A man switches on a tiny wireless chip that has been surgically implanted behind his ear, which then synchs up with the Web wherever he is in the world. The mere thought of logging in to the Internet triggers the system to turn on and connect to the Web. He could be on a bus or at the beach and from all outward appearances he is just staring off into space. But he sees a three dimensional artificial world before him that he can manipulate any way he chooses by thought alone.
By looking at the trends of today we can begin to develop a image of what the Web of the future will look like. I believe the Web will improve and grow in a way that will dwarf its present existence and will improve and enrich everyone’s lives way beyond what we can imagine today. The Net will become as integrated into everyone’s everyday lives as much as, and even more so, than the television or phone (in developed nations first, then everywhere). Television, communications and the Internet will merge.
The Web will become increasingly realistic, interactive, and three dimensional. Two dimensional displays will evolve into three dimensional displays. And the Web will probably incorporate more than just the two senses of seeing and hearing. It will first be incorporated into all other electronics found in household appliances, copy machines, automobiles, and anything else with a microchip. Then it will be integrated directly into our brains.
I also envisage this new Web creating an unimaginably sophisticated data sphere that surrounds and envelops the world like a warm electronic blanket, connecting everyone and everything. And it may some day become an autonomous and sentient entity in its own right that we may even come to depend on for life itself.
When a person switches on his wireless Web chip and connects with the Net, he’ll be looking at and interacting with the Web of the future. He’ll manipulate objects, click on links, download information, and communicate with anyone by simply thinking it. In fact, when he navigates to a grocery store to buy food, for instance, he’ll be able to “pick them up”, “feel them” and even “smell” the food he wants to buy just by thinking the appropriate thoughts.
In the future, Web-based software agents will constantly build dynamic lists and instructions to help people in personal and professional activities. These software agents are subroutines, or small programs, which may be part of a responsive ‘Internet Operating System’ that serves humanity, or possibly even destroy it. Programs may become responsible for doing some of the basic thinking that we get stuck routinely doing today. Additionally, it may be responsible for storing a percentage of our memories as well.
The Web has already become something we rely on for memory, and that reliance will only grow. We’d rather look something up on Google two or three times instead of trying to remember it initially. And eventually, we’ll come to rely on the Web for memories and immediate information so that it will seem like we are missing a part of our own brain when not “jacked in” to the Net, to borrow a phrase from science fiction writer William Gibson. The Net will be such a part of our existence that we may even feel profound separation and isolation when not connected.
The Evolution of the Web Display
Of course we’re not going to jump from flat screen LCD monitors of today to displays that exist only “in our minds”. Three dimensional displays may be the bridge. There is a device in existence today called a Heliodisplay(TM) that produces holograms which exist in three dimensions and are created with photographic projection using advanced laser technology. It’s possible that all displays will employ this technology in the future. The gaming industry ceaselessly works at making their artificial gaming experiences more realistic and is a powerful driving force in computer display technology.
The Web of our future will first be truly device independent where each piece of equipment is a different window that peers into the same global Web. From handheld devices not unlike the Star Trek Communicators, to cell phones, televisions, automobile dashboards, embedded refrigerator displays and MP3 players, all will be portals into the same World Wide Web.
And of course everything will be connected. Instead of applications running on individual personal computers and devices, applications will operate on the Net and be accessible to anyone, creating a loose Internet Operating System.
Ultimately, the Web of our future will most likely abandon standard two dimensional and even three dimensional displays and instead be projected right onto our corneas, skipping the middle man, so to speak.
FutureWeb is Closer Than We Think
Already demonstrated in the lab is the ability to cause a computer to react to thought alone. Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis works in the field of BMI (brain-machine interface). In an experiment involving a monkey, a computer and a monitor, Nicolelis and his team successfully caused the monkey to communicate with and control a robotic arm through its brain’s neural signals alone.
The monkey’s brain activity and signals were first monitored with numerous electrodes inside its scalp while it manipulated a joystick. The scientists taught the monkey to move the joystick with its arms to accomplish movement on the monitor. Nicolelis’ team then took the joystick away, but continued everything else the same way. Since the monkey’s brain was hooked up to the computer, each time it had the thought of moving its arms, the desired affect actually happened anyway on the monitor, triggered by the monkey’s thoughts alone. In fact, the monkey was even able to control an artificial arm over the Web 600 miles away in the same manner.
There are two important applications for this technology that are driving its research: medicine and war, two constants in all of human history. Doctors will someday be able to attach a prosthetic arm to a patient, wire it up to her brain, and succeed in enabling her to control the prosthetic fingers by simply thinking it.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) manages the research for the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2003, DARPA invested $23 million in BMI programs, including the one at Duke University cited above. Their goal is to allow soldiers to control weapons of all kinds by thought only. These super soldiers will be able to stealthily navigate through a battlefield willing robotic gliders above to drop their payloads of smart bombs on the enemy over the next hill, without endangering their own lives.
Ethical questions aside, brain-machine interfacing will someday mature and become integrated into our lives. Since the Web is already such a part of our world, the marriage of the two is inevitable.
This technology can be utilized in the other direction as well. Just like a thought can produce computer behavior, the computer will someday be able to send back sensory data other than just sight and sound. If a computer is hooked directly up to the brain, then smell, taste and touch can be affected as well. The Web will literally come to life.
The Semantic Web, Web 2.0 and the Collaboration of Humanity
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, wrote an illuminating book called Weaving the Web that I recommend all Web professionals read. Among the many profound ideas expressed are two concepts relevant here. One is the Semantic Web, which is explained as “The Web of data with meaning in the sense that a computer program can learn enough about what the data means to process it.” Metadata is the term used for data about data. Most Web pages today have embedded in the html code metadata that gives information about the Web page. Eventually, this information will become much more robust, allowing more intelligent searches to become a reality.
The Semantic Web may have the potential to help make the Internet an entity in its own right. Parallel processing, the connecting of computers to make super computers, has been in existence for some time now. In fact, that’s how the human brain operates, by conducting many operations at the same time.
The other fascinating idea Berners-Lee expressed in this landmark book is that his original idea for the Web involved much more of a two-way exchange of information. His original vision for the Web was one of collaboration. He wanted people to be able to post information to the Web as easily as it was to view information. Unfortunately, the latter has been embraced more readily by the general population.
But now we see the emergence of “Web 2.0”, a fairly new term that describes an innovative type of website that is built on the participation of its users. Blogs, wikis Podcasts and social networks all fall under the Web 2.0 umbrella. Today we are finally achieving what Berners-Lee had in mind all along. With websites such as MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Squidoo, and Digg, non-technical users can now post information and contribute to the Web as easily as they can access it. The Web of the future will embrace this concept even more, causing its speed of growth to eclipse today’s rate.
It’s not difficult to see that the Web could be a vast parallel processing farm, that given enough artificial intelligence programming, the infusion of Semantic Web systems, and the constant additions from billions of intelligent beings (namely humans), it could have the potential of becoming something of a unified intelligence, a data sphere that surrounds the planet and is more powerful that the sum of its parts.
This concept of technology’s exponential growth turning onto something we cannot even imagine with the possibility of the Web becoming sentient is not new. Vernor Vinge, a retired Professor of Mathematics at San Diego State University, a computer scientist and a science fiction author, wrote about the Singularity in a 1993 essay.
A super-intelligence emerging out of the Web was also written about by Kevin Kelly in Wired Magazine in August 2005 and also published on KurzweilAI.
“. . . we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.
This planet-sized computer is comparable in complexity to a human brain. Both the brain and the Web have hundreds of billions of neurons (or Web pages). Each biological neuron sprouts synaptic links to thousands of other neurons, while each Web page branches into dozens of hyperlinks. That adds up to a trillion “synapses” between the static pages on the Web. The human brain has about 100 times that number, but brains are not doubling in size every few years. The Machine (the Web of the future) is.”
An online search will yield many examples of bizarre concepts that existed only in science fiction later becoming reality. The Web is something that Earth has never seen before. It not only has the potential to connect everyone, but it can also extend every brain and grow exponentially. It may take a lot longer than anyone thinks, but eventually the Web of our future will be immensely different and much more powerful than anyone can possibly imagine today.