Thirty years ago this month, the first website on what we then knew as the World Wide Web went live.
Our question for this week’s panel of experts: What will the internet look and feel like 30 years from now?
President & CEO, PayPal
“The internet as we know it is long past being just pages on the web, but rather it is an entire digital ecosystem through which we live a significant part of our lives.
"This ecosystem created a new digital economy, which, in turn, set off a transformation in financial services, giving us the opportunity to reimagine the global financial system into something more equal, inclusive and accessible.
"The pandemic has further accelerated this transformation by three to five years. There is no turning back to the way we worked, the way we lived or the way we paid for things.
"My hope is that the internet continues to be a catalyst for greater financial health of populations around the globe, so that everyone — not just the affluent — may participate and benefit from the innovations and betterment that digital technologies continue to bring forward."
Chief product officer, Wikimedia Foundation
"First of all, 30 years from now, everybody’s going to be online. This doesn’t just include everybody in your town, school or church; it's everybody in the world.
"And thanks to advances in translation technology, we’ll all be able to talk to each other. Everyone will be a builder on the internet of the future instead of a few large commercial platforms taking up the majority of the space online.
"That doesn’t mean everyone will become a web developer overnight. Instead, there will be an internet focused on communities, an internet that exists both locally and globally. The internet will connect networks of local information, resources and individuals together, while at the same time creating ways for local issues and conversations to reach global audiences.
"People from Argentina to Zambia will have an opportunity to play a crucial role in the global challenges we collectively face, such as climate change, poverty and public health. Power will shift from colonial centers of technology development to local hubs where users are empowered to contribute to their internet. Platforms will focus on supporting these user communities, not just the websites and the content they generate.
"Right now, only 2 percent of all content online is available in Arabic, the fifth most-used language in the world. By contrast, the internet of the future will be rich in languages and perspectives.
"A new user based in Ghana will no longer be forced to toggle between websites in English and Akan. Instead, information will be available online in all of the 80 languages spoken in her home country. Search will be language agnostic, and when she looks up a single concept, she’ll be able to find answers in all of the languages she speaks.
"With this flood of content in more languages will come new perspectives, ideas that are most accurately conveyed in certain languages. Imagine being able to look up the early kingdoms of Indonesia, and be presented with not only the English interpretations of that history, but original primary sources written in Javanese and local indigenous languages.
"Perhaps most importantly, we will build social structures on the internet that incentivize common ground over conflict. This may sound similar to the model of Wikipedia, where editors have built processes to debate and resolve differing viewpoints in order to keep an edit in a Wikipedia article.
"For example, the Wikipedia article on climate change illustrates a polarizing issue where a global community of volunteers has come together to work on making information neutral and reliable, without bias. Projects like Wikipedia on the internet will allow us to build a shared understanding of what’s true.
"With an agreed-upon shared fact base, we will be able to connect people through common causes and create pathways for conversation and collaboration. Everyone is a builder of the internet, and that individual ownership will motivate users to find consensus and move forward.
"Communities will come together to shape identity more so than divisive beliefs. The future internet will be a place where people who have been at odds over issues big and small can find common ground."
CEO, Hewlett Packard Enterprise
"My vision for the future is to have an internet accessible to all.
"Technology foundations exist today to close the digital divide and make connectivity for all a reality, offering a gateway to critical services like remote learning and telemedicine. It will take effort for business leaders to bring this connectivity, regardless of geographic location, ethnicity and economic background.
"As a CEO of a global company, I’m consistently thinking about how to deliver outcomes that benefit all of society. Through my work with the World Economic Forum, I’m grateful to be part of a group of thoughtful technologists who are mindful of existing inequalities and willing to collaborate to apply technology in new and meaningful ways for the benefit of all.
"Together, this incredible group of CEOs and experts are developing new frameworks and toolkits to take active roles in driving social change.
"If technologists keep up the momentum and continue to radically rethink how we make decisions and maximize the societal benefits of innovation, I am confident that the internet will be more accessible and the world more digitally inclusive."
Director, UI’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications
"The Internet that I’d like to see in 30 years will provide me just the information I need, when I need it — not just anything that might be relevant for me to weed through.
"And that means especially making connections that I wouldn’t have thought of — here’s some art that will be take your breath away, a story that will change the way you look at the world, a colleague that will help an idea take flight."
Award-winning tech writer and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society
“I’m an optimist, because I believe the digital world is one that fundamentally empowers people and institutions to do their best. Also, by favoring everybody, digital technology and the internet will eventually free us from imagining that only giants can do the best work.
“Historically speaking, the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons of today are modern versions of the railroad, banking and oil giants of the early industrial age, and will inevitably be obsolesced if they aren’t controlled first by government intervention.
“To get a picture of what comes after this mess ends, think about what you would want if you could write on the internet with a clean digital slate. Here is one short and partial list:
“Personal privacy. We’ll invent it, just as we invented the privacy tech called clothing and shelter in the natural world, thousands of years ago.
“Freedom from having to always agree to others’ terms and conditions. We should be able to say ‘Don’t track me off your site or beyond your business,’ or ‘Don’t share what you know about me with anyone else without my permission.’
“The ability to take our own shopping cart from site to site — without having to operate only inside Amazon, eBay or Walmart.
“The ability to be social with other people — without algorithms nudging you into an opinionated tribe.
“The end of unwelcome advertising. In a mature digital world, there will be many more and better ways for demand and supply to find each other and do business than what’s possible with broad mass market advertising or the targeted personal kind.
“So yes, some advertising will survive, but not the kinds everyone hates.
“What and how much of this will happen by 2051 is impossible to know. But it is possible to work toward it.
“That’s what I’m doing in my life, and I’m not alone.”
UI computer science professor
"The future of the internet, and that of computing, is immersive.
"We will be able to immerse ourselves in real or virtual worlds with family, friends and colleagues sitting in different places. We will be able to interact with these worlds as if they were reality, not just in terms of what we see and hear, but also what we smell and feel, through a large number of interconnected sensing, computing and communicating devices that will be all around us and on us.
"This notion of eXtended reality, or XR, will not only change how we interact with each other, but change every endeavor of human activity, be it medicine, sports, education, science, entertainment, design, travel and more.
"To enable this vision, however, requires a huge amount of interdisciplinary research enabling not just much faster, energy-efficient, secure, privacy-preserving, reliable and sustainable computing and networking, but a far deeper understanding of humans and humanity itself."
Pioneering Purdue professor, Internet Hall of Fame inductee
“The internet technology hasn't changed much in the last 30 years — the changes have been in the way individuals, companies, organizations and governments view and use the internet. The internet is now used for new and interesting forms of communication , especially the internet of things.
“In the future, communication will be embedded in most activities, and being disconnected will be a surprising anomaly. We will think of internet communication as essential.
“The big question about the future is not what will happen, but when.
"One important segment of society remains stuck in the pre-internet stone age: laws and consequent regulation. Unlike science and engineering, which build on discoveries and principles, our modern legal system operates on the basis of case law. As a result, laws and the interpretations of laws from the physical world do not apply directly to the cyber world.
"Early in the internet project, I was consulting for a law firm that wanted to understand the legal aspects of Distributed-Denial-of Service attacks. I described how such attacks work, and explained that launching a DDoS attack against a competitor's web site was analogous to hiring 500 people to block the doors of the competitor's business to prevent customers from entering.
"I quipped: 'There's gotta be a law against that sort of thing.'
“The lawyers were surprised by my naivete, and explained that courts only consider statutes written for the internet or legal precedents from another court case. Without laws about DDoS attacks, one could not declare that they are illegal.
"Similarly, government regulations written for telecom communications had to be rewritten before they could be used with internet communication. The notion that unethical actions on the internet might not actually be illegal invited trouble.
“In the short term, the internet will continue to operate like the early days of the wild west, when it was a race between bank owners building thicker walls and bank robbers using more gunpowder.
"In the long term, we'll all agree the internet has become a key part of societal infrastructure that needs to be protected. We'll install regulations and pass strict laws against cybercrime, just as we did for bank robbery.
"People will be able to depend on the internet just as they depend on banks and other financial institutions. They will use the internet casually, and will assume that internet communication is as safe and confidential and telephone communication.
“The only question is whether all that will happen in 30 short years. I’m pessimistic.”
Chief scientist, Microsoft
“I imagine people will have become experts at teaching the AI systems that underlie the web, not just through their interactions — by clicking on a link — or labeling data — by tagging a friend in a photo — but by setting the system’s goals and shaping how the underlying models evolve.
“People will intentionally seek out new knowledge and be rewarded for finding different ways of looking at things. This will enable the creation of rich, personal views of the world: what one person learned over the course of a lifetime, the wisdom of a family, the intellectual property of a company.
“Our collective job in the coming decades is to ensure the knowledge we create — and the process of creating it — makes the world better.”
“Ninety-nine percent wireless, always on, 10G directly to an implant.”
Director of internet and technology research, Pew Research Center
"Every year for the past 16 years, we have canvassed hundreds of technology experts and analysts about the future of the internet and their answers over time have been remarkably consistent about the trends that will unfold in the coming decades.
"They believe the internet will become ‘like electricity’ — less visible, yet more deeply embedded in people’s lives for good and ill.
"Several mega-trends will roll out, according to these experts.
"First, there will be a global, immersive, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors — including 'smart dust — as well as cameras, software, databases and massive data centers. Internet-connected devices will be in our bodies, homes, communities, workplaces and the environment itself thanks to the ubiquity of sensors that will be monitoring everything from air and water quality to leaky pipes in buildings.
"Second, there will be real and virtual enhancements to much of human activity, including cognition. Artificial intelligence and algorithms will be ubiquitous and people will exploit them through the use of portable, wearable, implantable technologies and autonomous tools like drones and driverless vehicles.
"Third, social and business encounters will be shaped by virtual reality and telepresence and personal enhancements and extensions like holograms and personal smart agents. Interfaces with data and objects will change and become easier. Speech- and gesture-orchestrated interfaces will matter as much or more that text and tactile interfaces matter now. Rich, immersive experiences will proliferate.
"These experts believe several clear benefits will emerge in this world:
"Information sharing over the internet will be effortlessly interwoven into daily life making us smarter, safer, more efficient. ‘Computication’ involving ‘smart agents’ will be commonplace and that will advance productivity and enhance leisure.
"Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, wearable devices and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior — which will especially improve health care and education.
"The environment and structures and essential systems themselves will become ‘intelligent’ and expand our knowledge about them — plus, enable their own ‘maintenance’ and ‘repairs.’
"They also see darker trends:
"Privacy will be more at risk and something perhaps only the privileged will enjoy.
"The nature of work will change in unprecedented ways as robots and artificial intelligence assume greater roles in job functions.
"Dangerous new divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.
"Everything will be vulnerable to hacking.
"Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing. Those pursuing crime, bullying, stalking and dirty tricks will have new, powerful tools. And the lazy, credulous, hapless and vulnerable will be even more exploited.
"Humans and their organizations may not respond quickly enough to the challenges presented by complex networks."