Turing Lecture 2015: The Internet Paradox (links updated)

Following a move, I’m no longer close enough to London to easily attend the BCS and IET’s prestige Turing lecture in person. So this year, for the first time, I will be attending online.

Robert Pepper is VP Global Technology Policy at Cisco. His topic: The Internet Paradox: How bottom-up beat(s) command and control. The publicity promises “a lively discussion on how the dynamics of technology policy and largely obscure decisions significantly shaped the Internet as the bottom-up driver of innovation we know today … Dr. Pepper will cover the next market transition to the Internet of Everything and the interplay between policy and technology and highlighting early indicators of what the future may hold for the Internet.

I’m expecting a good objective discussion. As I learned many years ago, listening to Peter Cochrane when he was head of BT’s research centre, those who provide technical infrastructure don’t have a reason to hype up the different services which will run on it. Quite the opposite: they need to assess investment to satisfy demand, but not exceed it. Let’s see what we see. I’ll update this blog as we go, and probably abbreviate it tomorrow.

Starting on time: Liz Bacon, BCS President, is on stage. An unexpected extra: Daniel Turing, Alan Turing’s nephew, is introducing the Turing Trust with a mention of The Imitation Game, the Turing film, and of The BCS’s role in rebuilding Turing’s codebreaking machine (“the bomb”). The Trust recycles first-used computers to less well off countries. In our move last year, I passed quite a lot of old equipment to Recycle-IT who ethically re-use or dispose of un-reusable kit.

Now the main speaker (bio online). He describes himself as a “recovering regulator”; regulation is the intersection of policy and technology. Big iron to nano-compute, and we haven’t even seen the Apple Watch yet! This (and the cost/power changes) drives decentralisation of computing. Alongside, 1969: 4 “internet” locations (packet switched) on the west coast. By 1973, extended outside continental USA (London, Hawaii). 1993: global.

1994-5 the US Government outsourced (privatised) the network. NSF had been created. Restrictions were dropped to permit commercial use; and other governance was created. In the diagram, the biggest nodes (most traffic) are Google and Facebook; but China is coming up fast!

An alternative view: in stages. 1: connectivity (email, search). 2: networked economy; 3, Immersive. 99% of the world, though, is still unconnected. 1000 devices with IP addresses in 1984; forecast 20 bn by 2020. 50bn if you include non-IP such as RFID chips. Internet of Everything will encompass people, processes, data and things. Such as, by 2018, four IP modules on each of 256million connected cars. Such as, sensor clothing for athletes. I have a 1986 news clip from MIT Media Lab about the prototypes for exactly this. The quote was: “Your shoes may know more about you than your doctor does“.

Things create data which, through process, can positively affect people. But only 0.5% of data is being analysed for insights! There’s an example from nutrition. Take a photo of a product in the supermarket, and see if it’s appropriate (for example, no alcohol with your prescription). Or the “Proteus pill” to help with older people’s medication, which the FDA has already approved. Or the Uber cab app.

So that’s the technology. Now, on to policy and governance.

Internet governance developed bottom-up and is not centralised; it’s a multi-stakeholder global ecosystem of private, governments (lots of them!) and intergovernmental, providers, researchers, academics and others. There’s a diagram of those actually involved, which will be quite useful when I can retrieve it readably. First RFC was from ARPAnet in 1969. The first IETF met in 1986. ITU’s World Conference in 2012 saw proposals from some member states to regulate the Internet, and these were rejected. In 2014 the (US Dept of Commerce) proposal is to transition IANA to become a multi-stakeholder global body, so that the US finally cedes control of the network it inaugurated.

Now: as many of us know, the international standards process we currently have is done by consensus and can take years. Contrariwise, the IETF works by “Rough consensus and run code” (everlasting beta). Much faster. Based on RFCs that come in, and with a combination of online and face-to-face meetings. There are NO VOTES (Quakerism works in a similar way); “rough consensus” in IETF is assessed by hum!

Robert shows a slide of a “Technology Hourglass” (citing Steve Deering, 2001; Deering is also a Cisco person. I can’t find the actual reference). IP, at the centre, is in essence the controlling/enabling standard. Above (applications) and below (infrastructure) there can be innovation and differentiation. (My comment: in the same way, both 19th century rolling stock and modern trains can run on today’s network.) The suggestion: it’s a martini glass because at the top there’s a party going on!

There’s no need to ask permission to innovate! This is the Common Law approach: you can do anything that’s not prohibited. The UK has almost 1.5 million people working in this area. They are here because of Common Law: European countries have the reverse (you need permission). The information economy now dominates the previous waves of service, industry and agriculture.

Internet is a General Purpose Technology, like printing and transport and the telephone. Other things are built on it. Increasing broadband provision links to growth: this is not correlational, it is causal. Digital-technology innovation drives GDP growth in mature economies (McKinsey); the impact is on traditional sectors enabled by the digital.

Third: the paradox. There’s decentralisation of compute, to individuals, to nanodevices, and to stakeholders. But right now, governments want to reverse this approach and take control; to re-create silos, have forced localisation of standards, content and devices. This is already the case with some classes of data in some countries.

The issues: (1) extending connectivity to those who are not connected. (2) safety, security and privacy – where there clearly is a role for government, but be clear that these are not just internet issues. Others on a slide about Internet of Everything. Some governments are well-intentioned but not well informed; others, more dangerously, were the reverse. And old-tech assumptions (how you charge for phone service, for example) doesn’t match the new realities; the product is connectivity (not voice).

Swedish study: if you can’t transfer data, you can’t trade (nor have global companies). Localisation of data will impact severely on the global economy. Note: Economist Intelligence Unit looked at some proposals; 90% of the authoritarian regimes voted for new internet regulations on a multilateral basis, 90% of democracies against. Enough! We are at a crossroads where the Net could take either direction, and they are not equal.

Final quote: Neils Bohr. How wonderful we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress!

I’m not going to try and capture Q&A. Heading over to Twitter. Watch the webcast; I’ll post the URL in an amendment when it’s up on the IET website.

Has it been an objective discussion? In one sense yes. But in another, Robert Pepper clearly has a passionate belief in the model of governance which he is promoting. What’s been shared is experience, insight and vision. Well worth a review.

• BCS/IET Turing Lecture 2015: online report (BCS); or view the webcast replay from The IET
Proteus Digital Health including a video on their ingestible sensor
Watching the Waist of the Protocol Hourglass, Steve Deering, seminar 18 Jan 1998 at Carnegie-Mellon University (abstract only)
Turing Trust
Recycle-it (don’t be confused; other organisations with similar names exist on the web)


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