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Happy Birthday, the Internet becomes 50 years old

Last Edit: 29/10/19

On the 29th of October 1969, the first host-to-host connection was established -- by Bill Duvall and Charley Kline -- on the experimental wide-area computer network ARPANET. Funded by the US military, the project was headed by Lawrence Roberts, who was hired in 1967 by Robert Taylor, the head of the ARPA Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). ARPANET is generally acknowledged as the computer network that evolved to become the Internet; although the modern commercial Internet only took shape by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. The past 25 years has seen the Internet have a seismic influence on human commerce, social networks and way of life. The first 25 years of the Internet's life saw its software and hardware systems largely be used for military, research and educational purposes. While the early planners of wide area networks, such as Joseph Licklider, envisaged a technology that would impact all areas of human life, the military had a more simple idea: they wanted a communications system with no central hub, that could survive an attack on some of its installations but continue to function; not being reliant on a central 'brain' that could be 'taken out'.

The US military would eventually separate the military use of the network from the research/educational use, and in the 1980s it would fall on educational organisations like the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue to fund the research side of the Internet. It was the research/education side of the network, named NSFNET, that would morph into the commercial Internet of the modern era. Senator Al Gore was crucial during this era, crafting the "Gore Bill" (High Performance Computing Act of 1991) that helped fund the transition of the Internet from a restricted access educational network to an information superhighway that could be accessed by anyone with a home telephone line and a modern computer. While the Internet is now global in scope, its root was in the United States -- there were European competing network protocol suites in the 1970s and 1980s -- and therefore it should be of no surprise that the heart of Internet innovation has been located in North America, specifically California (Palo Alto). While there are some large Chinese Internet companies ( JD.com, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu) the majority of the largest Internet companies are located in North America (Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Paypal, eBay, Expedia, Uber, Twitter, GoDaddy, Airbnb, TripAdvisor and Grubhub).

So, what about the Internet's future? the BBC recently conducted an interview with the co-creator of TCP/IP -- the software the Internet runs upon -- Vint Cerf, and asked that exact question. Vint Cerf would say, "the 2000's saw the rise of social network, and these have been subverted by people who like to use them to interject misinformation and disinformation, into the system, for political and other nefarious reasons." Cerf would go on to state that 'we' have a challenge in the future to ensure that people can distinguish between quality and poor quality information. Cerf questioned whether AI and machine learning will be capable of sorting 'bad' information from 'good', and that it may lead to censorship. Therefore it is vital that people are taught to distinguish, by themselves, between quality and poor quality information, rather than relaying solely on machine learning. Finally, Cerf saw the long term future of the Internet being outside of the planet Earth, with the Internet having an interplanetary backbone infrastructure located on the Earth, International space station and on Mars. With the Internet helping to facilitate human and robotic exploration of the universe.

Some other future Internet predictions/issues that are widely discussed online include: virtual reality headseats creating an augmented reality; machines taking over many manual and skilled jobs; more devices connecting to the Internet so as to create 'smart' cities; privacy becoming a bigger issue as Internet enabled devices interfere with more everyday tasks; wireless access overtaking wired access; the concept of net neutrality being further eroded; the Internet influencing the way in which people think and potentially evolve as a species; the destruction of traditional national boundaries and cultural identities; machines will think for humans and erode people's ability to make a free choice in their day-to-day activities; Internet usage increases greatly in developing countries (early example is Google's African Internet Balloons).