Future of The Web and Society

Should government play a role in building out infrastructure or is that best left to the private sector alone?

Cerf: It sometimes takes steps to illustrate the existence of a market to motivate the business sector. In the late 1980s, I asked the Federal Networking Council for permission to put a commercial electronic mail system up on the Internet. My motivation, in part, was to allow commercial traffic to flow on the government-sponsored backbone as a way of demonstrating to the business sector that there might be a market that [businesses] should invest in.

Getting rid of that barrier created an opportunity for commercial Internet service without having to build the backbone. Once that market was demonstrated, it didn't take long before the government said: Gee, we don't need our government-sponsored backbone anymore, because everybody can buy commercial service.

With Google unveiling its Android operating system to challenge the iPhone, I'm reminded of Jonathan Zittrain's thoughts on "generative" technologies--open platforms that allow people to tinker and innovate--versus closed or tightly controlled platforms like the iPhone. What kind of phone are you carrying, and what does it say about you?

Cerf: I use a RIM BlackBerry. I'm anticipating the use of an iPhone or something like it. What I'm eager for is a phone that runs the Android operating system, because of the openness of the design. It's the evolving flexibility of mobile platforms that's so critical.

One can understand some of the decision-making that went on at Apple when preparing the iPhone.

A closed device has the benefit that people can't make changes to it that may cause it to stop working.

The counterpoint is that almost every information technology I can think of, as it becomes more useful and competitors arise, leads to demands from users that interoperability is paramount. In the case of the Internet, the TCP/IP protocols turned out to be demanded by the buyers of new equipment, so that they wouldn't be locked into any particular manufacturer. So standardization has this wonderful benefit of leading to interoperability, and it also creates a platform on top of which new innovations can happen. But there's this tension between differentiation and interworking that repeats itself over and over again as time goes on.

What do you see the Internet--and the society around it--looking like in 20 or 50 years?

Cerf: Looking ahead, we can say several things. There will be substantially more connectivity available. No matter where you are, you will have access to this online facility. That turns out to be very important, because the cloud computing notion has utility only if you can get access to it whenever you need it, in the capacity that you need it. I see a lot of utility in cloud computing, and I anticipate that it will be increasingly available.

Another change I'm pretty sure will happen over the course of the next 20 to 50 years is the way we interact with these online systems, or even with local ones. Today, it's keyboards and mice, but I expect interactions--conversational interactions, gestural interactions--to be normal. I may be personally instrumented in some ways, so that my locale is known, or at least my devices know where I am. That way, my questions can be related to this information, something like, Where is the nearest restaurant?

I expect to see much more interesting interactions, including the possibility of haptic interactions: touch. Not just touch screens, but the ability to remotely interact with things. Little robots, for example, that are instantiations of you and are remotely operated, giving you what is called telepresence. It's a step well beyond the kind of video telepresence we are accustomed to seeing today.

This image of little robots is different from the typical autonomous robot you see in the artificial intelligence world. It could be sitting in a conference room, representing me, not autonomously, but allowing me to be in more than one place at the same time. They could move around, interact with things, talk to people, see like everyone else can.

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This article was originally published on 09-25-2008
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