May 31, 2012
The Internet will evolve at tremendous speed in the next few years, encompassing more and more areas of our lives. New Internet services and applications will give rise to tighter requirements in terms of network security, dependability, and quality. This will be a necessary step, since the Internet as we know it today is actually teetering on the brink. Scholars like Freie Universität professor of computer science Mesut Güneş are working to ensure that it will be able to withstand this period of rapid development.
“The Internet as we know it today is based mainly on mechanisms and algorithms from the 1970s and 1980s. It isn’t designed at all for some of the applications we are currently using, like video telephony,” Güneş says. To put it in more colorful terms, you might say that digitally speaking, Internet users have been racing huge tractor-trailers over a wooden bridge that is actually designed only for compact cars – and they’ve been doing so for years. It’s only a matter of time before the “bridge” breaks under the load, or before the Internet breaks down, unable to keep up with the progress made by new applications.
Güneş and his colleagues in the Computer Systems & Telematics work group, part of the national research platform German Lab (G-Lab), deal with issues like these. With funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), researchers at a number of German universities and technology firms have been working on the Internet of the future for several years now. Researchers at G-Lab are pursuing a two-pronged approach. First, they are studying whether it is possible to modify the current Internet to ensure that new applications will also work perfectly. The second approach is the “clean slate” option, in which the “old” technology would be put on hold and a completely new one developed in its place. Güneş and his colleagues will spend the next several years on the question of which of these two approaches will be better for the future Internet: Will it be enough to add a couple of supports to the “wooden bridge” that is our current Internet, or does it need to be torn down and replaced with something that will hold up in the long term as well?
“Technologically speaking, we will face challenges in the future that we cannot even fully grasp right now,” Güneş says. “We don’t know yet what structures will in fact be necessary for the Internet of the future, how the mass of data is to be transmitted, who will process them, and where or how they are supposed to be stored.”
The researchers at G-Lab are faced with a huge undertaking. “For comparison, you could say we currently have experience building ten-story buildings. In the future, though, we want to design some that have a thousand stories,” says Güneş. And once the fundamental technology for the future Internet is up and running, how will it affect our everyday lives? “Right now, you have to use your imagination,” Güneş says. “But in general, the Internet of the future is supposed to help improve the way people live as part of communities and societies.”
One of the researchers’ visions of the future is that of the “smart city”: a city that addresses its residents’ individual needs – whether those residents are children, young adults, or older people. To achieve that, the city would be equipped with tiny computers, or, as Güneş calls them, “feelers for the Internet.” Each network of sensors would function like a sensory organ for the city, based on tiny computers – about the size and shape of a circuit board – with miniature antennas. And they would enable electronic communication between people, their surroundings, and machines, entirely without a keyboard or screen.
The digital world will increasingly become part of our physical environment – a scenario called the “Web of Things.” This development brings with it a whole host of possibilities, including a vision of intelligent road networks: “Traffic signals could change according to current traffic conditions as measured by the sensors,” Güneş explains. And a person’s own four walls could also become a living organism as the electrical grid and new developments in information technology are merged together: A washing machine could start automatically right when electricity rates are lowest, or users who forget to turn the stove off before leaving the house could simply click an option on their smartphone to neutralize the risk from wherever they are, with no need to panic.