Many people have pondered what the next generation of the Internet will be. One theory has been that the next generation will be more personal linking to the Internet, and with many of the new inventions planned for release like Google Glass and Apple iWatch, that is, to some degree, true. Our personal connection to the Internet and increased accessibility is inevitable, but these mostly duplicate or enhance functions that are already available through many smartphones.
I foresee the next generation as the Rise of the Machines… an Internet where machines constantly talk to other machines, with little or no human involvement. In some ways this has already begun. Just watch what your computer does when you boot. Is it immediately ready for you? No, your computer goes on the Internet and speaks with other machines first—it checks for software updates, checks various feeds for messages and news updates, etc. But that is just the beginning.
Imagine a world where:
- Your refrigerator monitors its contents and automatically submits an order for groceries to replenish the supplies you been using or replace items nearing expiration.
- People with medical conditions wear a monitoring device that automatically assesses their condition and blood chemistry and alerts the doctor and pharmacy to alter their prescriptions.
- Airplanes in flight self-diagnose mechanical problems and alert ground computers to schedule maintenance and replacement parts immediately upon landing.
- Your automobile GPS alerts your home when you’re getting near so your house prepares the environmental systems for your arrival, bringing up the heat, turning on lights and maybe even start heating your dinner.
- Cars on autopilot talk to other nearby cars to let them know their locations and intentions, asking the other cars to a make a hole so you can merge or exit.
The possibilities here are not yet even fully imaginable, but the changes it will bring about will be significant to every aspect of our lives. While people accessing the Internet is a game changer, machines communicating with machines via the Internet is a sea change. Our lives will be altered in deep and profound ways.
In many ways I look forward to the coming times with enthusiasm, but I also harbor deep concerns about the risk, which are at least twofold.
For one there is the risk of how this will affect society. Will this improve society, giving us more time to socialize and pursue more rewarding ventures, or will this further serve to isolate us? You can already see the trend of how the Internet has both connected and isolated us. We chat with our friends in other cities and states on a daily basis (albeit mostly in sound bites with limited substance), but we ignore the person sitting next to us on a train as we stare into the screen of our Internet-connected device. Our social skills are changing—improving in some ways, but diminishing in others. Will the art of conversation and our ability to read facial expressions and empathize with others simply be lost one day? It’s a real risk.
And then there’s the other risk. The risk of total, unrecoverable collapse. I discussed this some in a previous article, Are We Becoming Too Dependent on the Internet, and that warning still rings true. The next generation of the Internet will make us more dependent than ever before. And with machines talking to machines, it’s possible we could lose both the skills needed to operate the machines and the ability to do so manually. Additionally, the constant chatter of the machines will make the Internet more difficult to control, manage and diagnose, and thereby, put us at even greater risk from cyber-attacks, software glitches and other technical problems.
The infrastructure of our society may soon depend on the Internet, and a cascading failure could bring down everything. We may, at the very peak of human existence, suddenly find ourselves cold and alone in the dark. And humans, at least those in the modern world, many no longer have the skills or the tools needed to survive without the Internet.
So look ahead with enthusiasm to what may come with the rise of the machines. It could bring about an unimaginable and wonderful future, but caveat emptor.