Open portal: internet technology

The internet as we know it is moving into a new phase of development, with data being used and shared in ways we could never have predicted. Vision finds out more

“The internet is running out of room,” proclaimed UAE newspaper The National in 2010. When a bunch of scientists at universities in America started connecting machines via a shared network back in the 1960s, they didn’t foresee the explosive growth that would follow over the next half a century.

In 1995, just 0.4 per cent of the global population was online. Today, according to Internet World Stats, 35 per cent, or around 2.5 billion of us, are online, along with 11 billion internet-ready devices. The result of which has meant the current standard for assigning space to computers online, the Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), which has 4.3 billion spaces, has run out of room. Thankfully, the IT community spotted this problem ahead of time, and on 6 June 2012, a brand new version of the internet was quietly turned on. IPv6 has boosted the number of available internet slots by a mind-boggling 80,000 trillion trillion times.

With the launch of IPv6, the internet entered a new age in its evolution. With the promise of limitless expansion, the rapid improvement of internet speeds and our increased willingness to share personal details via social networks, the future of our digital world will change our lives in ways we never expected.

Groundbreaking tool

It all started in 1963 with a speculative research paper espousing the potential of an Intergalactic Computer Network that would allow computers to communicate with one another across vast distances. Within six years, that idea, devised by computer scientist JCR Licklider, had become a reality. It was created to share research between universities, and no one realised it would become the most important communication tool in history.

But as we welcome the internet’s ability to provide the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, there have been some slightly less celebratory side effects. For every website, social network or app you use, you create a saleable digital footprint, of what you’re into, whether it’s widescreen TVs or dream holiday destinations.

Greg Coyle, co-founder of MyWebCareer.com, says more employers are checking digital profiles every day to vet job candidates. A recent survey carried out by Microsoft found 79 per cent of US job recruiters reviewed online information about applicants. Thirty five per cent agreed that what they found on social networking sites had caused them not to hire a candidate.

Much of Facebook’s advertising value comes from the personal data its one billion users create and share, which can be sold. “Businesses will often treat such information as assets,” says Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group. “For many businesses, it’s their primary asset. Companies won’t say it directly in their privacy policies, but they want people to concede that when you give the company your information, the company owns it and can do what it wants with it.”

At the World Conference on International Telecommunications held in Dubai in 2011, thousands of delegates turned up to debate how freedom of speech and openness of the internet would progress in future in light of these concerns.

“User privacy is not progressing well because it is a complex problem,” said Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim, Director General of the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. “Internet companies talk about freedom of the internet, but not the privacy of users. There are very complex terms and conditions that make users more vulnerable.”

User insight

But surrendering our information to social networks and search engines can also help gain new insights into how we think, feel and act. Google’s Flu Trends, which monitors where, when and how people search for flu and its symptoms online, has been able to predict outbreaks of influenza-like illness across the United States a full two weeks before the government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can.

Since August 2005, Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar’s We Feel Fine project has been gathering human emotions to find out how people are feeling. Every few minutes, their system searches the world’s newly posted blog entries and tweets for the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling”. When it finds them, it makes a note of the context, the time, and the age, gender and location of the author. The result is a huge database of human feelings – with 15 to 20,000 new ones added every day. “We find that as people get older, they get happier. Younger people, associate happiness with excitement. As people get older, they associate happiness more with peacefulness,” explains Kamvar, the project’s co-creator and Consulting Professor of Computational Mathematics at Stanford University.

While the internet has been helping us to better understand ourselves, can we teach computers anything about what it means to be human? Google’s head of search, Amit Singhal, thinks so. He is behind the efforts to teach Google’s servers to understand the words typed into its search boxes, and how they relate to other words and ideas.

“We had already done a lot of wizardry to give you relevant text, images and video in one simple interface, but computers still didn’t understand that the Taj Mahal is a beautiful monument,” explained Singhal to the BBC.

In another project IBM developed a supercomputer named Watson, which learned how to answer questions posed in everyday human language. Watson took on America’s brightest minds on the game show Jeopardy and won. Its knowledge was stored as a random jumble of data, and it had to intuitively search for answers to the questions posed by the presenter. Watson’s victory represents a huge leap forward in how machines understand us. Watson has now been converted into a tool that helps doctors and nurses choose the right way to treat lung cancer based on the most up-to-date knowledge available.

While we don’t know how this relationship will play out as the internet becomes ever more adept at allowing us to share, one thing seems clear: our love affair with the world wide web is set to continue for many years to come.