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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”