COMPUTERS OF THE FUTURE: Intelligent Machines and Virtual Reality - 4. Along the Information Superhighway

optical cable

Figure 1. Cables containing optical fibers will support the rapid movement of huge quantities of data along the information superhighway.

software virus

Figure 2. A software virus can destroy data held on disk or displayed on a screen, right before the user's eyes.

Computers can be linked together in NETWORKS so that they can communicate with one another and share resources, such as information libraries and equipment. In the 1960s, the United States Department of Defense began to work on a "network of networks," with the aim of making it secure in case of nuclear attack. The network was designed so that if part of it were knocked out, the rest could continue working. Called ARPANET, this supernetwork linked smaller, existing networks so that a computer in one network could communicate with another machine that was part of a different network, possibly hundreds or thousands of miles away.


ARPANET eventually evolved into a sprawling, worldwide communications web known as the INTERNET. Panning continents and most of the countries on Earth, the Internet includes tens of thousands of individual networks and hundreds of millions of computers. Although the Internet is not controlled by any one organization, its users include government agencies, schools, and universities, research laboratories, private companies, and ordinary people. NASA scientists share the Internet with teenage computer buffs, and the amount and variety of information moving through the Internet grows every month.


Surfing in Cyberspace

With an individual password, a PC, and a device called a MODEM, which links a PC and a phone line, anyone can access the Internet. In this way, a person can tap into great electronic libraries, or DATABASES. These databases hold information on almost every subject imaginable and can be searched for specific topics. When the topic is found, information can be retrieved in the form of text, pictures, sound, or combinations of these. Using the Internet, people can exchange messages, known as ELECTRONIC MAIL (email), or take part in discussion groups, even if they are on opposite sides of the planet. There are also electronic bulletin boards on which information can be posted for others to read, and there are elaborate, never-ending adventure games that involve thousand of people, each playing a different character.


While some people use the Internet purely for business or research purposes, others tap into it simply for fun. They say they are "surfing in CYBERSPACE" – cyberspace being the popular name for the electronic world the computer.


Coffee on the Internet
Researchers at the computer laboratory at Cambridge University, England, were tired of traipsing up several flights of stairs for a cup of coffee and often finding the jug empty. So they set up a video camera to monitor the level of coffee in the pot. The camera was connected to the department's computer network, and soon everyone could check whether there was enough coffee in the pot to make the trek worthwhile. Then, in 1993, when the lab was preparing research information for the Internet, a student included the coffee pot as one of the pages that Internet users could call up. The coffee-pot page proved more popular than expected. By the end of 1994, around 200,000 requests from around the world had been received to view the status of the Cambridge coffee pot!


The Information Revolution

One of the most important technological developments expected in the next few years will be the unification of electronic information systems. At the moment, devices such as computers, television sets, and telephones are still largely separate. But soon they will be combined in a single network. Companies are already beginning to combine internet, phone services and video conferencing through a unified connection. This giant network – which will include the phone network, satellite and cable links, all the services currently available on the Internet, and other information resources – has been named the information superhighway.


Eventually most homes in the Western world will be plugged into the information superhighway. Computers, phones, television sets, and other devices, such as video recorders and fax machines, will be merged. It is already possible to do much shopping and banking from home. People also have access to video-on-demand. In other words, for a fee, any movie of your choice can be sent along the superhighway to a storage device connected to your television set for instant viewing. The first trial of a video-on-demand service took place in Orlando, Florida, in 1994. Other new services include interactive education and training courses as well as on-line medical advice.


The superhighway needs to provide for the rapid movement of very large volumes of data. This will require the replacing of any metal cables still in use with optical fibers made of very clear glass or plastic that can transmit light signals over long distances (see Figure 1). Each fiber consists of two layers – an inner core, along which the light travels, and an outer cladding, which stops the light from escaping. The ability of glass fibers to transmit information far outstrips that of metal wires. For instance, whereas a pair of metal wires can carry only a single phone conversation, a pair of optical fibers can carry almost 2,000 conversations at the same time.


Problems With the Net

Though a lot of good may result from the upcoming information revolution, many problems will have to be faced as well. For instance, data crime is on the rise. Such crimes are committed by hackers, who break into computer systems to gain access to information that is supposed to be private. Sometimes hackers do this as a kind of game – though, if caught, they may be fined or imprisoned. In other cases, hackers try to steal confidential information or money by electronic means.


A different kind of threat to computers in networks is posed by viruses and worms (see Figure 2). These are type of programs that, when entered into a network, make copies of themselves and destroy software and data stored on computer disks. In 1988 a virus was introduced into the Internet by a hacker. The virus caused tens of thousands of computers to stop working. A way to destroy the unwanted attacker was eventually found, but not before a great deal of valuable time had been wasted. Problems may also be created by huge quantities of useless information, including advertisements and "spam" emails, that clog up the superhighway and bring data traffic almost to a halt.


On the positive side, the Internet and the superhighway offer people and new and powerful way to communicate ideas. It is becoming increasingly common, for instance, for research groups to publish information on the Internet. More and more electronic newspapers and magazines that have been customized to suit individual interests are also becoming available. And the great, growing communication web that spans the world has even been talked of as a new stage in human development – a step toward a future in which human beings everywhere will be able to share thoughts instantaneously in cyberspace. Will vast computer networks produce great social problems or equally great social advances? No one really knows at this time. We shall have to wait and see.