Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vinton Cerf on the Intergalactic Internet

One of the highlights of the Third Edition of New Media: An Introduction was getting an interview with Vinton Cerf, the 'Father (Grandfather?) of the Internet'. I thank Barry Saunders for his ability to arrange the interview with Vint when he was in Brisbane in 2007. He had a recent piece in The Guardian musing on the future of the Internet, and particularly on his latest theme of an 'Intergalactic Internet'. Perhaps not surprisingly, it did not win over many of the Guardianistas in the Comments section, but here is an excerpt for your interest.

Yet such a transformative technology is bound to ruffle a few feathers. I have no doubts that its social repercussions will take decades to be fully understood, but it has already done much to benefit the world. It has provided access to information on a scale never before imaginable, lowered the barriers to creative expression, challenged old business models and enabled new ones. It has succeeded because we designed it to be both flexible and open. These features have allowed it to accommodate innovation without massive changes to its infrastructure.

And innovation on the internet happens at a rapid pace. Ten years ago, Google was simply an idea being explored by two graduates in California. The years to come will offer more that is new and exciting. It's easy to forget, sitting in the UK or the US, just how far the internet still has to go. Today, there are only about 1.4 billion users, representing a bit more than one-fifth of the world's population, and a substantial amount of the content on the web is still written in English. But the internet is becoming more global. Asia has more than 500 million users and Europe nearly 400 million and internet-enabled mobile phones will help extend the net to Africa, Latin America and the Indian subcontinent. We're about to see further waves of innovation.

There are more than three billion mobiles in use today and more than 80 per cent of the world's population live within range of a network. In areas where wireline or WiFi access barely exists, many new users will first experience the internet through a mobile phone. In developing economies, people are already finding innovative ways to use mobile technology. Grameen's micro-finance and village phone programmes in Bangladesh and elsewhere are known and respected around the world, but there are many less famous examples. During the Kenyan elections, Mobile Planet provided its subscribers with up-to-the-minute results by text message. As the cost of mobile technologies fall, the opportunities for such innovation will continue to grow.

We're nearing the tipping point for mobile computing to deliver timely, geographically and socially relevant information. Researchers in Japan recently proposed using data from vehicles' windscreen wipers and embedded GPS receivers to track the movement of weather systems through towns and cities with a precision never before possible. It may seem academic, but understanding the way severe weather, such as a typhoon, moves through a city could save lives. Further exploration can shed light on demographic, intellectual and epidemiological phenomena, to name just a few areas.

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