Image: Timothy Hogan/Innovega
The 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web came and went yesterday, along with the requisite retrospectives and predictions for the next quarter-century of innovation. But few reports forecasting the future of the web pointed out that in the future, there may not be a web. At least not as we know it now, as place you “go” or “visit,” because the next generation of the internet could be people themselves.
The "Internet of X" is a buzzphrase we're starting to hear a lot: Beyond the much-discussed Internet of Things, there's now the Internet of Pets, the Internet of Plants, and, most interestingly, the nascent Internet of Bodies.
In other words, 25 years from now gadgets like smartphones, smartwatches, augmented glasses, virtual reality headgear, and the myriad other devices merging humans and the internet may be laughably antiquated. Computers will become so tiny they can be embedded under the skin, implanted inside the body, or integrated into a contact lens and stuck on top of your eyeball.
Naturally, those machines will be wifi-enabled, so it’s feasible that anything you can do with your phone now you could do with your gaze or gestures in a few decades. And maybe even more, as augmented reality and virtual reality come out of infancy and proliferate beyond awkward and cumbersome devices like Google Glass or the Oculus Rift.
What could go wrong? Well, what don't you want people doing to your body?
Imagine an implantable sensor in your arm that can display a person's contact information when you shake their hand, or an augmented contact lens that projects a map in front of your eyes as you walk around. It's not that crazy; smart and augmented contacts are already in development, people are getting digital tattoos, biohackers are sticking computer chips under their skin, and there are several startups selling technology to annotate the world.
I got a glimpse of the annotated future at SXSW this week, demo-ing the new HD Oculus Rift prototypes. One virtual reality experience transported me to a 360-degree 3D environment where VR artists were talking about their work, and a floating digital caption hovered in front of them as they talked, displaying their name and bio. As I looked at it, the caption tilted and moved according to my gaze to make it easy to read, and disappeared when I focused back on the people. Now imagine that without the bulky headset.
But don't take my word for it; many techsperts agree this is the direction the web is heading in. A Pew report published this week called Digital Life in 2025 predicted that the internet will become invisible‚ like electricity, and augmented reality devices will finally become widespread.
“We will grow accustomed to seeing the world through multiple data layers,” the report states. “This will change a lot of social practices, such as dating, job interviewing and professional networking, and gaming, as well as policing and espionage.”
Web pioneer Nathaniel Borenstein echoed this in a phone chat yesterday. Borenstein is best-known as the engineer that invented multimedia messaging—i.e. the first person to send an email attachment. It was photo and audio of his barbershop quartet singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." Now Chief Scientist for the software company Mimecast, he has a penchant for predicting the future, and likes to point out he's been right before.
"You have all this information—I was going to say at your fingertips, but it's actually at your cornea," he laughed.
The downside, he said, is that privacy would really be dead in the ground. You could meet someone in a bar and know everything about them before you even say hello. Or film everything they do and say without their permission or knowledge. It's creepy and unspontaneous at best, but also opens the door to scams, cons, cybercrime, and exploitation of people's personal data—everything that’s already happening on the web today, but magnified.
Google Glass is already stirring up such concerns, which is why some bars are banning the device. But basic restrictions and laws may not be a sustainable solution if augmented gadgets become so small you can't see them, Borenstein pointed out. "While I certainly applaud it for now, it's a finger in the dyke."
Which leads us back to implantable tech and our increasingly cyborg future. Wireless biosensors are already common in the medical industry, but now DIY biohackers are also experimenting with computerizing their own bodies. And while walking around with embedded microchips monitoring every body function could help us keep tabs on our personal health, prevent or treat disease, and maybe even live longer, the dystopian scenario is rather terrifying.
“What could go wrong? Well, what don't you want people doing to your body?" Borenstein said.
For instance, if an internet-enabled machine is tracking your heartbeat, and a hacker takes over control, they could kill you from halfway around the world. We don't have to stare years into the future to imagine this; Dick Cheney worried that someone would tamper with his wireless-connected defibrillator to try and take him out, and some security firms are already preparing for the possibility of remote assassination.
Beyond internet-enabled murder, melding of man and machine also conjures up Big Brother fears of the government tracking your every move. Imagine if the NSA could not only read your email, but measure your pulse as well. We may have to start worrying about encrypting our DNA.
Borenstein, as well as the Pew study, predicted the cybersecurity industry will boom. “The amount of effort people are going to put into security is going to be proportional to the threat; it always has been,” Borenstein said. “People won’t care until they have something they're afraid of losing.”
If the tracking and hacking that’s increasingly threatening the web expands to include your car, your cat, your TV, your smart home, and possibly yourself, there’s a lot more at stake.