Woah. The Internet. That's a bold question right? Well, it's one that was posted recently on Quora. It's a pretty broad notion, but it got me thinking. As a popular science nerd, I had to try and answer this.
The Internet is an enabling technology
The Internet at it's root is a communication platform. It was born as a way of making information and computer systems decentralised (originally to survive the threat of nuclear war), but it has since grown to leverage these abilities to allow the sharing and communication of information at high speed, over great distances.
The Internet's success has been as an amalgamation of technologies that builds on, and constantly expands, the capabilities of this platform for information sharing with the development of communication, commerce, media, entertainment and data storage & computational capabilities. These capabilities have come together in ways that have monumentally impacted the way in which we perceive and take part in the world around us.
In this sense, the success of the Internet has been that it has proven to be a robust and adaptable enabling technology, that has allowed all of these other technologies to develop, cross-pollinate and access large audiences.
What actually are the successes of the Internet?
The things that we probably think of when talking about the Internet are the services and products that we have engineered to make use of this platform and it's technologies. So, to think about what the next enabling platform could be, we need to put things like Facebook and the Internet of Things to one side so we can concentrate on the stuff that makes them possible.
Thinking about the Internet in this way makes this question a bit less crazy to answer - because we can think of it as a collection of technologies that have come together in the right way to make things that we find useful.
The Internet has connected people, making distance and geographical location irrelevant. It has never been easier or cheaper to talk in real-time with someone on the other side of the world. This ability to cross time-zones and bridge cultures is making the world seem like a smaller place. Living in a connected world means that we have access to greater opportunities for collaboration, more up-to-date news and are never too far from our friends and loved-ones. It is also proving a powerful tool for social change, challenging social norms around privacy and intimacy, organising political movements and in some cases shifting the balance of power in favour of a connected populous.
The Spread of Information and Data
Having access to accurate and timely information helps us to make better decisions. Having access to the world's knowledge is helping farmers make better decisions on what crops to grow and where to sell them, it is improving access to educational material, and it's opening up transparency and accountability as more governments make their data available online. The proliferation of data and connected services is enabling the sharing and cross-pollination of data from many sources in new and interesting ways that is - among many things - making transportation smarter, entertainment more relevant and our behaviour more healthy. Doctors can connect with and support their patients, while they themselves receive advice from communities of doctors and cloud based computational services.
Business and Commerce
This connected landscape is changing the way business is done as producers can now connect directly to their suppliers and customers. From craftspeople to musicians, lawyers to accountants, whatever we create we can now sell directly to our customers - allowing for greater variety and individual expression. While at the same time, with billions of people online, there is now such scale to allow for great economies-of-scale allowing for cheaper, more accessible mass-produced goods.
Media, Entertainment and Creativity
In a short time we have moved from a top-down media and entertainment industry to one where we make and share our own news. Social networks spread word faster than newspapers ever could. YouTube houses more video than has ever been recorded in human history, let alone however much Hollywood has created. A teenage girl giving make-up advice has a larger audience than some major film releases. The Internet has allowed us to create in new ways, has given birth to new art forms and connected us together to collaborate on everything from music videos, to molecular science and 3D printed objects.
What could dwarf the Internet?
The Internet has undoubtedly had a great impact on how we communicate, collaborate, create, make decisions, travel, do business, and educate. And while it is having a tremendous impact on our behaviours, there are many things that remain unchanged. At the core of these incredible changes are essential human behaviours and societal mechanisms that are enhanced by the Internet, but remain fundamentally the same. We are still people with everyday needs. We still buy things with money. We still go to school. We still produce things in factories. We still burn fossil fuels and drive on roads.
While the Internet has shifted the balance of our societies, there are many changes that could turn our world upside-down.
Let's throw some interesting technologies together to see if they can spark our imaginations. What are some technologies or aspects of our lives that, if changed, could have profound effects on the way we see the world?
Medical Nanotech: Saving lives and improving quality of life
Medical technology on a nano scale is already opening the doors to new detection and treatment methods. What could we learn about diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's if we could sense every process going on in a human body in real-time? How could medical treatment advance if we could do surgery at a molecular level? What if we could diagnose a disease in an instant with a smartphone? What if we could measure exactly the amount of calories we consume in a day and get recommendations for our diet? What if your doctor could know every aspect of your daily bodily functions and recommend behaviour changes instead of pharmaceuticals?
Sensing the World: More and better knowledge of what's going on around us
We make better decisions when we can understand the influences and impacts of the choices we make. On a global scale, many of the decisions made by governments and NGOs are based on information that is years old. What if farmers could monitor the health of their crops in real-time, to the tiniest detail - helping to reduce use of pesticides, increase yields and reduce waste? What if we could respond to the outbreak of a virus as soon as it occurs? What if we could map and measure every single aspect of the world's weather systems? What if our eyes could see more than just the light from around us? What if we could see more of the processes and information related to world around us, such as with augmented reality?
Not big enough for you? Yeah, I guess these innovations could change a lot about the services that we use, but dwarf the Internet? Maybe not.
Desktop Manufacturing: Radically changing how we produce new things
What if you had a machine that could create a fully functioning laptop at home? Would you still spend £1000 on a laptop from a shop? What if you could make anything at home as easily as you can print a page of paper? Why would anyone go to the mall? What would happen to businesses that make things, and all of the businesses that make things for them?
Material Science: New possibilities for the things we build
Materials science touches on everything from the clothes we wear to the computers we use. Advancements in material sciences could make us invisible, make computers faster and smaller, or even make personal flight more realistic. What if there was a material so light and strong we could build skyscrapers that reach the edge of our atmosphere? Today, more than half of the world's population live in cities. Would our society stay the same if half of the world's people were living in mega-buildings?
Change Your Mind: New ways to think and communicate
What if we could escape the boundaries of thought, language, computation or imagination that are naturally imposed on us? What new technologies, lifestyles, perspectives or sensations could be born from changing the way our minds work? What if we could communicate telepathically? What new social norms would emerge about privacy? In what new ways could we entertain ourselves? What would it be like to think in parallel with 100 other people? What if computers could think like us? What if the difference between human and machine intelligence became indistinguishable? What would happen to art, music, philosophy, science and our daily lives? What if your job could be done by an artificial intelligence? What if every single job in the world could be?
Lifespan: How would economies, agriculture, law and housing change if we could live forever?
Changes in lifespan would force us to reevaluate many aspects of the way our societies work. If you could live forever, how long until you were considered an adult? How long would you have to work before you could retire? How long would a life sentence be as punishment for a crime? How would we grow enough food for everyone? How would money work if you could just wait 1000 years for compound interest to make you a billionaire?
Energy: What could happen if huge amounts of energy became easy to carry around with you?
What could you do with a limitless power supply in your pocket? You could power an Iron Man style suit, or power a flying car. You could have a lightsaber or a personal force-field. Space flight would no longer be dependent on huge amounts of rocket fuel, so we could leave the earth with less weight and risk.
Modifying Biology: Changing ourselves and the natural environment
Changing our bodies could create new freedoms, or dependencies. It could open up new arts or forms of expression. It could open new potential habitats - what if we could breathe underwater or survive in space? What if our bodies weren't fixed? What if we could change gender on a whim, back and forth? Or grow an extra limb? What if we made a whole ecosystem of entirely artificial plants and animals? What if you never had to eat?
Teleportation: The end of geographical limitations
Instantaneous transport of people and things would totally change our notions of distance, accessibility and speed. What would happen to tourism if it were easy to travel anywhere? How about deliveries? Where would you live if you could get to work in an instant - and what would that do to the property market? Could the reduction of our dependency on road, rail and air transport allow for the restoration of natural landscapes? Farmlands that are inaccessible by road could feed millions with instantaneous connections to wherever there is demand.
OK, a lot of these ideas might be fanciful dreams, but the idea of a 'universal library' storing the world's information and knowledge was science fiction for a long time - now we carry it around in our pockets.
Even though they might sound pretty crazy, the seeds of these developments are already planted:
- Sensing the world better will allow for greater efficiency and better decision making. having more accurate information has changed businesses and technologies, from Google to GPS. But it also brings questions of morality and privacy. These are issues we are already having to grapple with. The Sensor-Rich, Data-Scooping Future - The New York Times.
Desktop manufacturing: 3D printing seems a natural precursor to desktop manufacturing. It might seem clumsy and expensive now, but so did dot-matrix printers at the beginning of the desktop publishing revolution. 3D-printing functional electronics just got an exponential overhaul.
Material science: It's been amazing following the development of new materials like graphene, aerogels and self-healing polymers. It wont be long before we start seeing practical applications for these in the products and buildings around us. Blackest is the new black: Scientists develop a material so dark that you can't see it...
Change your mind: The US BRAIN Initiative and the EU's Human Brain Project promise big investments into brain research. 2014 saw the first ever brain to brain communication. The First Successful Demonstration Of Brain-To-Brain Communication In Humans.
Lifespan: As our understanding of our bodies, ageing and diseases progresses, so should our ability to intervene. People like Aubrey de Grey and his SENS Research Foundation are researching ways to extend lifespans by reducing the factors that cause ageing. Live forever: Scientists say they’ll extend life ‘well beyond 120’.
Energy: OK, this one is a bit of a stretch. Research into fusion power by the likes of the US National Ignition Facility or the international collaboration ITER could yield practical fusion technology in several decades - in a few decades more maybe it could be miniaturised. The problem: practical fusion has been 30 years away for 60+ years - it could remain 30 years away for a long time. Back to the future: are we about to crack nuclear fusion?
Modifying biology: We are already modifying the food we eat and growing meat in labs. As our understanding of genetics and biological systems grows, so does our ability to manipulate it. 2012 saw the first gene therapy approved for use in the US and EU. First synthetic yeast chromosome revealed.
Teleportation: In a 2014 'study', Thompson Reuters claims that by 2025 teleportation experimentation will be widespread. In 2012, researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China teleported a photon more than 60 miles. But the leap from photons to complex objects is a big one - it's likely going to be a very long time before teleportation is a practical reality, but people are working on it right now - that alone is a surprise to some. Time travel and teleporting 'a reality for today's children' - Telegraph.
I don't know about you, but I'm excited about the future.