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Imagining a Future When Connected Networks Are All-pervasive

Chocolate printers. Corporate "health meters" based on the Facebook posting of employees. Wearable devices that jolt wearers with the functional equivalent of an electrical shock when they do something harmful to their long-term health. Ask 60 or so entrepreneurs, executives, policy makers and other experts to imagine what the connected world might be like 20 years hence, and those are some of the ideas you'll hear, along with many, many more.

The occasion for the brainstorming was a day-long conference, "After Broadband: Imagining Hyperconnected Futures," held last month at Wharton's new San Francisco campus. It was jointly organized by the school's Mack Center on Technological Innovation and the Institute for the Future, located in Palo Alto.

Kevin Werbach, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, described the purpose of the conference at the outset. While there has been tremendous progress in network speeds in recent years, he said, "We are still having the same conversation we had 15 years ago, before the broadband revolution." The conference was designed, Werbach said, to help nudge that conversation along, with participants hopefully developing "new, concrete ideas that are actionable."

Coming up with those ideas represented the bulk of the day's work. Attendees were assigned to one of eight break-out groups covering a range of topics: education, recreation, commerce, health and more. Each group was charged with developing a scenario for what their field might look like in 10 years, when fast networking and connected devices of all sorts would be globally ubiquitous.

Before they began their group efforts, conference-goers as a single audience were treated to a series of short presentations, dubbed "provocations," that were designed to provide a foundation for their later discussions.

Joe Nambretti, director of the International Center for Advanced Internet Research at Northwestern University, described some of the next-generation, high-speed networking experiments taking place around the world, many of them at academic institutions. Some countries, he said, are being exceptionally aggressive in their long-term broadband plans; Japan, for example, is planning 10 gigabit Internet speeds into the home, hundreds of times faster than what is typically available in the United States.

Another presenter noted that while wired Web connections have been improving at a generally steady clip, the same wasn't true for the wireless systems over which mobile phones transmit most of their voice calls. The main culprit is inefficient allocation of the wireless spectrum. Most of the spectrum sits unused, while mobile communications are squeezed into a few relatively tiny slivers of the airwaves.

According to another speaker, all these mobile phones present dramatic new opportunities in fields like health, since mobile technologies can be put to use monitoring chronic medical conditions. The real challenge isn't figuring out how to make the devices; on account of constant technology advances, they will be able to handle almost any monitoring task. Much harder will be to get a handle on what data would be medically useful to collect in the first place.

David Tennenhouse, a partner with New Venture Partners, a VC firm, returned to issue of the bottlenecks involving mobile wireless data. He noted, for example, the somewhat ironic situation of telephone carriers urging their customers not to use their networks, but instead to offload their downloading to local Wifi systems. Carriers do this, he said, because there is simply no way they can build out their networks fast enough to keep up with demand.

Fierce Competition

Some of the most provocative comments were provided by Bran Ferren, a Hollywood special effects veteran now with Applied Minds, which provides consulting services to businesses. Ferren predicted, for example, that in 250 years, traditional reading and writing will have ceased to be part of daily life, but will instead be a historic curiosity, much like Latin is today. Turning from the distant future to the present, he noted that on account of the Internet, many companies are facing their fiercest competition from firms that are not even in the same business, with newspapers and Google being but one of many examples.

The last warm-up presentation was from Robert Pepper, vice president of Global Technology Policy at Cisco, who said that the near-term future in networking was relatively easy to quantify. Because of increasing demand for video, total network traffic over the next five years will grow 32% in the wired world and 78% in wireless. Largely because of mobile phones, the number of Web users would nearly double to four billion, with most of that growth coming from emerging markets, including those in China, India and Africa.

After these presentations, attendees reported to smaller conference rooms and their pre-assigned groups, with moderators provided by the Institute for the Future. The instructions to the group entitled "Social, Home, and Community Life" were simple enough. "Ever-denser connectivity will have surprising effects on how we relate to our families, friends, and neighborhoods. And how will kids who take broadband as a given grow up?"

Over several hours, the half-dozen members of the group engaged in a lively and constantly-morphing discussion, with topics ranging from personal anecdotes about technology to philosophical musings about where it is taking us -- with small doses of science fiction thrown in now and then for good measure.

Sample comments:

The parents in the room noted that their young children often don't understand why they can't use their fingers to move around pictures in a magazine or on TV, the way they can with their iPads.
Several participants expressed curiosity about avatars, and wondered why people choose the avatars that they do. One parent mentioned that her daughter, when treated rudely by another member of an online community, responded with the same real-world tears that she did when she was pushed on the (non-virtual) Saturday soccer field.
Some wondered if the Web wasn't becoming too much of a presence in home life; that with dad, mom and the kids all face down in their respective gadgets, families might not be sharing the same sort of common experiences they once did. Some also commented that many parents these days need to text their kids to get their attention, even if they are simply in the next room.
A few wondered how the "Occupy" movement might change as technology changed. Would it be possible, for example, to "Occupy the cloud?" And if so, how would that be different from an old-fashioned denial of service attack?
The group talked about real-world communities and virtual communities, and worked through different permutations of how the two might interact. As virtual worlds grow in importance, with people living more of their lives online, would there be any impact on what has been a lengthy global trend towards urbanization? What if a real urban area had a "sister city" relationship with a virtual city? What if there was an emergency in a virtual community and a real world community came to its rescue?
Printing Chocolate

As the conversation continued, a theme developed, involving the notion of uniting the virtual and physical worlds. That is where chocolate printer comes in. One of the participants described the new breed of 3D printers that are able to make a growing list of objects, including chocolate. (Technically, the printers don't actually make chocolate, which is lengthy hands-on process beginning with raw cacao beans, but instead melt pre-made chocolate blocks into whatever shape the user might select.)

Suppose, the group wondered, that you could press the equivalent of a "Like" button on Facebook, and, courtesy of a 3D printer at the other end, have a chocolate gift appear automatically to the person you've liked. That would be different from simply ordering a Valrhona gift-pack for someone on Amazon, they said, because it would be utterly "frictionless," done instantly and with a push of a single button.

The name they gave to this vision was "Chocolate Happens. It was meant no so much as a specific business plan, but instead a blue-sky vision of a world in which the distinctions between physical and virtual are blurred. Pleased with their results, the workgroup members adjourned.

By mid-afternoon, it was time for the entire conference to reassemble to hear reports from each of the workshops. Judging from the presentations, it seemed clear that the discussions had all been as free-wheeling as those in the Social group.

For example, the scenario of the workgroup on "Management, Operations, and Analytics" was that "Big Data" could be used to dramatically improve corporate governance at large companies. The group explained: rank and file employees are now routinely connected to social networks and their interactions with those networks often reveal the sorts of things on their minds. A new breed of analytic tools can sift through those postings to get an aggregated sense of the mood inside a company. It might even obtain early warning signals when something is going wrong. The group was careful to stress that the idea shouldn't be taken too far. "We're not going to outsource the FBI to Facebook," said one member.

The report from the workshop on "Health, Well-Being, and Life Management" began with the observation that the human body is well-designed to deal with immediate health threats; the pain impulse, for example, forces us to quickly take our hand off a hot stove. But the real health problems -- poor diets, lack of exercise -- usually aren't felt until it is much too late; until, say, a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis.

But what if mobile technology could be designed to give immediate feedback on the sorts of long-term health risks that ordinarily occur too slowly to notice? The Health group didn't literally recommend that your mobile phone give you an electric shock any time you had a second dessert. It did, though, suggest that the technologists should come up with ways to give real-time reminders about potentially problematic long-term behavior.

There were eight reports in all, each eye-opening in a different way. They were followed by a "Synthesis Discussion" in which participants attempted to weave together the threads of the day's conversations in a coherent tapestry.

Balkanized Internet?

During this final session, participants expressed concerns about whether the Internet might become "balkanized" as different countries adopted varying levels of censorship in their efforts to control political discourse. The much-maligned U.S. patent system came in for its usual share of abuse; one participant listed it as the No.1 threat to the health of the American economy. Cyber-security was also source of concern. Several speakers worried whether the cable and phone companies, who provide most U.S. Internet access, have the financial incentives to build the same high-speed networks being developed in many Asian countries.

In that spirit, Blair Levin, a former federal policy advisor who is now executive director of Gig.U, which works in high-speed networking for universities, said he was concerned that without widely-available high-speed networks to serve as test beds and sources of inspiration, America might lose whatever innovative edge it might have in technology. "Great innovation always comes with excess bandwidth, but today, no one is over-building," he said.

In an interview following the session, Werbach said he was very happy with the way the discussions had transpired. "We're clearly at a fork in the road," he said, "but it's not really clear yet what the branches are. The most interesting questions are usually the hardest ones to answer."