Sir Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the World Wide Web

How is the World Wide Web set to evolve, and how will that change how we use it? Factor finds out from the legend himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee


“These are going to be instructions rather than predictions.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is giving a keynote presentation to a packed room at IT infrastructure tradeshow IP Expo Europe. His talk has been billed as being about the future of the internet, but after bounding onto the stage at a near run, this initial comment hints at a wider topic.


Remember that the future won’t just happen if we sit there and wait for it to happen, and you are the people who are actually going to make it happen


“I’m not going to give predictions because for me, I put out there what I want to see,” he says, grinning broadly at the assembled crowd.

“I think it’s really important to remember that the future is something we will. Remember that it won’t just happen if we sit there and wait for it to happen, and you are the people who are actually going to make it happen, are going to build it.”

This isn’t normally how these sorts of talks go, particularly when the speaker is someone classed as a ‘futurist’. But this isn’t anyone normal; this is the inventor of the World Wide Web – a man who has done more to change our lives than any other one individual alive today. If anyone is allowed to give instructions about building the future, it’s him.

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Starting with a memo

Berners-Lee starts by talking about the inception of the web, on the basis that this will “put things in perspective”. It quickly turns out he’s right, as the story of the web’s invention is not only interesting but provides a lot of pointers towards its future development.

“This year is the 25th anniversary of when I first wrote a memo about the World Wide Web,” he says, describing what must be one of the most historically significant memos ever created.

“I was working there at CERN – very cool place. I had this idea, this itch that I wanted to fix this awful confusion of documentation systems. I could make this really cool system which would integrate them all, it would be decentralised.”


This year is the 25th anniversary of when I first wrote a memo about the World Wide Web


His idea would take the internet and make it the connected, accessible world we are used to, but at the time “nobody really sort of picked up on it”.

A year and a bit later, however, Berners-Lee’s boss Mike Sendall gave the go-ahead, along with the approval to buy a NeXT cube to develop it on.

“The NeXT machine was just being produced by Steve Jobs’ company when he left Apple – very, very cool machine, great big development environment,” explains Berners-Lee.

Sendall would die of cancer in 1999, after which his copy of the original memo was found.

“In the corner of it in his handwriting on the cover: ‘vague, but exciting’,” says Berners-Lee, looking out into the crowd. “If the people that are working for you have vague but exciting ideas, if you can find them a bit of space that’s a really important way to run a company.”

Internet importance

The very nature of the internet played a vital role the way the web evolved, something which Berners-Lee believes is vital for its future development.

“One of the things which is really important is the idea of a platform,” he says. “At that point the internet had just become available at CERN, so I could sit down – I could do it now with this computer, plug it into an ethernet, plug it into the Wi-Fi, write a program and that program could then communicate over the internet.”

This concept of a platform is key because of its lack of attitude.

“The internet is a program that I could use to connect to another computer without worrying about what’s in between. But that not-worrying was mutual – I didn’t have to worry about how the internet worked, and the internet didn’t worry about what I was doing with it.”


To keep net neutrality means keeping the internet like this – impactful without attitude


While a simple concept, this provides the fundamental basis for why the internet has been so important.

“I could just write a program, put it on different computers and those computers would talk to each other over the web,” explains Berners-Lee. “That’s really, really important.”

So important, in fact, that we need to fight hard to keep it this way.

“Part of that is why we need to keep fighting for net neutrality, to keep net neutrality means keeping the internet like this – impactful without attitude. Impactful without censure.”

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A programmable future

Having witnessed a whole host of updates to how it can be modified, the web we have now is very much in the realm of the programmer.

“When you come to a web page now, basically every web page is a computer. So when you’re building a website, every web page needs a programmer,” he says. “When I grew up my parents were working on the first computers, and what they realised that was really exciting was that when you program a computer it’s up to your imagination – the computer is not limiting you.”

Berners-Lee argues that the same is true of web pages now, and that emerging technology will take this in whole new directions.

“Because it’s a computing platform, you could now build a peer-to-peer computing platform using [open-source real-time communications platform] WebRTC, with real-time communication,” he says. You could build all kinds of things on top of that because it’s programmable. The value of it is what you can build on top of it, and what is sort of meta exciting is excitement about the future platforms that people will build on that.”

The time of AI

Turning his attention to artificial intelligence, Berners-Lee argues that it was, more or less, already here.

“Yes, you don’t have a completely human-like assistant helping you with everything,” he says. “But originally, 20 years ago they taught in schools that there are things that people can do and things that computers can do.

“Computers can do calculations; computers can do lots of data. People can do intuitive things like music and play chess. People can do things which need really sort of very powerful parallel processing, like driving a car, which is the sort of thing that computing can never do.


A large number of those things which were up there as challenging for artificial intelligence actually have quietly gone by”


“Ok, hello? A large number of those things which were up there as challenging for artificial intelligence actually have quietly gone by. AI has done that.”

In the future, Berners-Lee sees AI dominating communications.

“As the machines get more powerful, and in something like financial trading in a lot of companies the work is all done by machines. The machines are making the trading decisions, the machines are basically running the company. So that means that communication out there is largely going to be machine communication – it’s going to be data.”

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Making data work

Data is one of the most significant features of our online future, a fact which is going to have wide-ranging impacts. But a focus on certain aspects of data has resulted in concerns that could block beneficial uses of data in the crusade for privacy.

“You get this push-back: ‘if this data about me, they’re making money from it, then shouldn’t I get some of that money?’ That is so wrong-headed,” says Berners-Lee. “They can do this very good targeted advertising, but you know what? Targeted advertising is not the whole of the future of the world, and that data which they’ve got about you is actually not very valuable to them compared to how it’s valuable to you as a person.”


I would like us to build a world in which I have control of my data, I own it


Berners-Lee envisions a change in way data is controlled so that it comes back into the hands of its owner.

“I would like us to build a world in which I have control of my data, I own it. Yeah, I could sell it to you, if it’s worth it, maybe I’ll sell it to you, maybe I won’t, we can negotiate a price for it to be used for advertising,” he says.

“But more importantly I will have control of, access to and legal ownership of all the data about me so we will be able to write really neat applications which take that. We’re going to write apps which take data from all different parts of my life and my friends’ lives, my family’s life that will really help me live life in a more healthy way, really help me find presents for nephews and nieces.

Access vs privacy

When it comes to the privacy argument, Berners-Lee takes a balanced view.

“There are people at the moment who are saying ‘privacy is dead, get over it’. I don’t agree with that,” he says. “I think that any people in practice – think about you, your family, your group, your organisation, your company – you function by having a data wall around you. So I think that the idea that privacy is dead is hopelessly sad.”

He stresses to developers in attendance the importance of building systems that allow privacy, but highlights the need for access by particular individuals when needed, such as in a healthcare situation.


I think that the idea that privacy is dead is hopelessly sad


“There’s a lot of really interesting cases like healthcare where the data about me, which will allow me to be taken care of rapidly if I’m in a car accident, that is really, really crucial,” he explains.

However, he believes the best solution will make such access accountable.

“We make tracking something you do on people who use data,” he says. “So if I’m a doctor and I look into your file, you get to know that I have because my access to your file is tracked. That’s called an accountable system.”

He proposes that this could also allow mass use of health data to research the use of drugs for new treatments, on the basis that people would not mind having their file accessed if they were notified of the purposed and asked permission.

Such a system could also aid the trust of law enforcement, where access to data is something that is required.

“If I’m working for the police, if I’m working for the armed forces, why don’t we build an accountable system where yes, you get the ability to do quite extreme things which violate privacy because sometimes if you’ve got to save a life, sometimes if you’ve to stop a heinous crime, sometimes you’ve got to have a lot of power,” adds Berners-Lee.

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Data democracy

Perhaps most interestingly, Berners-Lee sees a turnaround in the way people see and use data as the balance of privacy and access is addressed. In particular, he thinks it can be used to vastly improve the democratic process.

Addressing the developers in the audience, he says: “Can you think of a better democratic tool that you can use on the web? Can you think of a way of, for example, having a debate between the parties, between the candidates where instead of just yelling at each other on the stage for twenty minutes, they go into a session where their arguments are dissected and where people can refer them to the facts, and where people working for each party can settle arguments about particular facts that were quoted? And the politician can then apologise and retract it if they got it wrong or they’ve been misinformed.”

“We need a much better informed debate about that sort of thing – even how we do our education, how we organise our schools. We need a better democratic platform.”

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Featured image courtesy of Вени Марковски. First and third inline image courtesy of Paul Clarke. Second inline image courtesy of cellanr.


Aquatecture: Designing future cities to take a non-defensive approach to flooding

Flooding of inhabited areas is one of the major, but often neglected, challenges that await future generations. It is a problem that needs to be addressed rapidly to help prevent unnecessary loss of lives and unforetold economic damage. But instead of fearing and fighting water, some argue we should develop our cities in a way that makes use of it, and take a non-defensive approach towards rising water levels.

A range of futuristic floating city concepts has already been proposed as unconventional ways to use water, but they may not become a reality anytime soon. In the meantime, we should look at integrating water into the long-term designs for existing cities, for example in the form of interconnected waterways, deepwater ports and buildings that can be flooded. Floating solar and wind farms and tidal power generation off nearby shores could also be integrated.

By making use of the water that surrounds many of our cities, these concepts may offer more benefits than reactive measures such a flood defences and sandbags ever could.

London-based Baca Architects have re-imagined how one of the most flood-prone cities in the world could be protected as it grows in to a mega-city. Their proposals for Shanghai are outlined in a new book, Aquatecture, which is due out next year. It looks a different ways of designing for water, picking up on practical examples from around the world. The book complements the firm’s specialist work around designing waterfronts and water architecture, which includes amphibious houses.

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A serious threat

From January to early December 2012 floods accounted for 54% of deaths in Asia, according to the United Nations. In China alone, more than 17 million people were affected by flooding and $4.8bn of economic damage was caused.

Also in 2012, researchers from the University of Leeds, writing in the journal Natural Hazards, said that Shanghai is the most vulnerable majority city in the world to suffer from serious flooding. The researchers found that Shanghai and Dhaka would remain the most vulnerable major cities up to the 2100s – although the potential for flooding would increase in all cities.

“It is not just about your exposure to flooding, but the effect it actually has on communities and business and how much a major flood disrupts economic activity,” said Professor Nigel Wright, who led the research team.

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Building a flood-resilient city

Shanghai’s history is deeply connected with the surrounding water; the Yangtze river has helped it grown in to one of the biggest economic powers not only China but in the entire world. The downside is that the city is prone to flooding and is one of the cities most likely to see a serious detrimental impact from rising sea-levels in coming years.

But Baca Architects believe that the impacts of flooding can be minimised by thinking about how the city is developed at present. In 2011, China announced six satellite towns would be built around the city, and it is likely with population growth over coming years that they could eventually be connected to the surrounding provinces.

The architects argue that the location by the river allows for the new towns to be connected in different ways. “Between the satellites, high-risk areas are used for industry with the waterways providing economic routes for heavy goods transportation to the rest of the city and the deepwater ports,” they say. “Off shore floating solar farms, designed to move with the waves, are linked to high-altitude wind generators as well as energy producing tidal barrages to create a distributed and interconnected renewable energy system.”

Their concept is based on four key principles: a resilient system, city rotation, water utilisation and transitional zones – all based on the levels of the land and what its potential uses are.

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Resilience can be achieved by the individual satellite towns working together to address any weakness in the overall system, for example, if a power connection fails. As sea levels rise, the architects envision the fabric of the city being reconfigured, or rotated, to use different areas. This may mean that land that is submerged at one point could be used for agriculture if water levels in the area drop; they could also become industrial areas or waterways with a change in tide.

Utilisation turns the threat of water into an opportunity. Land for freshwater storage is preserved within satellite towns for future times when low-lying areas are lost. Transitional zones may be used for water harvesting and water treatment and could also be used for future developments in line with changing water levels.

This approach, the architects argue, could help create a city that does not get damaged by floods but can be flexible to the challenges created by rising water levels.

Living with water

Baca Architects’s re-imagining of Shanghai and the individual water projects they are working on, which will allow flood protection and water use at an individual level, stem from the main ideas behind the LifE project.

This study, which was funded by the UK Government, looked to change the way we think about living with water and concluded that we should take a non-defensive approach to flood risk management.

Water should be allowed onto urban sites, in a pre-determined manner, and not be completely blocked off, the architects argue. Responsible developments could reduce the risk of flooding and also utilise renewable technologies. This idea led them to develop a range of buildings that look to work with water, not against it.

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The amphibious house

The large-scale proposals for Shanghai show how a whole city could be transformed to accommodate water, but on a localised level there is also potential to develop technologies that allow individual homes to adapt to changes in the environment.

Areas of low-lying land, or land close to rivers, are always prone to flooding. Baca’s amphibious house is designed to reduce the impact of floods when they happen. It is built on a dock that rests on fixed foundations but can rise up with the water level and float, coping with up to 2.5m of flood water. To allow the house to float the upper levels are made of a lightweight timber construction that rests on the concrete hull.

The house has been designed to be future-proof to projected water levels in the Buckinghamshire area of the UK.

Baca director Richard Coutts says that those living in flood-prone areas need houses that help to protect them and their belongings. “It is not only their homes but also their communities that need to be designed to take this into account so that the consequences can be mitigated,” he adds. “Amphibious design is one of a host of solutions that can enable residents to live safely and to adapt to the challenges of climate change.”

The surroundings of the amphibious house have been designed to act as an early defence system to flooding. Terraces created on different levels will flood first, preventing the house from being hit by a flood wave all at once.

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The home that floods

In a more radical approach, Baca Architects are working with Aquobex Resilient Property on a building that can be flooded completely if water levels rise.

The Aquobox, due to be built at the BRE Innovation Park in Watford, UK, is a demonstration home that will be set in a tank and flooded on a daily basis to show how far flood resistant technology has progressed. Aquobox features a fully floadable kitchen as well as water-resistant nano-coatings, fire and flood-resistant boarding, automatic flood guards and water-resistant cavity wall insulation.

The nano-coatings are similar to those being developed to help clumsy smartphone and tablet users protect their gadgets from liquids. But Baca and Aquobex Resilient Property believe they could also be used to help protect homes from damage during floods.

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Looking at the bigger picture

Elsewhere, architects, designers and engineers are also looking at new ways to counter an age-old problem.

In New York, almost $1bn has been awarded to a number of infrastructure projects to create flood defences around New York City and New Jersey. The projects, which came out of a design competition earlier this year, include a   which will double up as a park and public space. It is intended to run more than two miles along the river and effectively raise the riverbank to nine feet above its current level.

But while these projects use the more conventional technique of keeping water out of individual areas of a city, the concepts outlined by Baca Architects are taking a view of the bigger picture. They incorporate the development of new technology as well as considering the sociological factors of food production, travel and growing populations.

Their approach takes into account in all the factors a city needs adapt to in order to deal with future environmental issues that lie outside our control. It is how we, as a society, should be looking to protect our living spaces for future generations.

Aquatecture by Baca Architects will be published by RIBA Publishing, early 2015.

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Featured image and images four and five courtesy of Baca Architects. Image one via chinahbzyg / Shutterstock.com