Do you know where we're going to?

Tanya Kreisky, the editor of <em>Internet Magazine</em>, asks the great and the good about their vis

Ask anyone for their predictions for the world of the future and, among the flying cars, teleporting and brains in jars, there will be the internet. Microsoft's Bill Gates might have been slow on the uptake when he came to the net in the early days, but it's now central to his vision. The Department of Justice is doing plenty to stop his apparent plans for world domination, but he is clearly still thinking global. "The internet will draw us together, if that's what we choose, or let us scatter ourselves into a million mediated communities," he wrote in The Road Ahead. In his latest book, Business @ the Speed of Thought (Penguin), he adds: "The internet takes on a broader meaning than simply putting two people in touch. The internet creates a new universal space for information-sharing, collaboration and commerce."

He is not the only one thinking big. The net visionary and head of Oracle, Larry Ellison, told British CEOs last November: "The internet is not just a cool technology; it will revolutionise the way you do business and change the culture of our companies and even our country."

Vint Cerf worked on the internet's predecessor, Arpanet, while a student in the 1960s. He invented TCP/IP so that computers could talk to each other, and named the internet in 1973. So where does the net's godfather see us heading? "In five years, we'll be making heavy use of wireless connections, and many household appliances will be online. Half the schools will be making use of online methods for teaching, research and home study.

"In ten years, most schools will be online. Telephony, radio and television will all be internet-enabled - all new homes will be built with internet access and be remotely controllable. Security will be a big issue. We'll all have general-purpose, wireless internet assistants, which will be used as device controllers, wallets, browsers, pagers, phones, calendars and address notepads.

"In 20 years, a robust and growing interplanetary internet backbone will be in operation, and space activities will have become commercial." He is currently working with Nasa, so he should know what he is talking about.

The net is increasingly being treated as just another medium. As new ways to view net content - interactive TV, WAP, broadband - come along, and its capabilities grow, the distinctions between the media are blurring. Angus Deayton, of Have I Got News for You and more, followed this train of thoughts. "There will be some kind of conglomerate formed between the internet, movies and TV. Eventually, they will come together and we will have just one TV in our houses." The newsreader Jon Snow went further still: "We'll use the net for all communications - domestic, public and official."

We already have internet fridges, and the potential is there for every electrical appliance to be online. Jon Molyneux, the managing director of the online directory Scoot, thinks that this is just the start of it. "In ten years, internet devices will be in every household appliance, and intelligent agents will order groceries and fridge foods as sensors indicate depletion. In 15 years, internet access devices will be embedded in the fabric of the clothes we wear. The world will be permanently online and the human race will begin evolving as a collective intelligence."

But lest we get carried away, a word of warning from Dr Mike Lynch of Autonomy. Autonomy develops the technology that makes search engines work. "If the internet reaches critical mass, and there is no way of ensuring that we are given precisely the information we need, we will be looking at meltdown." Beware information overload.

Sergey Brin is the man behind possibly the smartest site on the web, the intelligent search engine Google ( Perhaps he is, unwittingly, predicting an end to his own invention? "We'll use the internet in the same way we use air now - we'll be breathing it. Everyone will have an RJ-45 jack in the back of their heads."

Tanya Kreisky is the editor of Internet Magazine. The full version of this article appears in the August issue of Internet Magazine

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit