Looking Back—and Forward—as the Internet Turns 50

from arpanet to smart homes, humanity stands amid exciting times

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The first online communication was sent 50 years ago last month, according to Network World. The message was sent from UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute on October 29, 1969. Here’s how it started—and what could be next.

Computer server room with abstract internet movement
As the internet turned 50 years old on October 29, 2019, we now look ahead to its continued technological possibilities. Photo by Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

Sputnik and ARPANET

Although it may not have become a household device until the late 1980s or early 1990s, the internet as we know it began in 1957 with a project called ARPANET.

“That stood for the Advance Research Projects Agency Network,” said Vinton G. Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. “This was a Department of Defense organization that was created shortly after the Russians launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957.”

According to Cerf, who is considered one of the fathers of the internet, Americans were shocked that Russians were the first country in orbit, and so to avoid missing out on any more technological firsts, President Eisenhower set up ARPA in the Department of Defense. The interest in working with advanced computers was rampant in universities and the government funded a dozen of them for research projects. High yearly demands by scientists who wanted the newest model of computer led to ARPA’s decision to build a network they could all share.

Developing different manufacturers’ computers to communicate with each other was no small task. However, by 1973, not only had ARPANET solved the issue, but the Department of Defense wanted to install computers on airplanes, ships, and mobile vehicles—more than just having permanently mounted computers within university laboratories.

“That was the internet problem,” Cerf said. “We developed what was called the transmission control protocol, which, if implemented in all of the computers, would allow this use of multiple networks. Yes, we had to put computers in between the networks to hook them together, because the networks didn’t know they were part of an internet—they thought they were the only network in the world.”

Over the next 10 years, internet pioneers like Cerf created protocols for transmitting data packets quickly and securely across different networks to different kinds of computers. “And then we turned the whole shebang on in 1983,” Cerf said. “It’s been running ever since.”

Engelbart’s Building Blocks

Without having a crystal ball, the most likely clue we have as to what the future of the internet will be comes from a tool invented over 50 years ago.

“Douglas Engelbart developed a system he called the oN-Line system at SRI International way back in the 1960s,” Cerf said. “He wanted to find ways to help people work together and collaborate in effective ways and use the machine to augment their ability to solve problems [while working] together.”

How did he do this? He demonstrated live video conferencing and simultaneous editing of documents in 1968, a quarter-century before many of us were figuring out our first dial-up modems. The key takeaway from this is that technology was a major facilitator for solving the problem of two people looking at documents in different spaces.

“Recent developments have shown that machine learning tools can be quite powerful tools in the right hands and in the right applications,” Cerf said. “Without going through a lot of the details about machine learning and how it works, they are multiple layers deep—sometimes hundreds of layers deep—stacks of neural networks that are interconnected in various ways between each layer, which take input at the top, do some kind of complex processing, and then pop out at the bottom with decisions and recommendations or identification or the like.”

Some machine learning is already being implemented, today. Google has reverse image searching if you want to search the internet using a picture rather than a keyword; real-time language translation also benefits from multi-layer neural networks. Cerf said a translation program doesn’t necessarily have the intelligence to speak and understand a language, but it can compare correlations between two languages and pick the most accurate translation.

Increasing amounts of smart tech in the home—like products that learn your living habits and can adjust the thermostat to your preference before you get home from work—lead many to believe that a more fully integrated life awaits us. As machine learning continues to improve, Cerf hopes that the internet will become like a power tool augmenting our lives for us.

Vinton G. Cerf contributed to this article. Cerf is vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. He contributes to global policy development and continued spread of the internet. Widely known as one of the “fathers of the internet,” Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the internet.