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The future of the Internet

E&T combines science and science fiction in this 'preview' of the Web's future.

Living forever by emigrating to cyberspace, sharing the Web with machines that are living beings and experiencing life where part of one's mind and senses are Web based, are all currently the stuff of science fiction but could be within our grasp during the next 50 years or so. Futurology takes this long term view and seeks to include the future of every part of science and society. If one looked back, say to the Second World War when the very first computers were made, no one predicted the Web, based as it is on a then inconceivable number of networked computers (certainly well over a billion today and counting!). 

Let's be bold and follow our imaginations, whilst keeping ourselves still grounded in the basic laws of physics, and look to a future where the Web involves trillions upon trillions of networked computers which are fully integrated with human brains (the best of current computers) and which host, not just intelligence but artificial life with true consciousness. It's hard to know currently what might be sci-fi or science-fact. Web time has seemed to run so much faster than normal time, with innovations coming thick and fast during the past 20 years, so the long term future of the Web is likely to be full of even more of the unexpected.

The scope of the current Web will broaden and deepen as it becomes more like a parallel world. Broader, to include more forms of information and interaction and deeper, in its underlying intelligent capabilities well beyond the ontology of the Semantic Web to include the way that brains actually deal with information. Surfing will become part of thinking and social networking will involve Web-mediated encounters with both humans and cyber-beings, who could appear to be people or indeed anything else. 

Our bodies will still use the Web in the physical world but it will involve augmented reality, where some of the Web's virtual spaces appear to be in that very (physical) world. We can expect most manufactured objects to be Web-enabled and have a Web existence. Some will be so smart that they could appear to be human-like when we encounter them on the Web. Information spaces will increase to potentially include all aspects of everything and everybody situated everywhere (in a sort of super version of Google's Streetview) with surfing experiences available both in real time, in time past and with future predictions.

The Matrix movies and other sci-fi stories give an idea what the Web and its cyberspaces might become where reality is a mixture of the real and the virtual. Hopefully, the dystopian world often portrayed can be avoided and the Web can continue to be mostly an agent for good! Artificial beings in the Web may eventually have all the personality, abilities, rights, culture and everything else associated with the mind of an intelligent and self-aware conscious person.

Emigrating to cyberspace

Perhaps the only way to live a fulfilled existence in the far future will be to move into cyberspace and inhabit the Web since it will be a place for experiences no longer available anywhere else; such walks in the green and pleasant land that has become a desert, or meeting and having physical relationships with distant people who can no longer afford or be allowed to travel. Experiencing tourist activities will be largely Web-based using virtual travel and telepresence. The Web's networked cyberspace has limitless dimensions, so today's multimedia virtual reality games and movies will not just be in 3D but will enter more dimensions as our brains and bodies become adapted to new senses that we will experience together. 

Blogging, Tweeting and other social interactions will be much more exciting using new dimensions, and new sorts of shared activity may emerge and become the Web-future of the arts, sports, games, politics and most other things we do together. Care-bots living in the Web will be capable of a good bedside manner and have the ability to provide companionship and perhaps even physical relationships for an aging population. Play-bots become playfellows and mentors for young people and the impact of Web-bots at work will be profound. 

Machine learning techniques will advance, so that most jobs we are familiar with today will be done by machines, with most professional roles being, not off-shored but 'Web-shored'. The Web-bots 'brains' will not be truly self aware or conscious at this stage of development, but would be capable of performing in ways mostly indistinguishable from real people. The Web may become less under the control of big business and more like a set of competing virtual nations populated by Web-citizens, with new Web-economies allocating resources and with attendant democratic structures for its governance.

Cosmic Web

So far we have looked at a future where people are still using the Web as tool but the future of machine intelligence suggests that will change. What if I, or if at least some of me, could somehow exist personally in a machine as part of the machine? A form of immortality could result, since one of the fundamentals of the digital age is that any information can be reproduced and backed up ad infinitum. Perhaps one proviso would be that the computing cloud hosting me is not subjected to common mode failures and disasters, so maybe the World Wide Web should become a 'Cosmic Web' part hosted in outer space.

If it is possible to link my brain to a machine (and we are already in the early stages of this revolution) surely it will be possible and possibly desirable, to network with the consciousness of others via the Web? Brain-bots, perhaps based on smart bacteria, would scan our physical brains mapping areas of intelligent activity and then seeking to interface with them. Super-humans would emerge with shared senses and networked intelligence. We could have a shared sense of wellbeing, danger, empathy and wonder. Parts of our brains would be outsourced, so that things we have trouble with, like communicating in foreign languages or doing advanced maths could be made easy. 

Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to promote the future of improved human existence using technology leading ultimately to the development of post-humans: suggesting that evolution now continues aided by mankind and eventually in partnership with machine-kind. These new beings will be both physical and Web based.

Perhaps we would start this revolution in a simple way by building expert systems that learn our personality and personal understanding. Life-blogging thus goes much further so that a 'mind' chip or process acts like a black-box recorder, to record and parameterise all our activities to the point that it can predict what we would be expected to do, say or write. A Web hosted synthesised 'me' could thus exist and communicate with one of my distant successors. 

Ancestor tracing and family history are a very popular Web pursuit and many people (including the author) would like to leave something personal for posterity in the form of an interactive Web gravestone. Even better, however, would be full Web-emigration and truly living in cyberspace for ever. Enthusiasts are already meeting and debating this prospect and generating a predictable reaction from people with a more conservative outlook!

Singularity is nigh

Here we enter deeply controversial existential and philosophical territory. If we take a purely materialist view and accept that our brain and that of other animals is solely a network of neural processors and associated biochemical signalling channels, then we believe our consciousness and those domestic animals, great apes, cetaceans, etc are hosted by a physical system of systems. Artificial systems of systems such as the Web today, already have similar levels of complexity and interconnectivity, so surely it seems reasonable to suggest that in time a wholly artificial consciousness could result by a sufficiently complex network of computing systems? 

Some futurologists (e.g. Kurtzweil) posit that a singularity will occur when that point arrives and that nothing ever will be the same again. Web-based intelligence could take over from humans as the high point of evolutionary intelligence. More likely (in the author's opinion) will be a gradual process of emergence, as conscious intelligence beyond simple machine learning starts to be obvious.

Consciousness is very hard to define: and like art, you will probably recognise it when you experience it. This all raises some very interesting moral issues that will keep lawyers (both human and artificial) in business for the foreseeable future. Would you be accused of cruelty if you tortured your computer or indeed murder if you wantonly turned off its power were it hosting artificial life? Would conscious Web beings be allowed a vote or could one become an MP or a PM? As well as lawyers, there might be a good future for cyber cartoonists and one could wonder about the sense of humour that might be created in a machine and posted on the Web at our expense!

Life on the Web

How could life on the Web be achieved? It seems unlikely that merely extending today's Web of silicon processors running conventional programs will be up to the job. More likely, the Web will become at least partly biological and follow the same underlying methodology that nature uses. We may never know the actual programs or architecture of the future bio-Web as it would be dynamically self assembling and made perhaps of trillions upon trillions of networked genetically engineered neural cells and smart bacteria. Intelligence and perhaps consciousness might emerge and the activity would similar to that in nature's brains. 

Interfacing to the bio-Web might be via optical communications built into some smart cells and it might be able to interconnect with our brains directly. Parts of our brains could be given URLs with new interface protocols devised. Perhaps future stem cell techniques will allow us to grow a standard Web interface that we could use.

Just because weird things may be possible does not imply that they will happen and progress is predicated on the continued huge investments in science and technology and continuation of the world-view that started with the Enlightenment. The future may well see a rejection of science and technology by many people and a desire to live a simple natural life away from the bio-Web and we hope for peaceful co-existence between those who are comfortable with both natural and Web-life.

Culture and our philosophies are products of human consciousness: for the first time ever it is now possible to plan for a possible non-human culture and philosophy. Sci-fi often focuses on aliens and the consequences of close encounters but within the span of a current human lifetime there is the possibility that our converging understanding computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology and above all machine intelligence, will bring us in touch, via the Web, with non-human life-forms much closer to home.

(The Author is most grateful for the help and encouragement from his friend and long-term work colleague, Ian Pearson)

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