There’s something funny about 20,000 people gathering in a city to talk about a technology that promises to make the distance between them irrelevant. But that is what they did for Cisco Live! Europe, and I attended as a guest of the company. These are my big takeaways from the event about the internet of the future.
Face to face
Today there’s still no substitute for getting together face to face. The best digital experiences today cannot come close to recreating the incredible bandwidth of the full range of human senses: not just sight and sound but touch, smell and that hard to describe sense of the people all around you. There are social and chemical signals passing between us that we barely understand consciously, let alone can capture and transmit.
I strongly believe that physical interaction will remain the premium experience for the foreseeable future. We want to grasp hands, kiss cheeks, and feel what people are thinking, not just hear their words. We want to feel the reaction in the room. But the internet of the future will get closer and closer to closing this gap. Indeed, one day, technology will offer experiences that supersede the physical in ways we cannot yet imagine.
But this is still some way off. In the near term, the goal is to narrow the margin between the physical and the digital. The internet of the near future is one that addresses three critical aspects of connectivity. What you might, with my love of threes and alliteration, call the three Ss: seamlessness, speed and simplicity. Changing our experience of connectivity across these three dimensions has direct implications for every aspect of the way we live and work.
With the internet of the future, we need never think about whether we are online. It won’t be a question. Wherever we or our things are, they will be connected, reliably, and with sufficient bandwidth that there is never any disruption to the services that rely on this connectivity. “Flawlessness”, as Cisco’s Danny Winokur, general manager for AppDynamics described it, will be the expectation in all our technological interactions.
Getting to this point requires a combination of technologies. The fifth-generation mobile network we have all heard so much about, but also many less obvious technologies behind the scenes. Every component of the network “must be a sensor” as Cisco’s Scott Harrell, general manager for enterprise networking, put it. It must be able to monitor its own performance and flag issues before they affect service. The network itself must be smart, able to allocate bandwidth appropriately to ensure the robustness of different services. And we will need a layer of intelligence beyond human to oversee it in all its complexity.
What does this mean for us as humans? The conversations we have today about any potential over-reliance on technology will look positively quaint in the future, when we have come to accept knowledge as largely a commodity available on demand and often served up without even a conscious enquiry. Truly seamless connectivity changes what it is to be human, removes some our limitations and equips us with the potential for extreme cognitive enhancement. The change will be gradual rather than dramatic. We won’t face this as a shock. Rather, the slow process of human augmentation will continue.
For businesses, this presents a growing pressure to perform. Expectations of service will continue rise. Customers expect to be served 24/7/365, and served quickly. The drive will be to lower friction at every point of interaction with the customer ensuring that their seamless connectivity enables a seamless interaction. The threat is the loss of ‘good friction’ along with the bad, as I have written about before.
Speed: extreme bandwidth
Michael Bay revealed in one video shown at the event that he doesn’t know what a terabit is, suggesting it sounds like a dinosaur. But the film director knows that he needs a lot of bandwidth to do his job, shuttling high resolution clips around the world from multiple locations.
Backed by clips from his latest big bang blockbuster, Six Underground, Bay gave what is a flashy example of what is a very real phenomenon: bandwidth has shrunk the world. Higher bandwidth shrinks the world even more. Each time we widen the digital pipes connecting us, we enable new services and allow simpler global collaboration. We can work with remote partners without issue on complex, rich endeavours like 3D design, construction, or films. We enable services like streaming video to the home, cloud-based gaming, and who knows what next (my guess is that mixed reality will consume a lot of the new bandwidth being built out with 5G and fibre).
At Cisco Live! Europe the most prominent technical development towards greater speed was the company’s new silicon chips, capable of switching 10.8 terabits (not dinosaurs) per second. They do this with 80% lower energy consumption – a critical consideration given that the internet now consumes an estimated 10% of the world’s electricity supply.
Of course, for some people, any connection at all is a massive step. Only half the world is yet online and this was another big topic for the show: what technologies will connect the next four billion people?
The internet has always been a heterogeneous domain, assembled from a wide array of devices from different manufacturers (albeit with Cisco having a dominant position in many of its critical sub-domains), and encompassing networks and services owned and operated by a huge number of organisations. The complexity, variety and sheer number of these devices, companies and services continues to grow, making their management increasingly difficult.
The third key theme I took away from the conversations about the future internet at Cisco Live! Europe was about abstraction: how can we use computing intelligence to simplify the management of complex networks? And how can such machine-based systems augment the capabilities of those using the networks as well?
From the network perspective this took the form of distributed sensors and computing power (‘edge computing’) collecting data about performance and then using machine learning to translate that data into meaning for operators. Rather than overwhelming humans with reams of numbers, the systems present them with clear exceptions where things are failing or not optimal, and even offer them solutions in a single click. This might be about saving money or energy by downgrading a needlessly over-specified virtual server, or it might be about reallocating memory to speed the throughput of ecommerce orders.
This intelligence doesn’t stop in the traditional domain of the IT manager. Increasingly it looks like from a single dashboard, users might be able to get a view of what is happening across the business, right down into the chips that control every production line robot, automated warehouse, or delivery drone.
From a user perspective, this is about taking further friction out of your working life. Sri Srinavasan, senior vice president and general manager for the Team Collaboration Group at Cisco, demonstrated real time translation to/from Spanish in a live video chat in Webex Teams, Cisco’s collaboration product. Again, technology shrinks the world.
The vortex of digital disruption
Two clear messages undercut the prevailing sense of techno-optimism at the conference. First was what Cisco EMEAR president Wendy Mars called the “vortex of digital disruption”. Businesses will continue to be disrupted by technology, by its shrinking of the world, augmentation of human capability, and undercutting of legacy business models. There’s a sales message concealed in here: ‘we can help you’. But not every business can be saved.
The second was about security, likely to remain the number one or two concern for most chief information officers over the next few years according to Cisco’s David Goeckeler, executive vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Networking and Security business, in the opening keynote session. The more we connect, the greater the range of threats and targets in the network and the more impact an attacker can have in the physical world.
But ultimately these are problems to be solved rather than insurmountable barriers. As Wendy Mars put it, “We believe in technology. We believe it provides answers to many of the challenges we face today.”
Many of those answers will be underpinned by tomorrow’s internet, increasingly the universal platform for our communications, media and business operations. This places an enormous burden on its robustness. But the scale of its import means there are equally large efforts to maintain it.
The internet of the future
The internet of the future will be seamless and fast. It will be managed with systems that simplify its extreme complexity, and serve applications that strip further friction from our world. This will do little to assuage the fears of those who feel we have become too reliant on technology. But ultimately, I believe they will be forced to relent. In a hundred years, 10 terabit switches will seem no more advanced to us than combustion engines do today.
Tomorrow’s internet compresses the world but more importantly it closes the gap between the physical and the digital. In a hundred years that gap will likely still be marked, but a hundred years after that, we may be completely rethinking what it means to be human in a world where the digital experience supersedes the physical.