10/12/2015 08:08 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2016

Internet and Society - Looking Toward the Future

By Vinton G. Cerf
Past President, ACM
Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google

The Internet is seemingly everywhere, thanks to smartphones, high-speed radio and fiber networks, social network applications, and the Web. But, in fact, only about 3 billion people are thought to be online. It is plausible that another 3 billion may find their way onto the Internet by the end of the decade. Moreover, we are at the leading edge of the arrival of many Internet-enabled devices: the Internet of Things.

Our daily lives and the infrastructure we depend on are increasingly affected by the operational reliability, security, safety and privacy of the Internet and its applications. We hear, with increasing frequency, about the penetration of systems containing vitally important personal information. We worry, with good reason, about our privacy and our safety as more devices become observable and even controllable through the Internet, often using applications on our smartphones.

We wonder about the nature of work in an increasingly online environment and what jobs will come and which will go with the increasing use of computers and other programmable devices. We see huge benefits from the information we find on the vast information universe of the Web and at the same time we feel challenged by the need to evaluate that information for its accuracy and utility. These challenges will not recede.

Science is increasingly about computation, big data analysis and simulation, as we can see from reports about computational biology, physics, chemistry and climate dynamics. More and more, computers lie at the center of a data-centric universe. At ACM, we can see some extraordinary improvements in natural language translation and understanding, machine learning, and image processing, among many other topics, found in the publications of the ACM Digital Library. We have tools today that can put us in touch with all of the world's information at the click of a mouse. ACM's Special Interest Groups are drawing diverse and wide-ranging talent into the dialog of the future of computing and its applications.

Wearable devices are coming or have arrived that make the notion of "quantified self" a reality. Continuous monitoring and gathering of vital signs and health information makes it possible to detect abnormal conditions before they become a serious hazard. We can establish a "baseline" for "normal" and alert others to departures from that baseline for individuals we are tracking.

Rapid analysis of genetic samples is leading to a nearly instantaneous ability to detect exposure to a wide range of pathogens and also to a deeper understanding of the role of the "bacteriome" that resides in our digestive system and plays such an important role in our health and well-being. We have evolved together and our digestive system has become a critical part of our immune system. We are what our bacteria eat and excrete!

Computers, computational algorithms, new forms of computing such as quantum computing, and the aggregation of large amounts of measured data have set the stage for new discoveries and insights about the world around us and in us. It seems inevitable that computing will infuse all aspects of science and research and must now become a part of the regular school curriculum along with traditional science and mathematics courses. Indeed, the recent announcement by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio that all city public schools will be required to offer computer science to all students within ten years underscores this. ACM and its Special Interest Groups are at the center of this nova computatio, and its members have an opportunity to articulate the important role of computing in everyday life. This is an important portfolio, and as responsible computer scientists, programmers and data processing experts, we have an obligation to speak to the benefits and the potential hazards of a world steeped in computing. We are equally obligated to exercise, to our best ability, the mitigation of hazards that our dependence on computing and networking poses.

I, for one, am very enthusiastic about this evolving information universe, recognizing that there are serious challenges to overcome to make it one in which our civilization will thrive.