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The Internet is 50! What’s next?

The Internet is half a century old. What technologies will shape it over the next few decades? Here are some things in the works.

The Internet has become a part of most people’s lives, and it has generated an economy of its own. But along with the sheer impact of the Internet come challenges, including how to handle the exponential growth in traffic as well as privacy and security concerns that threaten the Internet’s very future. What can be done about those challenges? 

A lot actually, but first, a little history.

It has been an amazing technological journey, which began on Oct. 29, 1969, the date on which the Internet is said to be born. Specifically, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Advanced Research Projects Agency's ARPANET communication between two nodes—one in a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, sent by professor Leonard Kleinrock and his team, and the other at Stanford Research Institute. This launched the networking technology that would be the underpinning of today’s Internet.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) laid the groundwork for ARPANET in 1968, when it contracted BBN Technologies to build the initial routers used in the first communications. By the end of 1969, ARPANET added two more nodes, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. 

ARPA, which ultimately became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is a U.S. Department of Defense organization that researches and develops all manner of advanced technologies, from hypersonic aircraft to forward-thinking medical systems. It has remained at the forefront of Internet technological developments as well.

The following are just a few projects in the works. There are plenty more.

Data protection and Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Privacy on the Internet has become a major disruptor, and there are ongoing efforts to change the way Internet actors control and handle privacy.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, has launched Inrupt, a start-up that is developing an open source project called Solid that he says will change the way the online world handles private data.

“Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests. Solid is how we evolve the web in order to restore balance—by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way,” Berners-Lee wrote of the project.   

“Solid is a platform, built using the existing web. It gives every user a choice about where data is stored, which specific people and groups can access select elements, and which apps you use. It allows you, your family, and colleagues to link and share data with anyone. It allows people to look at the same data with different apps at the same time,” he explained. 

Other efforts to protect privacy include the Open Algorithms, or OPAL, project, developed by MIT Media Lab and a group of partners, including Imperial College London, Orange, the World Economic Forum, and the Data-Pop Alliance. The group’s goal is to develop state-of-the-art privacy-preserving technology and governance, or as they put it, a way "to unlock the potential of private-sector data for public good purposes in a safe, ethical, scalable, and sustainable manner.”

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Security and identity battle 

You really can’t talk about the future of the Internet without taking a measure of what security might look like. From increased use of botnets and malicious viruses to cryptocurrency hijacking and the threat of unprotected Internet of Things devices, the threat landscape reaches to the stars. 

“Bar none, security and identity are the No. 1 challenges facing Internet development today and for the foreseeable future,” says Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a research affiliate at MIT's Sloan School of Management and a fellow of the Initiative on the Digital Economy and the MIT Connection Science initiative. “The Internet was developed to be flexible, which made it such a phenomenal success, but historically [it] had no concerted set of standards for security and identity. This has resulted in what you see today: a growing number of data thefts, data breaches, and other security threats.”

Wladawsky-Berger says there are existing technologies that might help secure the Internet of the future—for at least the next five to 10 years.  

For example, using blockchain for more serious applications would help because, in blockchain, all of the data must be encrypted when flowing on the network and when stored, Wladawsky-Berger says. “If every application on the Internet used it for communications and storage, that alone would make the Internet much safer. If we had de facto encryption everywhere, that would help too.” 

Using a peer-to-peer topology, blockchain is a distributed ledger technology that allows data to be stored globally on thousands of servers while letting anyone on the network see everyone else's entries in near real time. That makes it difficult for one user to gain control of, or game, the network. 

AI to play a significant role

While blockchain may hold some answers, one of the developing technologies many expect will help the security situation for the Internet of the future is artificial intelligence.

"AI comes down to gathering together huge amounts of data and developing better software agents that can assist in handling this challenge,” says Brian Pierce, an independent consultant and former director at DARPA. For example, AI could help set an active social engineering defense in which a series of trusted agents would create avatars that interact with spear phishers or other malicious actors to slow them down and gather their information, diverting their intent and protecting enterprises.

“We could delegate security to these agents. But it would come down to whether or not we, as humans, could trust these agents to handle that role—but AI would be a tremendous help there,” Pierce says.

While AI, machine learning, and automation will figure into the future Internet, the ability to verify and validate identities will also need to be part of the equation. 

“We don’t have a good way to establish identity and protect it as well, which is a big issue,” Wladawsky-Berger says. “People get emails every day that they don’t trust the identity of the sender. Going forward, this ability to verify identification will be important as new items such as IoT devices proliferate.”

Bar none, security and identity are the No. 1 challenges facing Internet development today and for the foreseeable future.

Irving Wladawsky-BergerResearch affiliate at MIT's Sloan School of Management and a fellow of the Initiative on the Digital Economy and the MIT Connection Science initiative

Infinite growth

Indeed, IoT will present a growing issue for the future Internet. Here are some stats to chew on: 

  • Gartner forecasts that 14.2 billion connected things will be in use in 2019, and that the total will reach 25 billion by 2021, producing an immense volume of data.  
  • IDC projects IoT spending will reach $745 billion in 2019, an increase of 15.4 percent over the $646 billion spent in 2018. Moreover, IDC expects worldwide IoT spending to maintain a double-digit annual growth rate throughout the 2017-2022 forecast period and surpass the $1 trillion mark in 2022.
  • An explosion of machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT traffic is also expected. M2M modules accounted for 3.1 percent of IP traffic in 2017, but will be 6.4 percent of IP traffic by 2022. Moreover, by 2022, M2M connections will account for 51 percent of the total devices and connections on the Internet, according to Cisco’s annual Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update (2017–2022).

A bright future, but not without challenges

In the end, the future of the Internet is pretty wide open, but there are challenges.  

“There is a general sense that while the Internet still offers great opportunity and that many, particularly in the developing countries, see the Internet as an important means to empower communities, there is also a strong sense of disillusionment with what the Internet brings,” states an Internet Society report detailing future Internet challenges.

“The tool that was 'supposed to democratize society' is now being used as a means for its control. This disillusionment is felt even more profoundly in developed countries where the Internet is on the cusp of changing significantly through new technologies and persistent security challenges. New thinking, new approaches, and new models are needed across the board, from Internet policy to addressing digital divides, from security approaches to economic regulation.”

Future of the Internet: Lessons for leaders

  • Few areas of technology are as important to the Internet's future as security. Emerging work around blockchain and encryption could help.
  • Much work is being done to get a better handle on privacy, but the issue remains a huge challenge.
  • Artificial intelligence may address a number of future Internet challenges.

Useful links: 

Visit DARPA's site to read more about its programs.

50 years of the internet: What we’ve learned, and where will we go next? (with Leonard Kleinrock)

Inside the Internet: 50 years of life online

DARPA and the Internet Revolution

The internet is turning 50 this year; here’s how it all started

Video: Leonard Kleinrock

History of the Internet: 50 Years Ago

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Birth of the Internet

Invention of the Internet

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.