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The Internet at 50


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Saurabh Bagchi

This post was originally two separate posts on the blog Distant Whispers from an Academic Engineer's World.

Part 1: Celebrating Three Victories

The Internet had a rather unobtrusive 50th birthday on October 29, 2019, celebrated in a low-key style mainly in the quiet hallways frequented by technologists. It has come a long way from the first unintended message "lo" sent by Leonard Kleinrock and Charley Kline at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to SRI in Menlo Park.

Much has been written about the health of the Internet today, and some has been written about where we are headed. Here, I will offer a personalized take on three things that I think we have to celebrate about the Internet today, and the amazing lining-up of geniuses, corporate interests, and circumstantial discoveries that led us to these. In Part 2, I offer my list of items where we have work to do to make the Internet an even better accompaniment for humanity.

Watson, I Do Hear You

Hands down, the big win, the egalitarian win, has been in the way the Internet has helped connect people around the world across social, economic, and geographical boundaries.

The connection can happen whether you are at the end of a lowly feature phone or behind a style-icon Apple product. The connection can happen whether you are among the uber-connected or among those who have to watch every kilobyte of data because it costs so much. Sure, the quality of the connection will vary, determining whether you can play an online multiplayer game or have to content yourself with the plebeian email, but to a majority of the world, the Internet has brought the medium to communicate down to a reachable limit. This is quite a wonder, even to we who know the innards of its workings, considering how many different computing platforms and network devices there are. Yet thanks to the world agreeing to use some standard protocols (TCP, UDP, IP, HTTP … need I befuddle you more with the alphabet soup?), this seemingly wondrous aspiration has become routine.

A majority of the world can connect to the Internet, but only a bare majority. Some parts of that majority have to jump through hoops like VPN and Tor to ensure their communication is safe. To the connected part of the world, the Internet has given the ability to communicate in almost-real-time, at low cost and low effort.

Fly, Fly Away

Freeing information to roam the vast reaches of the Internet is another big win. This is not an unblemished win, but still comes down strongly on the right side of the ledger.

The Internet has been the big enabler for information to free itself from the shackles put upon it by pundits who believe information is best kept in hard-to-reach ivory towers. Information in the form of streams of zeroes and ones, the bits and the bytes, are stored in a dizzying variety of places and are communicated through a dizzying array of communication technologies to be consumed on a dizzying range of devices. Data is plentiful, and those who can conjure knowledge out of data are the magicians of today, but without the enabling mechanism of the Internet, the best data analytics algorithms would not be able to do their magic.

I am reminded of an analogy about how the printing press had enabled dissemination of "knowledge" to the masses. The Internet cannot make quite that bold claim of "knowledge," but it can justifiably claim to enable the dissemination of information, which can be empowering to the student in a dark part of the world who can now prove her caliber in computer science topics and come and join us at Purdue for graduate studies; it can be empowering to the farmer in a far-flung rural area who can learn the price his produce can get in each reachable market before he makes the arduous trip to one of them; it can be empowering the adult learner who aspires to escape the drudgery of her job to embrace a career for the first time.

In Service of the Optimistic Entrepreneur

The heading above seems misleading to me even as I type it. Is there any other kind of entrepreneur but the optimistic kind? You have to be the glass-way-full kind of a person to create an enterprise out of your prized idea and put it out there in front of the world, but I would argue the Internet has made life a little less of a spin of the roulette wheel for an entrepreneur.

With the Internet's reaches into talent anywhere in the world, an entrepreneur can create a team with the right set of people quickly. No longer are we at the vagaries of large hiring corporations. With the Internet's above-mentioned reaches into vast swaths of information, an entrepreneur can educate herself on what pain points are being felt by people in various strata, what headwinds are to be expected, and what opportunities exist in different geographies. Beyond human capital, the plain old material and capital are also easier to access through the connectivity brought about by the internet.

There is strong evidence that entrepreneurial activity picks up with the rise of connectivity [also WWW]. There is also strong evidence that economic prosperity rises with the rise of local entrepreneurial activity [also PDF]. In both cases, it is difficult to pin down the direction of causality definitively, but to most analyses there appears a strong positive correlation. The possibility of gaining a talented workforce free from the constraints of geography clearly has negative effects as well, the most talked of being that it reduces labor rates. The economists can debate this far and long, but from my vantage I see that the overall trend in both developing economies and developed has been positive.

In Conclusion

The Internet has changed the world we live and play in. It is routinely ranked in popular opinion polls as being among the most transformative accomplishments in our history. Here I have looked at three victories that I chalk up to the internet. The first is the myriad channels for communication that it has opened up, taming to some extent the tyranny of geographic distance. The second is the flowering of creativity as information flies freely to far corners of the internet. Even as our age creates tools to create knowledge out of the deluge of information, let us work to keep that information flying (or meandering) freely. The third aspect is the blossoming of entrepreneurial activity thanks to the reaches of the internet. This victory may at first blush seem to be elitist but on a broader canvas, it has helped most of us to rise up.

Part 2: Hills to Climb

In this second part of my reflection on the Internet on its 50th birthday, I turn my eyes toward three challenges the medium has to solve. I then list from a bird's-eye view some of the most important solutions being investigated in academia to fix these. In customary braggadocio, I include some research efforts at Purdue to fix these failings. The hills right around the corner for the Internet to scale are:

  1. How to make it more reliable
  2. How to make it more friendly to the things in the "Internet of Things" 
  3. How to make it safe for our personal and our intellectual information

Reliable Internet

The Internet is surprisingly easy to disrupt, at the level of a city or even a country. This is often done with intent (such as by a government wanting to quash dissent), is sometime the unintentional result of a bungled technology update, and in rare cases is the result of a deliberate non-state actor's action. It may have been acceptable decades ago when the Internet was a tool of convenience for a band of researchers in their ivory towers, but it is unacceptable today when life and liberty depend on the Internet, and I use that without hyperbole. Life is surely at stake when the Internet is being used to coordinate relief and rescue operation after a natural disaster, by a surgeon to access the medical history of someone going under the scalpel, or to dispatch a supply of blood by drone to the critically injured in places where the road network is poor.

On the matter of making the Internet reliable, there are reams of papers written in computer science conferences and journals, to the point where an academic venturing into this field is routinely advised that new publications on this topic will take a while to materialize. A small fraction of the academic work is beginning to see adoption; they say, "If you cannot measure it, you cannot change it." Several researchers have taken this to heart and developed smart methods to measure Internet-scale outages that happen, say, due to Internet exchange points being disrupted [ Paper-Sigcomm17 ][ Paper-IMC18 ]. These works build monitoring infrastructure that can locate the epicenter of the outages and track their effects as they ripple outward. Policy makers in some countries are taking notice and mandating greater transparency when Internet outages of sufficient magnitude occur.

Yet much more needs to be done to provide the Internet with the degree of resilience that it demands as a critical infrastructure piece. There need to be back-up paths for the traffic in case of failures (natural or induced) at critical points, like Internet exchange points. This means working with the network providers (the AT&Ts of the world) to put in the right level of redundancy at the right places, a task that many academic researchers have theorized about in academic publications. There also needs to be nation-state-level monitoring and root cause diagnosis of outages. This is not a big hill to climb, considering how many usable, open-source tools already exist; but they do need to be deployed and maintained at the scale of the Internet.

Scale to connect billions of "things"

Three trends have combined to create the deluge of things in the "Internet of Things", which are numbering in the "zillions." The first factor is the reduced cost of sensors, in keeping with the reduced cost of microelectronics predicted by the über-famous Moore's law. The second is the increased ubiquity of wireless networks, and the third factor is the growth in algorithms that can make use of the data being pumped out by these things.

While we have these zillions of smart things, what happens when we connect them up to the Internet? We may want to do that if we want to collect the sensed data from a distance, such as measuring the efficiency of automated irrigation on a dusty farm from the comfort of a plush office, or if we want to control some process from a distance, such as changing the running parameters of a set of machines on the factory floor in response to some data analytics that we have run. However, we have not dared to connect all of them up to the Internet yet, because we believe, with good technical reason, that its backbone is not strong enough to handle all the data zipping back and forth among the smart things. 

There are three aspects that need work for the above vision to come true.

First, wireless networks must support higher bandwidth, but in a subtle way. There are some streaming applications, like data analytics on streaming video, that demand bandwidth of a few Mb/s (YouTube 720p HD content, for example, requires 2.5 Mb/s), if all of the raw data is to be ferried to a datacenter. There are several other applications, such as machine-to-machine interaction, which require much less.

Second, the Internet needs to be more customized for machine-to-machine interactions, rather than the quaint notion that everyone (everything) interacting with the Internet is doing so at human speeds. There is work in this space on supporting machine-to-machine protocols, such as by changing network protocols accordingly [ Paper-IoTJournal15 ], or perhaps more pressingly, some standardization so that my super-smart fridge can talk to my only-moderately-smart wallet [Paper-IEEECommTutorials17 ].

Third, the protocols must be made much more energy-efficient so the smart things can continue to run for months on end without us hapless humans having to run about and change batteries. Consider that if we run a standard video analytics neural network on an embedded processor with a GPU, it will drain our device with two AA batteries of juice in 3-5 hours.1 There is significant work going on in making the power-hungry neural networks a little less so, using tricks like reducing the depth of the neural networks, reducing the number of edges, or reducing the weights of the edges. [ Paper-arXiv17 ] [ Paper-ICLR16 ]

Protecting personal, intellectual information

This is perhaps the most pressing of the hills the Internet needs to climb. First on the personal front, data about us, including sensitive personal information, is out there. This is the fuel that runs the largest Internet companies. This is the shape of things as they are and as they will be for the foreseeable future. However, we can mitigate this concern while living within the boundaries of this economic reality. For example, we can develop the Internet to enable secure sharing of information, with a leash attached to the information. Just like a leash constrains how far my dog can venture away from me, an application protocol built to work over today's Internet could enable me to put limits on how long this personal information stays and with whom [Paper-SOUPS16 (from my Purdue colleague, Aniket Kate)]. In addition to the act of sharing, there is also the need to protect sensitive data once it is sitting in the coffers of one of these organizations. We have become blasé about news of data breaches only because they happen with such disappointing regularity. However, it is possible through various forms of encryption and two-factor authentication protocols (well-researched in the academic literature) to raise the barrier to such data breaches.

On the matter of intellectual property theft, this affects the broad public less directly, and thus we have fewer headlines about it. However, ask anyone who has been involved in developing new technology in the commercial space, either as an entrepreneur or in an established company in a senior management role; they will tell you that putting intellectual property even on an intranet, behind multiple levels of protection, is akin to putting a "Come hit me" sign on your forehead. And yet, to move our technological creations forward faster in the commercial space, we feel the need to use an intranet or the Internet. Today's digital economy means that IP theft over the Internet is easier and the double whammy is that much of a company's value lies in its digital IP assets.

We can raise the barrier to intellectual property theft through technological means, though policy (and diplomatic) means will continue to play a leading role in mitigating the threat.

On the technology front, there is the well-researched branch of secure multi-party computation, which enables us to share secrets, distributing shares among multiple parties. Each party individually can only reveal limited (or no) information or can perform only a restricted set of operations on the data. Only by pooling the shares of multiple parties can more-powerful operations be done [ Paper-NSPW01 (from my Purdue colleague, Mike Atallah) ] [ Paper-CCS08 ].

Another threat in this space is posed by ransomware, where digital assets containing your IP are encrypted by malicious actors and are only released once you pay a ransom, in digital currency. Technological solutions have been developed here, too. One thread of work analyzes the behavior of the ransomware when it starts its malevolent actions, and stops it from running before it can do its damage [ Paper ]. Another thread (done in our lab) tricks the ransomware to believe that it has succeeded, while it creates backup of the files so that they are available even after the ransomware is done with its execution [ Paper ].

In Conclusion

All things considered, the Internet has been transforming the way we live, work, and play, over the last 50 years, and its pace has not flagged. I hope it will continue to play as impactful a role in the next 50 years. For that to happen, I believe, we need to tackle some challenging technological problems, and put them to practice. Three of the most important ones are:

  1. How to make it reliable and at scale.
  2. How to have it connect the gigazillion "Internet of Things" things and not collapse under their collective weight.
  3. How to ensure the privacy of our personal information and that our hard-earned intellectual victories do not become easy pickings

I know our breed of fearless computer scientists are, and will continue to, tackle these challenging problems until they are tamed.
 

Footnotes
1  Using the SqueezeNet neural network architecture, running at 30 frames per second, on an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 board.

 

Saurabh Bagchi is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at Purdue University, where he leads a university-wide center on resilience called CRISP. His research interests are in distributed systems and dependable computing, while he and his group have the most fun making and breaking large-scale usable software systems for the greater good.


 

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