scan books and supply technical information through Google Scholar are just two small examples of the ways that information sharing has been possible. The World Wide Web, with all of its pages, blogs and so on- has allowed human expression in ways that would have been uneconomic and out of reach before. The most dramatic effect has been this ability for almost anyone to express himself or herself whenever they want to- and potentially be heard by many others.
Q: Do you feel the Internet has made the world more ‘democratic’?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] I think it [the Internet] has the potential to make a more democratic society, but it’s pretty clear that governments- now that they’ve figured out it’s a two way medium- are also trying to control it and use it as an avenue for either disinformation or for inhibiting people from finding information out- the Chinese being the classic example, although they are not alone. Many countries are feeling threatened by the ability of people to exchange information freely over the net. You also have the intellectual property community who have gone bonkers in my opinion. Once technology allows information to be digitised, it’s very easy to duplicate and distribute. Rather than understanding that, and trying to leverage it- we have the intellectual property community lobbying to produce really terrible pieces of legislations (like the ones in the US).
Q: What has been the impact of mobile technologies on the Internet?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] In the case of mobiles, two important things to keep in mind are that ‘the mobile’ started out as a telephone, and then- as we emerged into the smart-phone environment (where you could run programmes on the device)- they became mobile computers. When the mobile became capable of reaching applications on the Internet, its functionality and power increased dramatically as you were no longer confined to the computing power of your handset. Twitter, for example, wouldn’t work if it were purely mobile based- or at least wouldn’t work as well…. The mobile, in this context, activates something on some server on the net which then cascades to hundreds and thousands of mobiles elsewhere… it’s this enabling of access to the internet which has created such a dramatic impact. The fact that you can build applications which can run on the mobile, and interact with the net, gives a mutual re-enforcement and once you start internet enabling other things… like office and home appliances, sensor systems, control systems- even to the extent of internet enabling light-bulbs… you suddenly have an opportunity to apply computing on the network to these distributed devices (that can be reached by means of the internet).
It also creates opportunities for third parties to offer managed services by building platforms that run on the internet, but which can interact with these internet enabled devices. I’m anticipating a very dramatic evolution over the next decade, especially in the US with the advent of the smart-grid, and comparable technologies elsewhere in the world.
Q: Has technology changed our understanding of privacy?
[Prof. Luciano Floridi] Privacy is one of the defining issues of our age. It has never been the defining issue of other ages. If you look at textbooks in ethics published until the 1980s for example, privacy does not even occur in the discussion. Today you can’t escape a conversation around privacy.
We always cared about our personal identity, but in the past the work-in-progress that is you or I, was by default protected by the lack of any external pressure. In the absence of social media, targeted advertising, algorithms, big data and so on there were no problems, and hence no questions and no issues, and hence- no “privacy problem” as such.
Asking questions about privacy in the past would have been like asking people 2000 years ago to give their opinion on nuclear waste!
Today, we have challenges (sometimes becoming threats) around how external forces can control or influence our personal identity. Privacy is not about ownership of information, it’s about our personal identity. The protection of personal data is about who we are, want to be, and could become not about what we own. My data is not like my car, it’s more like my lungs or my legs- it’s part of me. Insofar as I am that person defined by that information, anyone in control of it is in control of me, that’s why it’s crucial.
Q: What are the greatest challenges faced by today’s internet infrastructure?
[Professor Bob Metcalfe] We have moved from a kilobit internet in 1969, to a megabit internet today, and hopefully we will soon move to a gigabit internet, and technology is scaling at pace alongside this. We live in a world where Moore’s Law is ascendant, continues.
The internet is now so important, however, that governments want to control it- and that, to my mind, is the biggest threat the internet faces. It [the internet] has survived decades without the kind of intrusive government monitoring and control that is trying to be enacted into law now, and I think it’s important that we realise the internet needs to remain free.
President Obama’s FCC- deciding to regulate the internet like a utility- is the biggest threat to continued internet innovation we face today… After all, Al Gore did not invent the internet; he invented Global Warming!
Q: What are the greatest challenges facing the Internet in its current form?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] Security on the net is unsatisfactory right now. We need to have much better tools to control access. We have to improve people’s sense of confidence and safety when they’re on the net, so the existence of viruses, hackers, worms and botnets and so on are all things we have to do something about. Some of the things we can do are technical, some are policy and some are personal choices about how we behave.
Not everything that happens on the Net which is ‘bad’ is necessarily an illegal or criminal act. In some cases we hurt ourselves because of our behaviour. An example of that is the invasion of privacy as a consequence of being able to post video and imagery and everything else on social networking sites. Third parties can comment on that content and fourth parties can discover things about people that they wouldn’t otherwise know- because someone tagged a photo or made a comment on a blog or entry on a social networking site. We are, in some sense, very wide open to potential abuse in these shared facilities. That’s why bullying is such a serious problem. Whether it’s a crime or not is debatable, but it’s negative impact is indisputable.
There are a number of social and economic risks that we have to do something about. Identity theft is another good example of that. Weak operating systems and weak browsers allow machines to be infected and become parts of botnets or release information that you wouldn’t normally want to share like your passwords, account numbers and so on. I think we have a lot of work ahead of us to make this very flexible and rich medium into something that not only feels safer… but also IS safer for all of us to use. In the places we can’t enforce safety by technical means, we will have to do so using law and to ensure people know there will be consequences for their actions.
Q: How can humans filter the vast amounts of information we receive?
[Kevin Kelly] We’re beyond the point where any individual can even deal with the ‘good’ information in their lives, never mind the crap. If you had to list all the new songs, new services and new products that were available to you that were really good? You wouldn’t have time to even read the list. We have to employ technology to help us determine what we should give our limited attention to.
There is a world in which the abundance of intention needing things vastly exceeds the attention given out; but in this world where attention is supposedly scarce and precious, it’s often given away for free or for very little. I imagine this will change, and that we will get paid to give things attention- and that’s disruptive. A lot of the biggest internet companies make their money on the basis that they are intermediaries between advertisers (who want attention) and users (who have attention to give). If there’s a way for companies to go directly to those users, it could disrupt everything around the economics of the internet.
We’re seeing an ongoing decentralisation where companies such as Uber and Airbnb don’t ‘own’ anything. Instead the users- the peers- provide service to the other peers. That could happen to the advertising industry, which is somewhat centralised now, but could be disrupted with peer-to-peer technologies.
Q: Is technology changing the nature of ‘ownership’?
[Kevin Kelly] The centre of capitalism revolves around the concept of ownership, and the fact that there are benefits accrued to ownership. What we’re seeing however, is a move towards the simulation of ownership through real-time access to things. People have many of the benefits of ownership without the liability. For example, movies… Why would you buy a movie to own when you can access any movie from anywhere in the world, instantly with a subscription. That means you don’t have to backup, store, upgrade and whatnot.
The digital realm has introduced the notion that the benefits of instant access trump the benefits of ownership. We’re also seeing this in the physical realm with the idea of Uber for example. Why own a car when you can demand one anytime, anywhere, without having to take care of it… Why own workspace when you can access it on demand. To be clear someone ultimately still owns the underlying asset, but the nature of the benefits derived from it are shifting around, and that’s a seismic change for capitalism.
In a curious way, we’re returning to a very fundamental human way of existing. Early humans were living in a very instant world without this notion of ownership, they would find a shelter when they needed it and then abandon it- they were accessing not owning. There was also very little privacy, people tracked each other in their tribe and there was a symmetry and this background level of surveillance.
A world without ownership is more evolutionarily true to ourselves than this funny world where people seem to think they need to own things!
Q: What are the most promising technologies that will shape the next decade of the internet?
[Professor Bob Metcalfe] The advent of the smartphone has changed the relationship of people to the internet significantly. We’ve moved away from a time where the internet was something you accessed on a desktop, connected to a phone line, to a world where the whole internet is accessible- wherever you are- from the palm of your hand on a smartphone.
The ‘internet of things’ will be the next big step, although it’s yet to be seen ‘what’ those ‘things’ are. The innovations from this space will change everything, across some of the most important aspects of our lives including energy, transport and health. We’re already seeing autonomous cars and smart energy grids entering our markets, but it won’t be long before internet connected devices- perhaps within our bodies- mean that our doctor will know we’re ill, even before we do.
Internet learning for example, is already disrupting bricks-and-mortar education, and the sooner this happens the better!
The vast majority of markets where disruption will occur, are the ones where there are large incumbents who have an incentive not to innovate. The big changes will come from entrepreneurs, start-ups and research universities who will work together to create new markets, disrupting the way the world works now.
Q: To what extent have standards helped to develop the Internet of today?
[Dr. Jeff Jaffe] Today’s world wide web is significantly more advanced than when the World Wide Web was introduced 26 years ago. When the web started, it was all about people putting up their static documents on their websites, and allowing other people to browse them and render them on their personal computers. Compared to today’s web, that was elemental.
In the past quarter century, technologists have extended those capabilities. Today’s web is not only for information sharing, but is the fundamental basis for social networking, ecommerce, entertainment, communications – and people are building sophisticated distributed applications that run on my smart phone, eBook reader, set top box and a wide variety of other devices.
We couldn’t have broadened the flexibility of the web and kept it universal without standards! The rich facility of the web, and the fact that it can still be browsed from any device is only possible because of standards. If we would have had a balkanised web, where certain devices would have not been able to see certain content, that would have been so frustrating, it could have discouraged usage.
Q: What will be the role of standards in the future of the web?
[Dr. Jeff Jaffe] Designing for today’s web is hard. If you want to render the same content on a TV screen, a handheld phone, a watch, or any other devices- it’s really hard- but we have an active and committed community of developers, engineers and companies who realise that if we stray away from compatibility – we’ll be killing the ‘goose that laid the golden egg.’ The interoperability of the web is the highest value that it must continue to provide.
We live in a big-data world, and it’s important to realise that there are two kinds of data that companies have. One that they want to share with everyone else, and one that they want to keep to themselves. The data they want to share has to be compatible. There is such an immense pull from the marketplace to use common and open standards, that I can’t foresee anyone moving away from the model of having a standard interface to information. It is true that companies sometimes want to create storehouses of data for internal use, and in that case- they’re not required to use web standards in theory. But what happened in the ’80s, ’90’s and early 2000s, was that companies had proprietary systems and discovered that it was more expensive to maintain those systems- even if they wanted to keep that information securely guarded behind a corporate firewall. In the end they chose to use the same standards that were available on the open Internet. This was a manifestation of the big-world effect whereby the more people that use a technology or standard, the cheaper the software to implement is, the larger the number of trained individuals exist, and so on. The largest corporate intranets moved to use TCP/IP and web technologies – they wanted to reduce costs and have access to the largest talent pools.
There is a huge demand for training on web standards too. We recently entered into a partnership with edX- a joint project of MIT and Harvard that’s looking at Massively Open Online Courseware (MOOCs). We didn’t have a lot of experience with it, but figured we’d see what the demand was…. We created a course on HTML 5 – which is the most recent version of the key mark-up language for the web – and we advertised the course through edX. We had over 87,000 people sign up for this course! Can you imagine? 87,000 people from over 200 countries wanted to learn HTML 5!
If someone would now try to create new languages or closed-standards, how would they get to critical mass? How would they get to global scale?
The Internet and web are the technical infrastructure for creating and sharing information, but they have now created a wider infrastructure of knowledge, capability and skills! If you want to get an important job in today’s workforce, learning web technologies are a key ticket.
Q: How is technology impacting our political sphere?
[Prof. Luciano Floridi] The old notion, as we see in Spain, France, Portugal, Germany and Great Britain, was that ‘the state’ was the highest level of social and political interaction. You would see that as a major player, that would play with other similar agents, Germany would interact with France, Italy would interact with Russia and so on. This is a very 20th century mentality, it’s almost as if we’re stuck in a World War II mind-set.
Today, the notion of state is under pressure. It’s too big for local interest, and too small for global interest. It’s too big for one task, and too small for another. Local people who care about potholes, their local school, crime levels in their community and so on- feel distant from the state, and often resent it because they feel it’s ineffective, intrusive, cumbersome. At the other end, looking at financial and environmental crises, nuclear escalation, or international migration, the state is also ineffective. It doesn’t matter what we do in Great Britain, Portugal or Germany as individual countries, we won’t solve anything until we work together.
Just take a look at the pressures in society that have recently culminated in the UK voting to leave the European Union, and the failures of the press to prevent this. The BBC did a huge disservice to the nation. For once, I was astonished by the lack of a critical approach- there was a confusion between giving opportunities to anyone to vent and articulate views versus having a critical debate, the consequences of the decisions, and helping people really understand what happened. This occurred to the extent where I think the BBC was essentially ‘pro-Brexit’ – and I say this without political tone. By giving so much space and visibility to lies, it made those lies more credible and contributed to the mess Europe is now in.
In the 21st century, the state sits as an interface between the local and the global- it is that which helps the local and global speak to each other, not as an arbiter which resolves all of society’s problems. The old-fashioned model was a pyramid. Citizens and society and organisations led to a peak of ‘the state.’ Modern society is more of a line, in the middle is the state- on the left are global interests, and on the right are local interests (note: this is not about political leaning). Technology can make this interaction happen successfully. Information societies, once matured, can be those where the state is an interface. This would be a regulative ideal, but at least it’s a project…
As long as we treat mass-media, the internet, social-media and so on as points of arrival rather than points of entry we will always have an echo-chamber. If all we do is log into Facebook, twitter and so on to read what we want to hear then the echo-chamber will suffocate our intelligence. If, however, we look at these as entry points to a richer dialogue – things change. You can, with a click, access whatever information you want.
We have for too long thought of the state, and of mass-media as points of arrival and not as interfaces and points of entry.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Internet as a future theatre of conflict?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] It’s clear that the Internet is another avenue through which certain kinds of abuse can take place including espionage (industrial or otherwise), disinformation campaigns, and so on. These are all things which, while not new in the absolute sense, are new to this particular environment- and therefore operate by different means, and our responses thus may have to be tailored to the methods by which these things occur.
This is one of the frustrating things about putting humanity online. When this [Internet] was the province of a collection of engineers, they were all relatively homogenous, they had common objectives (to get the network to actually function!) and we didn’t have nearly the problem we have now with the general public. The problem is, of course, the general public includes bad actors whose interests are not necessarily aligned with society. I think we have to accept that if we have an environment as accessible as this one- and as rich in its ability to share information- we have to find ground-rules that will make it a more acceptable environment to be in.
The term ‘cyber warfare‘ is a very dangerous one in my view. It’s easy to formulate the view that an attack against ‘my’ communications network (for example) is an attack against the critical infrastructure of society- and therefore it’s a national scale event, and deserves a response accordingly. General Alexander here in the U.S. recently implied that his thinking is such that the responses [to cyber-attacks] should include conventional methods. The troublesome aspect is that if you are not able to attribute the attack to the responsible party- the response may go awry. If you think about botnets which may be made up of all kinds of machines in the civilian sector, and your response is to launch a counter-attack that hits all those civilian machines… you may, in fact, harm your economics and society in the process of trying to defend it. Also, consider ‘false flag‘ attacks which are not all that hard to launch and may cause retribution against the wrong party.
I get nervous when people throw around terms like cyber warfare as if to say our means of determining that we’ve been attacked or we are at war are clear. I don’t think they are. I’m worried about the mind-set that leads people declare cyber-war and then launch even conventional attacks against parties they think are responsible unless there is absolutely clear evidence. This suggests in addition to everything else that we need much better forensic capability than we have right now. So in addition to building defences against various forms of attack, we have to determine where they came from, how they were founded, who was responsible and so on. That’s a non-trivial exercise.
Q: Do you think the Internet as a medium can help us overcome global crises such as climate change and poverty?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] In a tangential way, maybe…. The Internet is an avenue through which people’s attitudes can be ‘adjusted’. I don’t mean for this to sound like a ‘brave new world’ exactly, I’m thinking more about the kinds of social interactions that lead people to choose to act in certain ways… whether that be political or something else. If people could be persuaded that global warming requires action, and that each of them have individual actions that can add up into something significant, that would be a good thing. That could be one element in persuasion… The other is scientific, the ability to share documents, validate and even quantify the threat against the climate- such as human greenhouse gas generation amongst other things. People have to be persuaded that their individual actions will make a difference…. they think, “I’m just driving one car, it can’t be that bad……” but when a billion or two people think like that? It makes a difference. They don’t see the consequences of their own actions… and I think the net has a role to play, but it’s not magic. The real issue is convincing arguments and incentives for people to change their behaviours.
One might also make an argument that if all the power generation and consumption systems, and all the heating and cooling systems and so on could be managed in a more comprehensive way… we could do a better job of their efficient use. This is sort of like traffic engineering, having the lights and streets synchronised and having the entry to the highway controlled by selectively allowing cars on. Things like that might actually be helpful, but once again- when you begin doing things like that- the net can become a target for people to disrupt.
In the background here is the continuing threat that the more we depend on something, the more others will seek to disrupt it for their own purposes and our dependency now becomes our disability.
Q: What do you feel is the role of artificial intelligence technologies and the Internet?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] …Keep in mind that artificial intelligence is a big term. I would argue that some of the speech understanding and translation that Google and Apple are doing represent a significant kind of artificial intelligence- however its not the same as having a human conversation as we are now, or analysing a complex situation and making recommendations. I don’t think we’re likely to see the kind of artificial intelligence the science fiction writers talk about any time soon, despite Ray Kurzweil‘s optimism.
On the other hand, there are extraordinary things computers can do, that humans cannot do well- and that includes handling extremely large amounts of information and finding correlation. Despite the fact that we claim that humans are very good at seeing patterns, computers are very good at seeing patterns of certain kinds and that’s exactly what we do when we index the web- we try and work things out for you!
I see the future not so much as ‘autonomous’ artificial intelligence, but as a collaborative tool. I think someday we’ll be able to have conversations, within limits, with these machine intelligences in order to do things for us that will make us more effective- but I don’t want to overstate the capability. In a book called “Alone Together“, Sherry Turkle discussed how human beings are remarkably willing to imbue artificial intelligences with a great deal more understanding than they actually have. Therein lies a great deal of danger. If you believe that a device is smart enough to make informed judgement and it’s actually a dumb robot? ….you get what you deserve!
Q: How are technologies cognifying?
[Kevin Kelly] Part of what we’re seeing happening in technology is a very steady march towards putting ‘smartness’ into everything. 30 years ago, when we were first talking about the idea that computers could be so cheap that you could put them in everything- the idea seemed implausible. To have said to someone 30 years ago that we will embed computers into door-knobs would have seemed ridiculous, but you can’t go to a hotel today without swiping your card in the computer in the door.
We’re making synthetic artificial smartness in the way that the first industrial revolution made artificial power; we replaced the power of humans and animals by harnessing fossil-fuels (primarily) to be able to put the equivalent of- for example- hundreds of horses, into our machines and automobiles. Think of intelligence in the same way, instead of muscle-power, we’ll embed hundreds of ‘minds’ into a chip.
Some things will become a little smarter, some a lot smarter, and also smartness will change across dimensions. Machine intelligence thinks differently to humans, and that’s precisely why we make them; and this trend will infiltrate our lives in all areas from entertainment to medicine, communication and more. All the things we formerly electrified, we’re cognifying with intelligence- and that’s the new frontier.
Artificial intelligence is anything we can’t do, once we can do it? It becomes machine learning or is demoted back to something that’s obvious. As we go forward, lots of these miraculous things in our world will become obvious, and that’s magical.
Q: Will the way we interact with technology change?
[Kevin Kelly] Technology has huge cultural impacts; I don’t think it’s possible for people to be on social-media sharing, collaborating at large scale, making things for non-monetary purposes, and for their culture to not be affected. You can’t live in the technological era without it impacting your views on what’s possible and how we do things.
The ‘screen’ has introduced this unusual element to our interaction with technology. It’s this surface we look at where we’re not quite reading, and not quite watching- we’re screening. The centre of our culture has shifted from the finite, monumental pages of our books to screens; which are unfixed, eternally changing and becoming something else. The centre of our culture is becoming ephemeral, fast moving and incomplete – and it’s changing our constructions of truth.
Q: Do you think the Internet will help us understand our place in the universe?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] For the last 13 years, I’ve been working on a project looking at the extension of the Internet across the solar system. This project was started at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1998 and involves the creation of a new set of protocols that will work over the very large distances, and the large speed of light delays, which occur over interplanetary distances- to say nothing of the disruption that occurs through celestial motion, and so on.
We have a set of protocols that are derived from, but go beyond, the protocols of the Internet to deal with these wide ranges of parametric variation. Those protocols are being standardised and are on board the space station, a spacecraft that has rendezvoused with two comets, and are also in use here on earth. Prototypes of these protocols are also in use on the Mars science laboratory which just launched, and on the rovers which are currently on the planet. We are confident that we have a set of protocols that will allow for very rich networking on interplanetary exploration.
The next project being funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (which, I will remind you, funded the ARPANET, the internet and the interplanetary architecture) is an interstellar mission plan. Here we are interested in getting to Proxima Centauri or Alpha Centauri in a hundred years… actually getting there and going into orbit. The first problem is getting there in a hundred years rather than 65,000 and the second problem is once we get there, how do we send information back. How can we detect a coherent signal from that far away? What power sources can we use- how can they be modulated? What kind of antenna system would you need to do it? That’s all part of our study- and I’m part of one of the teams who are proposing answers.
Although this all sounds like science fiction, it’s what engineering does… it turns science fiction into reality.
Q: Do you think we’ll see direct connections between our physiology and the Internet?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] This touches on the edge of the ‘cyborg’ question.
My wife has two cochlear implants, and there cannot be any question at all that this has made her life better. She was totally deaf before she had the implants, and now she carries on a more or less normal life in an auditory world. There’s also no question that we now understand the sensory-neural systems well enough to fool the brain- and we will, eventually, do that with optical and spinal implants. In the latter case, dealing with not just sensory- but sensory and motor systems together. It won’t stop there…. when you start seeing some of the biomechanical devices for the repair of injuries, especially the really traumatic ones you see from wartime- and you see the complex behaviours that can be controlled by the same sensory-motor signals that would manage a biological arm…. you begin to see there’s some real potential… not only to recover capability, but to exceed it.
The likelihood that we will have implants that exceed human capability is very high. I would anticipate that happening. Whether we ever get to the point where there are cognitive interfaces? I think that’s highly speculative and I’m doubtful of it- at least within the next ten or twenty years.
Q: Has the Internet changed the nature of human intelligence?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] There is some evidence that the use of computers- whether video gaming or ‘normal’ interactions with the web- is having a measurable effect on brain function… this is not a surprise. Any kind of interaction you have as a child, the brain adapts to… so your interactions with the world have a direct effect on the way your brain interconnections develop.
Use of computers and the net are having some measurable effect, but I don’t think we entirely understand the significance of those effects yet. It’s one thing to look at a functional MRI scan and say, “…look, part of the brain is lighting up…” and it’s quite another to say, “…and therefore we reach the following conclusion” or “…the brain is doing this…” I don’t think we have that depth of knowledge yet.
I talked to Henry Kissinger about this. He was ranting about the fact that people were willing to accept two paragraphs in response to a query rather than reading a 700-page book. This bugged him because he wrote 700-page books! My response was to say, “…look Henry, I bet you’d be saying that when the invention of writing came along! The world won’t remember anything! All the oral history will go away because now you can read it!…” I think that argument is partly true… we tend to remember less now than we felt we needed to in the past because we have such ready access to information. I find myself turning to the net to remember people’s names and to recall facts. You could have made the same argument about books. Books remember things for you, if you can find the book to find the right fact.
We may have a society which is less dependent on our remembering facts and more dependent on our ability to find things out. When we invented hand calculators, for example…. there was a great cry that nobody would remember multiplication tables anymore. It’s entirely possible that’s true… but as long as the devices work, it functionally doesn’t make much difference. There is a book called “The Machine Stops” which was written around 1909. The idea of the book was a society that was built around a machine that served everyone, took care of their needs, food and everything else- one day, the machine doesn’t work. The story is what happens to society when the machine stops working.
We will probably encounter some emergent properties of systems like this. One of the worries that I have is that one emergent property will be our dependence on these things- and to the degree that they are either ‘disruptable’ or not-reliable, then we will create a more fragile society, and a more brittle one- and that worries me.
Q: Do you think our relationship with the Internet and allied technologies is going to change the nature of what it means to ‘be human’?
[Dr. Vint Cerf] The Internet offers alternative avenues for human interaction. The consequence of that is the discovery of people of like-mind who are not necessarily geographically nearby. That change has been happening for quite a while, as transportation developed. When we got horses we could go further than we could walking…. when we got boats and airplanes, we could go further than we could before. Our community of interest grew and now the ‘global village‘ phrase comes to mind. In that sense, we have a rather different society whose boundary conditions are not necessarily what they were before. National boundaries become less critical to, at least, a lot of human interaction. if you want to find a proxy for understanding the internet- you should pay attention to electricity and ask yourself how dependent we are on that, and what happens when it is not available. You will see a society crumble very quickly when electricity goes away. You don’t need an Internet to be scared, you need dependence on electricity in all its forms- including batteries.
Q: Who is the moral arbiter of the information age?
[Prof. Luciano Floridi] Humanity, specifically the individuals within it, rather than the aggregate, are those who set the narrative for the morality of society.
We are going towards a world where autonomous decisions will be taken by more or less smart, more or less artificial and more or less hybrid systems and people have often argued about the morality of these systems. This is naïve and convenient, it’s always easy to discharge responsibility. “I didn’t do it the computer did it, the algorithm did it, the system did it…”
How often do people blame ‘the markets,’ well guess what… the market is just a group of people and if you educate and inform those people differently, the market will behave differently. The market is not some kind of Greek God who is powerful, omnipotent and whimsical.
We talk of artificial intelligence taking over and dominating us. I used to think this was a funny joke, but now I see it’s an irresponsible joke. It’s the same joke we crack when we say ‘It’s Brussels,’ or ‘it’s Europe,’ it’s a way of shifting burden to ‘the machine’ and absolving ourselves of our own moral responsibility for our problems and for making a serious effort to improve the world.
Q: What has been [and is] the relationship of entrepreneurship to the internet?
[Professor Bob Metcalfe] I believe that freedom and prosperity are the keys to a successful economy, and entrepreneurship, innovation and free markets sit at the heart of this.
The innovations that came out of top graduate and research schools were commercialised by entrepreneurs, creating the technologies that brought the internet to the world. These start-ups competed fiercely, and created some of the largest companies in existence, bringing prosperity, jobs and growth to people all over the world.
This is a very specific type of innovation, ‘technological, entrepreneurial innovation at scale.’
These innovations are based on some new science or technology, most commonly from research universities. The entrepreneurial component refers to the fact that it’s accomplished by new companies, and not incumbents- and the scale aspect means that these new companies achieve revenues at least in the hundreds of millions of dollars’ territory, and most probably in the billions.
In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs think at scale- they’re designing their start-ups assuming they will be multi-billion dollar enterprises.
Q: What are the challenges and opportunities for the next decade of the web?
[Dr. Jeff Jaffe] The biggest challenges facing the web relate to security and privacy. We are seeing significant attacks on Internet infrastructure, more publically carried out. Those are challenges, which we are taking on at W3C; we’re expanding our programme and have working groups around web application security. Privacy is more of a societal issue…. We have a generation growing up who have a whole different attitude to privacy than the past; what is the right attitude to digital socialisation? What is the right balance and level of privacy? What information should you or should you not be sharing?
Equal access comes in a couple of different pieces… There is a financial aspect, an imperative on governments, to fix the inequality of access to the critical infrastructure of the web. Those that don’t have web access are being cut out of society, quite unfairly…. There are also technical aspects to equal access. One of our major W3C programmes focuses around improving and protecting web accessibility for those who have disabilities of hearing, sight or- in fact- any other faculty. More than 15% of the population are impacted by some form of disability, and we feel obligated to do everything possible to make sure those individuals are fully included to web access.
There are also a number of opportunities….
I’m extremely focussed on the impact of the web on vertical businesses. When the web started, it began as a place where people could share information on their latest physics research (for example). Pretty soon, companies said, ‘hey! We can use this to share information about our company! We can market!’ Web marketing then became an important arm of corporate marketing- and that was the first generation of the web transforming businesses.
We’re now entering the next generation of how the web is transforming industries. In certain industries entire businesses have moved their operations to the web. Some familiar examples include the entertainment industry, which used to advertise on the web…. But now, the web is the primary delivery mechanism for entertainment content such as TV shows and movies…. This is an astounding change, and gives amazing capabilities. Another example is digital publishing…. When the web was originally invented, it was- perhaps- just another new publishing mechanism. It was superior to traditional publishing because everyone could be an author, and you had instant massive distribution, globally. It was worse than traditional publishing because the typography was terrible!!!!! You didn’t have sophisticated fonts, graphics, images, layouts and so on. Fast forward 25 years, and we maintain the advantages, but typography, graphics and content on the web rival and exceed what’s available on traditional means- and the entire publishing industry is moving over to the web. You’re seeing that with books, news and other forms of publishing.
This kind of disruption is also happening in financial services. We’re purchasing more and more of our goods on the web, and we’re also engaging in more novel approaches to interacting financially using block-chain infrastructure and so on.
The centrality to society of the web is increasing, and it’s allowing businesses to enter an exciting time, delivering many more features, avenues and opportunities.
Q: How is technology changing our notion of our place in space and time?
[Prof. Luciano Floridi] Normally when we talk of space and time, we think of physics. The equivalent in physics of our daily lives would be to look at the distance between Oxford and Paris, or to see how long I have between now and dinner time. That’s one conception of space and time.
We also need to understand the space as our environment (spaciality) and time as temporality (the way we perceive our time). A shift from the physical to semantic is important, and helps us understand the meaning we attach to space and time.
Space has become this special new place that I have called the ‘infosphere,’ where we live in a mix between the online and offline world. For example, my space can be determined by my ability to download music on demand at any time and by my ability to have a conversation with anyone, anywhere at any time. In our world, reaching something takes one step. In the old-days if you wanted to get a book, you may have to travel all the way to the library, find the book, come home and so on – now? You just download it. This may sound trivial, but it’s a huge difference. In advanced information societies, we are almost always only one step away from anything else. The comparison is with the experience that the Queen has of a chess board versus a Pawn. The Pawn has to make many small steps; the Queen can travel in single great steps. The semantic space, as perceived by each chess piece is completely different even though the physical board remains the same. In short, we are being promoted to Queens in the chess board of our spatiality and temporality.
We are sharing this new space, the infosphere, with many other entities which are not biological, that’s not science fiction- but simply a matter of understanding that there are many things communicating online as we do. Machine to machine communication is the vast majority of data exchanged today, on the same internet that we use.
The more informational a space becomes, the easier it is for digital entities to interact with each other and the space in question. In the on-life experience, we are scuba diving. We exist in the surface a world that is friendlier to algorithms and machines than to human beings.
To identify a mistake in Wikipedia may take me minutes or hours, it takes seconds or milliseconds for an algorithm, a so-called bot. With the same task, one agent has a significant advantage… If we continue with this example of Wikipedia, most corrections are- in fact- done by bots. They are automatic, fighting each other, coordinating with each other and may or may not have people behind them.
Time has classically been divided into prehistory and history. Prehistory refers to any stage of human development where there exists no means of recording the present for future consumption; for example, societies without writing. Prehistory ended around 6000 years ago in Europe and China where- simultaneously- writing was invented. Since that point, we have been living in an information society.
Today, if we describe history as our interaction with information and communication technologies from writing to press, printing, the radio, cinema, mass media and so forth- we have exponentially increased our dependence on these technologies to the point where, with the advent of digital, our dependence on technology is absolute. Today, in some corners of the world we live more ‘historically’ than ever before.
The phrase hyperhistory is a neologism, a flag I suggested to indicate a new concept. Societies like most of Europe and a few other corners of the world, the United States, Canada, Australia, and so on are places where the proper functioning of society depends entirely on digital infrastructure, on ICT. This means they could be subject to cyber-attack, and hence they live hyper-historically. History has become even more historical than ever before. And the entire world is heading the same way. There is no ‘end of history,’ because history is a technological concept not a political one.
Q: What would be your message to the future generations shaping the internet?
[Professor Bob Metcalfe] We must keep the internet free from government interference, it has survived for decades being a place of freedom and prosperity, and we must fight to make sure this stays the case.
Internet inequality is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. We are in a world split between those who ‘are’ and ‘are not’ connected, and for those who aren’t? it can be a huge social, economic and cultural disadvantage. Entrepreneurs are starting to come up with ideas to connect the planet, but this is an area ripe to be disrupted, which could change the lives of billions of people for the better.
The secret to progress is FOCACA – Freedom Of Choice Among Competing Alternatives.
[Dr. Jeff Jaffe] The two most important things the next generation needs to look at are innovation and consensus.
Our society is geared towards innovation. I’m not worried about the next generation continuing to innovate around the web…. There are so many opportunities in the Internet of things, financial services, health, and more.
People have to remember the importance of consensus. Innovators tend to be intoxicated with their ideas, and that’s great- if you’re out building a new company, with new ideas, you should run with that. If the ideas you have relate to the core infrastructure of society, for example- how we build a better internet, a better web… there are so many different use cases and requirements, that we only get to the next, better infrastructure if we bring our ideas together with openness, listening to other ideas with respect, and reaching consensus. Five years ago, we (W3C) started exploring how you start the consensus process for new technologies that are only at research phase. We created a whole new stream of work helping people to reach consensus early, when technologies were still at research phase, and that was powerful.
Closed infrastructures operate fast, but have short-term life spans. Open and interoperable platforms always win in the end.
When we build an infrastructure for society, there’s no substitute for consensus when it comes to getting the best ideas on the table.
Q: What does the future hold?
[Kevin Kelly] We are weaving and connecting together a very large thing which could be thought of as a large machine or organism. This organism is composed of 7-8 billion people, and the many, many billions of computers, servers, IoT devices and chips which are wired together into one meta-organism.
This organism has its own agenda and behaviour which is not present in the parts. That’s a biological truth, reflected into an organism which we have created. The human brain has thoughts, but none of those thoughts are present in our neurons- the thoughts happen in an emerging level. Honeybees and ant colonies have behaviours as a whole which aren’t present in the individual insects, and we’re the same.
We’re creating a planetary scale ‘something’ that will truly have planetary scale behaviours which are real, and will affect us.
We’re just at the beginning of understanding technology, and in the coming decades it will play a greater role in every aspect of our lives from our economy, our military and our government right down to how we- as individuals- think of ourselves.
In his 1998 book “The Control Revolution” Robert Beniger notes that, “…one tragedy of the human condition is that each of us lives and dies with little hint of even the most profound transformations of our society and our species that play themselves out in some small part through our own existence. When the earliest Homo sapiens encountered Homo erectus, or whatever species was our immediate forebear, it is unlikely that the two saw in their differences a major turning point in the development of our race. Much the same conclusion could be drawn from any of a succession of revolutionary societal transformations: the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals, the growth of permanent settlements, the development of metal tools and writing, urbanisation, the invention of wheeled vehicles and the plough, the rise of market economies, social classes, a world commerce. The origins and early histories of these and many other developments of comparable significance went unnoticed or at least unrecorded by contemporary observers. Human society seems rather to evolve largely through changes so gradual as to be all but imperceptible, at least compared to the generational cycles of the individuals through whose lives they unfold.”
It is with this in mind that we must reflect that the world’s first stored program computer (The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine) was built in 1948, with a memory of just 32 words and now, less than 70 years later, we find over five billion devices are connected to the internet, enabling billions to instantly access close to the total sum of human knowledge and experience.
As individual humans, our faculties are severely limited. From birth, it would be close to impossible for one of our species to survive through to adulthood without the support of a “society of others”. Our technologies (be they mechanical or intellectual) have largely realised this ethic- initially enabling us to work together- not just with the incumbent civilisation but through our ability to store and pass knowledge, between generations. “If I have seen further than others,” wrote Isaac Newton, “…it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
We are also a species drugged by ego- fascinated by our own ingenuity and capability. It seems the very process of invention, together with the sense of mastery it gives over nature and ourselves is the end, as well as the means, to our existence. Of all these inventions- the internet is surely one of the greatest. It is (as Eric Schmidt commented), “…the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand.”
The truth is, I doubt we’ll ever understand the technical ontology of the internet. By the time we realise what ‘it’ is, the essence has already moved on. Instead, we must consider the metaphysical- the internet is not just a reflection of the zeitgeist- it is an embodiment of ‘us’ as individuals and as a society. The internet connects us cognitively and becomes a membrane through which our minds can interact, manifesting a whole new iteration of our species, who have begun to exist in a connected symbiotic relationship with technology.
The internet is the first technology we have created, that makes us more human.