Last summer, on vacation with my family in Canada, I decided to go water skiing.
At the time, I was confident everything would be fine. It was a beautiful day, I knew how to water ski, I was in pretty good shape. Of course I was going to be able to get up and out of the water, no problem.
It was only later, lying on my back, searching online for the symptoms of a torn hamstring, that I realized just how wrong I had been.
As a male over 30, in frigid water, the odds of seriously hurting myself were incredibly high. One medical journal listed water skiing as among the most common causes of my injury—alongside bull riding. An enormous amount of information was all right there, it just wasn’t in front of me right when I needed it.
So what does this have to do with the future of the Internet?
Today, the Internet is like a library. It contains a vast amount of information accessible if we know where to look. In most cases, getting the right answer requires your asking the right questions.
Tomorrow’s Internet will be everywhere and in everything. It will draw on massive amounts of data to augment our own intelligence. And it will help us make better decisions—from avoiding dangerous drug interactions to diagnosing illnesses to deciding when water skiing might not be the best idea.
It starts with getting everyone on Earth online.
It took the telephone more than 45 years to earn a place in the majority of American homes. The Internet did it almost three times as fast. And yet, 4.4 billion people world-wide are still offline.
In the future, that number will plummet. Right now, Google
is developing high-altitude balloons to bring the Internet to remote corners of the planet. Last year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they had developed lasers capable of beaming high-speed Internet to the moon. The Internet is becoming increasingly democratized.
Meanwhile, for those of us who are connected, the Internet is increasingly becoming a basic necessity. On Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid, connectivity is moving closer and closer to the staples of everyday life at the bottom, right next to food, water and shelter.
If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that the Internet of the future will be everywhere—and the more people who have it, the more important it will become.
Second, in the not-too-distant future, the question won’t be what devices are connected—it will be what devices aren’t connected.
Computers were the first devices online. Then came smartphones. Today, we’re beginning to see the outlines of a fully connected world, with everything from shoes to livestock providing us with a steady stream of data.
But these are still early days. The research firm Gartner Inc.
estimates the number of connected devices in use will reach 4.9 billion this year. By 2020, there will be 25 billion. With smaller processors, wider networks and more sources of energy, it won’t be long before everything around us becomes a computer, from our headphones to our chairs.
Of course, this comes with an element of risk. Connected devices open us up to possible security issues and intrusions into our privacy. But if we’re able to strike a balance between caution and convenience, the spread of connected devices will have a profound impact on the way we do just about everything.
From big data to useful information
Third, the Internet will get better at turning data into information.
In 2013, humans generated an estimated four zettabytes of data. That’s like every person in the U.S. taking a digital photo every second of every day for more than four months. And the quantity is doubling every two years.
But only a fraction of that data is actually analyzed, packaged and delivered in a useful way. For instance, there’s plenty of data to pinpoint exactly how much water we use and what we use it for. But most of that information isn’t delivered to us in a way that makes it easy to use less. In the future, information will serve us better, allowing us to learn more about our behavior and see how we can improve.
How will this happen? The cloud can already handle—and analyze—far more data than any single device can. And faster connections will enable the cloud to share that data more efficiently with billions of devices.
Reactive vs. proactive
Finally, the Internet of the future will go from doing things when we ask to doing things before we ask.
Today, most technology is reactive. We ask a question and get an answer in return. It’s useful, but it’s also limiting. What if we don’t ask the right question? What if we don’t know we need to ask a question in the first place?
In the future, more conversations will happen proactively. In the case of my water-skiing accident, my smartphone could have combined existing information—including GPS data (on a lake, moving quickly), my medical history (four joint-related surgeries), the temperature of the environment (cold) and flexibility data from my fitness tracker—to predict that I was considering water skiing, calculate the odds of my getting injured, and advise me against it before I even got in the water.
Or, if I was stubborn enough to do it anyway, a computer controlling the boat’s throttle could have prevented the engine from pulling me too hard, and sensors in the tow rope could have cut the engine if they detected too much strain. The decision to water ski would still be mine, but I’d have all the facts—and the help—I needed to understand and minimize the risks before a serious injury occurred.
In many ways, the Internet of the future will feel different from the Internet we know today. Instead of seeking it out, we’ll be surrounded by it. And instead of extracting data from it, we’ll be fed a constant stream of curated, personalized information to help us solve problems and live better—and live better together.
The question will be whether we actually listen and use that information to make better choices. Some things never change.
Mr. Fadell is the founder and chief executive officer of Nest and former senior vice president of iPod/iPhone at Apple Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.