Panelists ponder survival of Internet during La Jolla forum

By Lynne Friedmann

Last week, La Jolla was the scene of a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the Internet. Before a rapt audience of academics, students and technology industry leaders, visionaries demonstrated novel applications and described myriad new ways to interact with the Net, while research scientists laid out the formidable technical challenges ahead to satisfying ever-increasing demand as users become more dependent on the Internet to manage their daily lives.

Amid heady predictions came this cautionary note: “We are more dependent on electricity than on anything else,” said Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google.

A few hours later, a power outage left millions of people in San Diego County, Orange County, Arizona, and parts of Mexico without electricity.

“How Will the Internet Survive?” was the theme of the 2011 Marconi Society Symposium, held Sept. 8, at UCSD’s Calit2 (California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology). In a point/counter-point dialogue, experts evoked a future in which Internet access, via mobile devices, allows us not only to auto navigate while driving, read e-books, and manage finances but one day might monitor a refrigerator’s contents and suggest recipes for dinner, monitor weight loss progress by wirelessly reporting bathroom-scale readings to our physician, locate house keys via radio-frequency sensors, and alert 911 emergency crews to our exact location in a building.

In an “augmented reality” demonstration, a menu written in Korean was viewed through the lens of a smartphone camera held by Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs. In real time, the names of food items translate on screen into English and prices instantly convert to dollar and cents.

Pilot programs in education are in the works to provide low-income and at-risk students with Internet resources. Project K-Nect, funded by a grant from Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative, provided ninth graders in select North Carolina public schools with Internet access through free smartphones in order to mine supplemental math content aligned with course objectives and teachers’ lesson plans.

“They achieved a 100 percent pass rate of grade 9 algebra,” said Jacobs. This compared to a 67-percent average pass rate in state testing.

“Crowdsourcing” has allowed researcher Albert Yu-Min Lin to “funnel a bunch of brain power” in his search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. To date, some 1.8 million Internet users have used their visual perception to scan, at their leisure, bite-size, satellite images taken over a 6,000-square-kilometer area in Mongolia to aid Lin in his quest.

But an estimated 2 billion Internet users worldwide is straining existing technology. Internet traffic is doubling every one to two years with much of the demand taking the form of email, web browsing, and music and video sharing.

“The demand for bandwidth seems insatiable,” said Robert W. Tkach, director of the Advanced Photonics Research department at Bell Laboratories. “More data means more traffic, even if all you do is back up existing data.”

But researchers face limits due to the nonlinear nature of fiber cables, current antenna technology, and the future ability to support bandwidths in the Gigahertz and even sub-Terzhertz range.

“Fiber optic constraints are being pulled by the applications,” said Theodore Rappaport, professor and founding director of the Wireless Networking and Communications Group at the University of Texas at Austin. “We need a new WDM.” (In reference to Wavelength-Division Multiplexing; an industry standard that expands capacity of a fiber network.)

Add to the above, concerns about Internet security and every-increasing power consumption.

“You really need the creative people, the ‘gee whiz’ group that keeps fueling the demand,” said Ramesh Rao, director of the UCSD branch of Calit2, in summary of the morning’s discussion. “Then you also need the community that can keep the technology up with the demand.”At an awards dinner that evening (by candlelight due to the power outage), the 2011 Marconi Society Prize was presented to Irwin Jacobs and the late Jack Wolf — two engineers whose groundbreaking research and designs in digital communication helped propel the information revolution. Both men were longtime professors at UC San Diego.

The Marconi Society was established in 1974 by Gioia Marconi Braga, the daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the first practical radio-signaling system, who shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics for what was then known as “wireless telegraphy.”

Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.