On the 50th anniversary of the birth of the internet, technologists balance optimism and warnings

The Pew Research Center surveyed 530 technologists, researchers, activists and business and policy leaders about how people might be affected by changes in the internet over the next 50 years.
Image: A teletype similar to one used to communicate with the Sigma 7 computer which was connected to UCLA's Interface Message Processor (IMP) in the birthplace of the Internet, at 3420 Boelter Hall, the original location of the first ARPANET node
A teletype similar to one used to communicate with the Sigma 7 computer which was connected to UCLA's Interface Message Processor at 3420 Boelter Hall, the original location of the first ARPANET node at UCLA.Fred Prouser / Reuters file

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By Jason Abbruzzese

Fifty years to the day since the first message was sent between two networked computers, technologists remain optimistic about the future of the internet — though not without some serious reservations.

On the evening of Oct. 29, 1969, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, sent the first message over the ARPANET — the forerunner of the internet — with just two letters: “Lo.”

The system then crashed. The student, Charley Kline, had tried to type “Login.” It worked on the second try.

Over the next few decades, a series of developments in hardware and software would help bring the internet out of the fringes of the computing world and into the homes and pockets of billions of people. But the optimism and excitement of the days of AOL and Prodigy have given way to growing concern that the internet has become centralized by a few major companies, compromised by governments and monetized by the collecting and sharing of private data.

To mark the 50th anniversary of that first message, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, surveyed 530 technologists, researchers, activists and business and policy leaders about how people might be affected by changes in the internet over the next 50 years, finding broad optimism but also pointed warnings about privacy, artificial intelligence and even brain implants.

UCLA computer scientists at the original location of the first ARPANET node.UCLA via Reuters

They found that 72 percent of respondents think that people’s lives will be changed for the better, with 25 percent saying it would change for the worse.

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Many experts that spoke with Pew struck a balance between the upsides and downsides of an increasingly connected world. Most agreed that there would be little to slow the spread of the internet.

“I predict that the internet will evolve into a pervasive global nervous system,” Leonard Kleinrock, Internet Hall of Fame member and professor of computer science at UCLA, told Pew. “The internet will be everywhere, available on a continuous basis, and will be invisible in the sense that it will disappear into the infrastructure, just as electricity is, in many ways, invisible.”

Steve Crocker, Internet Hall of Fame member and CEO of Shinkuro, an internet research and development company, also predicted that the internet would become more common and less visible.

“I think the internet will start to be built into devices and systems, more or less below the surface,” Crocker said. “People will stop referring to the internet and take it for granted, much as the developed world takes electric power for granted.”

Pew’s survey found optimism around better health, greater personalization and more leisure time. The most common worries centered on increased inequality, use of the internet by elites to manipulate the public, increased isolation and limited privacy.

Some notable technologists Pew spoke with touched on the need for some general agreements on regulations and rules on the internet, not entirely unlike the initial agreements that helped create the technical rules underpinning the infrastructure of the internet.

Vint Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, said that stopping bad actors will require coordination.

“I still see the computing and communication environment as positive and constructive, but it does create avenues for remotely initiated harmful behaviors,” he told Pew. “International agreements and mechanisms for traceability of actors in the network will be needed to respond to harmful behavior. A law of the net will likely have to be enacted to cope with these challenges.”

Elizabeth Feinler, the original manager of the ARPANET Network Information Center, said that technologists have to help lead the way in figuring out how to establish common rules for the internet.

“We cannot expect our elected lawmakers to understand all of this as they try to come up with reasonable laws affecting the internet,” Feinler said. “We need a multilateral body (or bodies) of internet/computer experts, elected among themselves, to serve as an independent authority to provide technical guidance and expertise to the government.”

Other technologists offered warnings about where the unabated growth of the internet could lead, particularly as technologies such as direct connections between human brains and computers become possible.

“Within 50 years we will have the technology for embedding internet transceivers into human brains,” Lawrence Roberts, designer and manager of ARPANET, told Pew. “This could greatly speed up information transfer and allow great advances. However, the flood of advertising would need to be controlled and security would need to have improved greatly for anyone to take the risk.”

Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, U.K., and executive director of the Web Science Institute, warned about what this kind of technology could mean for humanity.

“I believe that by 2069 the brain-machine interface will be fully developed, and if we think the applications of AI might be terrifying for the future of humanity, then brain-computer interfaces are the stuff of nightmares if the legal and ethical frameworks under which they are used are not carefully considered from the outset,” she said.