This article was written by Rhodri Davies, who leads Giving Thought, CAF’s in-house think tank focussing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. Rhodri has spent nearly a decade specialising in public policy around philanthropy and the work of charities, and has researched, written and presented on a wide range of topics. He has a first-class degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Oxford.
The internet, for those who can remember that far back, used to be something you had to seek out. Whether fighting for time on a home desktop computer or going to a dedicated cyber cafe, it took effort
to get online.
And once you did get there, the options were fairly limited. Apart from checking your emails or reading a poorly-formatted version of the news, there wasn’t much to do except sit and wait for MySpace to get invented.
That has all changed now though. The internet is no longer something we seek out, but something we carry everywhere with us. And the range of things we can do online is almost unlimited: From watching people unwrap presents (no, really) to taking courses with top universities in the world.
But the next stage of development could be even more transformative: the emergence of the “ambient internet”. This is the idea that rather than having to access the internet via a dedicated interface like a phone or tablet, it will instead permeate our lives through a vast range of internet-enabled devices.
A smart new world
We are already seeing the rise of conversational assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home. These voice-operated interfaces allow people to access the internet in a frictionless way, without interrupting other activities, and thus make it part of the background of their home and life more than ever before.
In the future more and more objects and appliances will be fitted with sensors and processors to make them “smart”. (Like autonomous vehicles or “smart home” devices such as self-monitoring fridges). They react to their environment and communicate with each other and with us, forming a vast “internet of everything”.
As a result, the internet will no longer be something we access via special-purpose machines, but rather a digital substrate for our entire physical world. It will mirror this offline world, but will also shape it in turn. Sometimes we will be aware that we are using the internet, but more and more it will simply fade into the background whilst providing the infrastructure for everything we do.
What will this mean for civil society and charities?
Well, firstly it will make little sense to talk about “digital” approaches in the way that we currently do. There is already an argument that the seeing “digital” as a specific function makes little sense, because we are all using digital technology in one way or another.
And as the internet comes to suffuse our entire experience, everything will be digital. Yet at the same time, the way in which we interact with it will almost certainly look very different, as we shift away from our largely screen-based paradigm.
This could be hugely democratising in terms of access to the internet (which the UN declared a basic human right in 2016). The cost of owning a phone or similar device might no longer be a barrier to connectivity. Likewise the physical and skills barriers to using digital technology could potentially be reduced to almost zero.
We can already see this happening in the way that conversational interfaces are enabling group previously marginalised from internet access, such as the elderly or visually impaired to engage.
The ambient internet and internet of things will also have a massive impact in terms of data. Data is already a hugely prized commodity; and in a future where almost all objects are equipped with sensors to capture information and connected to the internet so that they can share it in the form of data, its value will increase exponentially.
Eventually we may reach a point where data on virtually every aspect of our lives and physical world is available in real time. In this case, the data would no longer be simply an intermittent snapshot used to craft a digital model of reality; but rather an exact, ongoing “digital mirror” of our reality.
Data is power
The enormous power of all this will be that we can use tools we have developed for the digital world, such as machine learning and other artificial intelligence approaches, to shape the physical world in real-time. For instance, fleets of autonomous vehicles or drones could operate as “swarms”: controlled by an AI system that monitors data they are collecting and coordinates their movements accordingly.
The potential risk of this massive increase in connectivity and scope for automation is that it ups the ante in terms of some of the challenges with artificial intelligence. For instance, we already know that machine learning systems can develop bias if they are trained on data sets with ingrained historical biases.
And it is easy to see how much worse this could be if the decisions those systems made were largely hidden in underlying infrastructure; and the actions they dictated carried out automatically, with little or no opportunity for human oversight.
If a truly ambient internet does emerge, it could bring huge potential for civil society organisations to do good more effectively. However, we also need to think through the potential downsides of such an unprecedented level of connectivity and automation, and ensure that we guard against them as the technology is being developed, rather than trying to pick up the pieces after things have gone wrong.