In Singapore during a presentation in May 2008, Vin Cerf shares his 3Bs of successful public speaking – be brief, be funny and be seated – when he presents the future of the Internet. Picture by Francis Chin

Robotic clones to do your donkey work

PRETTY soon, you won’t be able to tell what’s real and what’s virtual. There will be nothing to stop you from getting real objects to interact with virtual objects, or the other way round.

Students, for instance, can do real science in a virtual environment, so that there is no need to go through the trouble of setting up physical laboratories with Bunsen burners, test tubes, and flasks of mysterious liquids. The environment may be virtual but you can still touch and “hold” the test tubes, by wearing a pair of sensory gloves. In fact, touch will become an essential part of computing, like keyboard typing and moving your mouse.

Technological innovations are accelerating at breakneck speed; what is fantasy today will be reality tomorrow.

For instance, 3D hologram projections are now beginning to be popular. If you need to make a presentation in two places simultaneously, you can simply do a holographic recording of yourself giving the speech and then transmitting the file over to the event where your physical presence is not so crucial.

Holographic images, however, no matter how high-resolution, still have that “hollow” ghostly appearance. Not to worry, given two to three more decades, you should be creating physical editions of yourself.

These Terminator 2.0 robots will have enough AI (artificial intelligence) to look like you, talk like you, think like you and act like you. Instead of you having to travel somewhere to attend an event or meet someone, Terminator 2.0 will do the legwork and the donkey work, while you sit back at home to watch the proceeding, and occasionally interject some commands when you feel your robot is getting out of hand!

Today, NASA spent billions to send a piece of clumsy contraption to Mars, and when it lands, there is no guarantee that its antennas, solar panels, cameras and motors will work. Tomorrow, you can send your clone to be your eyes and ears on the Red Planet.

The playful visions of what the near future holds, were presented by Vinton Cerf, considered one of two individuals responsible for inventing the technology that made the Internet possible in 1983.

As “founding father”, Vin has certain expectations of what his Internet child will grow up to be. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of over 200 tech-savvy individuals on a Friday evening in May 2008, in Singapore, he outlined the likely scenarios over the next three decades.

Now an Internet Evangelist for Google, Vin brings the “good news” (evangelists are bearers of good news) that by 2035, for instance, we will be immersed in an “information ecology” covered by a mesh of wireless and fibre optic cables. In this future world, social and working life would be finely networked, and information-sharing and information transmission will no longer be constrained by bandwidth or storage capacity.

Information cheap and pervasive

With fibre, for example, we will have terabits of access, which are thousands of times faster than current gigabits, he says. At this rate, there is little need for video streaming. Entire gigabytes of video files can be transferred very quickly for us to view later.

The prices of personal storage, too, have been tumbling. “In 1979, I bought a 10MB hard disk for over US$1,000. Today, I am paying $600 for 2 terabytes (i.e. 2 million MB),” Vin observes. Users will not think twice about downloading all kinds of contents, no matter what the file size.

There will still be live streaming for real-time news updates and public service announcements, of course. But the majority of video files (movies, documentaries, personal recordings, and so on) will be downloaded and played directly on the user’s hard disk.

With video residing in your storage disk, you control when and which portions of the file you want to watch. Naturally, you will delete commercials, hence it is no longer practical to have separate advertising footages spliced into the overall video narrative.

Instead, Vin says it will become commonplace to see product placements becoming an integral part of the content. When the actor puts on running shoes, the audience will see clearly the shoes are from Nike, and when he uses his laptop, the Apple logo will be prominently displayed on the screen cover.

And if you want to see details of the product, just mouse over it, says Vin. In this way, control is handed back to the viewer, and there will be no commercial interruption if you don’t want it.

Another future happening will be the high level of control that users have, over not just the type of information that is posted and shared on the Web, but also its quality. “You can instantly make small but crucial corrections in the wording of an article published on, say, Wikipedia, something you can’t do with traditional media,” he says.

Vin sees little point in publishers still producing paper-bound newspapers and magazine for physical circulation. Perhaps, the only printed stuff will be special editions to celebrate an anniversary or the launch of an important campaign. Everything else will be posted online and being continually amended and improved on by readers, similar to what is being done today to open-source code.

In this way, published information will no longer be static, but a living organism that develops and grows, depending on the contributions and effort from readers.

Intelligent kitchen

The information ecology extends even to your kitchen, says Vin. Not only cell phones and handheld devices, but refrigerators too will be Internet-enabled. The fridge door is traditionally where family members stick bits of notes using magnets. You will soon see Internet screens on the door that will also display what’s inside your fridge, and what food and drink items you need to replenish.

The fridge can be linked to your weighing scale, and if you exceed your permissible weight limit, the scale could send a command to prevent you opening the fridge for unauthorised snacks, says Vin.

But what he would personally like to see is a memory chip inside every bottle of wine. “I have 3,000 bottles in my cellar and I really would like to know the condition of the wine inside each bottle. If there’s a chip to monitor the condition, then I can know which bottle is ready to be uncorked, and which bottle is turning sour and ought to be given to friends!”

Extending the human body

Finally, the tech evangelist foresees a future where electronics can supplement and extend the human bodily capabilities. It is already happening now, says Vin who quotes the example of his wife who has been deaf since the age of three.

Recently she was able to hear again, thanks to the marvels of a cochlear implant. The device replaces the cochlea (inner ear for hearing) by performing the task of the damaged hair cells, that provide electrical stimulation to nerve fibres in the cochlea.

The device is surgically implanted under the skin and includes a receiver/stimulator, antenna, magnet, and internal electrode array. An external speech processor picks up sound and processes it as digital signals that are sent to a transmitting coil worn on the back of the patient’s head. The coil sends the coded signals to the implant which uses the electrode array to stimulate the auditory nerve fibres which the brain interprets as sound.

There will be more and more of such devices to augment the body, says Vin. The best known are exoskeletons that are strapped over a soldier which then able him to jump farther or carry heavier loads.

For corporations and large organisations, cloud computing (putting your data and applications on some remote host servers), business and research collaboration in a virtual environment, largescale databases and data mining for planning and projection will be the norm, says Vin of this brave new tech world.

Father of the Internet

The 64-year-old computer scientist has been recognised as one of the “fathers of the Internet”. His contributions to the Internet have won him many awards, including the US National Medal of Technology, the Turing Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As an assistant professor at Stanford University from 1972-1976, Vin conducted research on packet network interconnection protocols and co-designed the DoD TCP/IP protocol suite with Robert Kahn. Vin now works for Google as its Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist.

Vin says he travels almost 80 percent of the time, always wearing his trademark three-piece suit, “like a 19th Century gentleman in a 21st Century world”. Looking very much like a well-tailored, slim version of Santa Claus, Vin remarked that when he joined Google, he hoped to raise the sartorial standards of its employees who wear only T-shirts and jeans. It was a losing battle, though. – May, 2008

Bystander Front Page

Vinton Cerf at a presentation in Singapore, May 2008. Picture by Francis Chin