April 14, 2014
When the precursor to today’s Internet, the ARPANET, had its first nodes connected in 1969, only a handful of computer scientists knew about it. Now most of the world is dependent on the Internet’s vast web of links, tweets, posts, and likes for commerce, communication, and socialization.

But could the Internet of future generations be even more revolutionary? Keeping in mind that the Internet evolved largely without any central guidance – recently, the US government announced it will “transition out of managing domain names and addresses for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)” – what new forms or functions will this global system take as technologies such as robotics, autonomous vehicles, ubiquitous sensors, and others move toward an online presence? To understand these changes, we trace the Internet through four major stages of Web 1.0 to 4.0.

Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 have only partly lifted the curtain for what is coming in the near future. Web 1.0 technical solutions for moving data such as packet switching, Internet Protocols, and distributed networking, as well as graphics and video capabilities, are fundamental functional features that provided a foundation and got people online. Web 2.0 social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have enabled rapid (and more) communication, so much so that the current generation is labeled as “born digital.” But these features are only the beginning of the Internet’s impact on mankind.

Web 3.0 is taking us to new levels of information exchange. The Internet of Things (IoT; a.k.a., the Internet of Everything, IoE) is the universe of devices, sensors, and objects connected to the Internet. Networking firm Cisco estimates that there are already more 12.5 billion devices – from iPads to refrigerators – now online and that IoT devices will number roughly 50 billion by 2020. They further estimate that the IoT will become a $19 trillion market (that’s trillion with a “t”) in a few years.

Promises of the IoT are legion—intelligent vehicles talking to each other to avoid fender-benders, smartphones tracking your health automatically and alerting your doctor if illness is sensed, home appliances turning on before you walk in the door to start your dinner and turn up the heat. Critical to the success of the IoT are several interrelated areas, including big data, cybersecurity, wireless connectivity, sensors, devices, and hardware. Each of these points carries their own technical and regulatory challenges for synchronizing the IoT into one vast web of information. The societal implications of the IoT will challenge policy makers as never before. For example, what does privacy mean when dozens of sensors are constantly monitoring and reporting your personal status to the world?

Such hyper-connectivity will enable substantially greater exchange of information and intelligent processing in our virtual and material worlds. Perhaps most amazing is that the majority of the IoT’s communications, insights, and actions will be realized without human involvement (machine-to-machine, or M2M) – for example, wearable sensors autonomously communicating with a home heating system to adjust room temperatures. Presently, “61.5 percent, or nearly two-thirds, of all web visits are made by Internet bots, a name given to a wide range of software applications that crawl and interact with the web on behalf of their human owner.” It is forecast that 90% of news stories will be written by computers by 2030.

But while the IoT will lead to a more hyper-connected world, the really exciting (and policy-challenging) prospects for information exchange kick in when we start seeing Web 4.0 applications. In a recent book, Dr. Michio Kaku describes research on capabilities that could have profound implications for humanity. Person-to-person mind control was demonstrated by the University of Washington in 2013 when one researcher controlled another researcher’s arm by remote control via thoughts only. The first researcher wore an EEG (Electroencephalography) cap that monitored his brainwaves, and the second researcher wore a “transcranial magnetic helmet carefully placed over the part of his brain that controlled his right arm.” When the first researcher thought of moving his arm (but did not move it), the signal was sent to the second researcher, who moved his arm involuntarily. In other news, Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion to gain access to their virtual reality software and hardware, the Oculus Rift, for use in future social media. Per Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “…we want to contribute to a more open, connected world; and we both see virtual reality as the next step.” Could thought control and/or virtual reality become an integral part of social networking in the near future?

Policy and societal implications for this new era of the Internet will be substantial. Imagine having your own advanced personal assistant that can verbally not only answer your trivial daily questions, but also anticipate them before you ask them. Imagine a United Nations ‘Brainnet’ that eliminates the need for language translators. Imagine routinely interacting with your social media friends in a 3D virtual reality setting. These scenarios are not far-fetched if one follows the research to merge humans and machines.

We have seen historically that as every new communications medium is released, new societal disruptions result. Gutenberg’s book-printing released the power of the printed word to low-income people and changed whole economies and trade. Cellphones and the Internet made the world’s knowledge available to anyone, anywhere. So while we surf today’s Internet, let us not forget that there are game-changing new capabilities on the near horizon. What will it mean when the majority of our normally unconnected objects, brains, and machines become connected to a global net?

I gratefully acknowledge Mr. Peter Haynes, non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, and Mr. John Hanacek, student in Georgetown University's MA program in Communication Culture and Technology, for their reviews.

Thomas A. Campbell is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative.