Inventor Of Web, Tim Berners Lee, Calls For Net Neutrality
Above Photo: T
Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner sat down with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, for a far-ranging conversation on the future of the internet, fake news, net neutrality, and the rising tide of censorship in countries across the world.
A few of Berners-Lee’s highlights:
- How Google’s ad system led to the proliferation of “fake news” during the 2016 election.
- Why monopolies in tech are not as dangerous as they appear.
- Why net neutrality was critical to the formation of the internet and why it’s still important today.
Here’s the Q&A:
Mathias Döpfner: In a way, you are the Konrad Zuse for the digital world. In 1989, you created the World Wide Web, which is basically seen as the ideal for transparency. Do you sometimes feel that this ideal is transforming into a monster?
Tim Berners-Lee: Over the decades, I changed my answer to that. For the first two decades, I would answer as a matter of principle that, when you look out there, you see humanity. Humanity has good sides and bad sides. The Web has to be an accurate mirror of humanity. Therefore, you will find bad stuff, and you will find good stuff, horrible stuff and glorious stuff. That was my answer for a long time.
Now we’ve gotten into the age of social networks, I think the last couple of years have made a lot of people rethink. So having spent two decades trying to keep the Web open, keep it neutral, assuming that, if humanity has an open and neutral Web, then it will build wonderful things with it, like Wikipedia, etc. Now we’ve realized, actually, it might not. It depends what sort of system technically you build on the Web when you build something like a social networking system.
Now, depending on how you design it, it can be lent to a more constructive argument or a less constructive argument. It can be lent to a propagation of wonderful sort or the propagation of hatred.
Döpfner: If you were to draw a line through the World Wide Web and digitalization today, would it be more good or more bad?
Berners-Lee: Net, more good.
Döpfner: Let’s go back to the ’80s when you worked in Geneva and, step by step, you came up with this groundbreaking innovation. How did it happen?
Berners-Lee: Now you’re a journalist, and I’m an inventor, and journalists always ask inventors about the way we came up with it.
Döpfner: Some of the biggest inventions happen when scientists are looking for something completely different.
Berners-Lee: Yeah, some of those are very interesting.
Döpfner: Viagra was invented against high blood pressure.
Berners-Lee: Exactly. In this case, no. I had been working on problems like that for years and years and years, and I had worked on text formatting programs, and I had worked on data transition programs, and I’d worked on operating systems, and I’d worked on user interfaces.
Everywhere I’d gone, I found myself frustrated by the fact that anything they gave you which was printed for a meeting, there’d always be a disc copy somewhere. So somewhere, there would be a copy of this thing going round and round on a computer, and that computer was probably connected indirectly or directly to the Internet, but once I had the piece of paper, I couldn’t actually search electronically without jumping through completely different hoops for each system.
So the lack of interoperability between all the systems for handling information was frustrating. CERN was a great place. It was full of wonderful people, full of wonderful different ideas, and it was very diverse. So in a way, it had that problem of diversity and to perhaps a greater extent than most places. I wanted to solve the problem of lack of interoperability. I’d seen a lot of people who had actually tried to do that by building one single system, and whenever they’d done the centralized approach, they’d failed because they would decide to use the IBM mainframe. So I realized that the ideal would be actually to leave people using their existing systems.
Döpfner: Could you describe a little bit how long it took to really develop it and how many people had you involved? Was it a big team, or was it basically done in splendid isolation?
Berners-Lee: Well, what took a long time was getting the space to be able to work on it because CERN didn’t make general-purpose software. So I didn’t get any official go-ahead at all. Well, my boss Mike Sendall, in fact, he had a twinkle in his eye, and he found an excuse for me to do it. I’d given him a memo describing it, and I’d also said that I was really interested in getting a NeXT machine. The NeXT was a box. It was the thing that Steve Jobs did when he left Apple. So that was in itself a really interesting creative thing, and he developed that for people to be able to communicate. So Mike said, “Okay. You’re interested in the NeXT. Let’s just get one. We need to develop something just to test the NeXT box.“ So with a big wink, he says, “Why don’t you just try it out, that hypertext thing you were talking about or something like that?”
So the NeXT arrived in 1990 in September. I started working in October. I had the Web working in the end of November, in fact after a couple of months really developing it.
Döpfner: Sorry, from October to November, that would be just two months?
Döpfner: That was it?
Berners-Lee: That was it, it was a really good development platform.
Döpfner: How high was the budget?
Berners-Lee: Zero. It was all unofficial, zero budget, but Mike allowed my 20 percent time to expand to 100 percent time.
Döpfner: That was crucial?
Tim Berners-Lee: That was crucial. I didn’t get back that memo that I gave him until after he died. His wife Peggy found it, and she found that he’s written on the top corner in a pencil, “Vague, but exciting.”
Döpfner: That’s wonderful.
Berners-Lee: It was an exponential progress. Over the first year, it grew. The number of hits on our server, my personal server, went up by a factor of 10. The next year, they went up by 10. The following year, they went up by 10. So it was linear if you kept it on a scale of powers of 10.
It was exciting, of course, because something that grows that fast was unusual at that point. One crisis was a challenge with the Gopher project. The University of Minnesota had a project which was a campus-wide information system quite like the Web. It worked on the Internet. It didn’t have exactly links, but it was competing, and in fact, it was more popular than the World Wide Web.
At the time, the World Wide Web was increasing exponentially, and the Gopher project was increasing exponentially, and it was winning. Then there was a point when the University of Minnesota said, “Maybe it won’t be royalty free. Maybe we won’t charge. Only the service, we won’t charge academics, only businesses, but if you’re a business, not now, but later, and a very small amount, but we might possibly reserve the right to charge for the system in the future.” That was it. That was the end of Gopher on the Internet.
So that was a big lesson. That was an opportunity in that the people wanted to know. They demanded a statement from CERN. So eventually, it was after 18 months of the project start, and on April 30th, 1993, CERN made that commitment to a royalty free license. Ten years later, all the members of the Web Consortium, all the industry members, also made a similar commitment to keep it patent free. So that was, in a way, the crisis of the early Web. If anybody’d ended up charging royalties for it, that would’ve just settled it.
Döpfner: Of course, you as an inventor had to be passionate about it. How about the other people in the institute or the people that were working with you? Did they understand the vision, or was there also a lot of opposition or criticism?
Berners-Lee: There was a lot of opposition because a lot of people did not understand what it would be like, and it’s really difficult to explain to millennials now why they couldn’t understand.
Döpfner: It´s so obvious. But only in retrospect.
Berners-Lee: But then I’d show them a hypertext page, and I click on a link, and I go to another hypertext page. They say, „Big deal. You’ve got two hypertext pages.“ So what would happen is I would give a talk to a group of people, in an auditorium with 30 or 40 people, and most of the people would sort of nod and think another documentation system or something, but two or three people, you’d see their eyes crack. They’d think, „If everybody did this, this would be really neat.“ So they would come afterwards. After the questions, they’d come up and say, „Where do we get the software? Can we help?“
And so it spread. I suppose it spread in three dimensions. It spread to people who were interested in hypertext, which was an obscure form of backwater of the computing space, but there were some people who were interested in hypertext. So they were interested. I developed it on the NeXT, which was really rare. So people who had NeXT machines, they were able to download the thing over the Internet. And of course, physicists, I really had to try to make it appeal to this specific group.
Döpfner: Do you think that CERN was particularly privileged for such an invention, or could that have happened anywhere else?
Berners-Lee: I think it in a way could’ve happened anywhere else, but CERN was in a way a great place to try it out because it had…
Döpfner: … experimental culture?
Berners-Lee: Yes there was. It had people who had the latest workstations on their desks because CERN would buy very powerful workstations with nice screens for doing the physics. So they ended up being useful to the World Wide Web.
Because it didn’t have a strong hierarchy, it had people from different universities, different countries, those people came. So it was sort of a bit of a small-scale model of the rest of the world in its diversity, a lot of cultures, lots of different computer systems. So it had sort of the frustration of these incompatibilities.
If it had been a big company, if it had been something like General Motors, then the manager would’ve said, „All right. We’re going to have a big central documentation system by next Thursday, and everybody will use it.“ And that’s the end of the story. So it takes something very diverse.
Döpfner: Is there any advice that you could give to young people who have crazy ideas, who want to invent something great?
Berners-Lee: Well, CERN was a fortuitous place to be, but also, 1989 was a fortuitous time. The Internet was just coming. Here in Berlin, across a lot of the world, it was a time of massive change. The communities, the universities were getting actually connected together. I benefited from the work that Internet designers had done in building it as an open platform. Also, building it as a platform, I didn’t have to ask permission to use.
So that’s true also of the Web. You don’t have to ask permission. If somebody out there has a brilliant idea, you can just go and think of a website you’d like to build. The way the Web works is you just get a computer, plug it into the Internet, and design what the hell crazy website you like.
You can be very creative. Really, it’s a challenge. If you’ve ever been to a website and felt that you could do better, well, you can. Go for it. It’s the openness, the permission of space.
Döpfner: Why did you decide not to patent your invention?
Berners-Lee: I knew from the beginning the goal was always to have one Web. If there was any commercial, if there were any royalties charged by whoever it was, then that company then would’ve become one of the Webs. Other companies would’ve immediately made incompatible versions of it. They would’ve built their own patents and own technology.
Mathias Döpfner: It could never get to a global standard.
Berners-Lee: I’d never get to the global standard. I wouldn’t get that key.
Döpfner: So it was not a moral decision at all. It was just very logical, pragmatic…
Berners-Lee: It was a hard-nosed pragmatic decision, yes.
Döpfner: Did you ever think about how the Internet would look today without the World Wide Web? Perhaps as a kind of military tool for very few people?
Berners-Lee: We can never know.
Döpfner: But would you agree that, basically, the World Wide Web transformed the basic invention of the Internet into a mass market success?
Berners-Lee: Well, the Internet allowed any two computers to communicate. The World Wide Web provided an information space for humanity to be connected. Because it was easy enough for ordinary people to use, it then pushed the Internet to people who in the geeky days would never have thought about buying a computer.
You can remember what it was like with America Online, for example, perhaps the most successful of the walled gardens, but there were lots of them. There were dial-up bulletin boards, I think like Prodigy and Delphi, and then AOL was one.
Each of those tried to be the single place that you go to for everything. When the Web came along, AOL got into trouble to a certain extent, first, they tried to pretend that the Web was a small thing and really part of AOL. Then people realized that AOL is part of the Web. However much effort they put into the walled garden, it could never compete with the crazy creativity.
Döpfner: Before we go to the walled gardens of today: is it actually true that you were advised not to call it the World Wide Web because www is so difficult to pronounce in the English and French language?
Berners-Lee: I was certainly advised. People complained. WW was too much of a mouthful, but it was useful. Nobody else had thought of WWW, and it was unique. So we could count the number of Web servers, for example, just by counting the number of computers called www.
Mathias Döpfner: Did you consider any alternatives for the branding of this idea?
Tim Berners-Lee: I considered a few, well, Mine of Information. I called it The Information Mine because Mine of Information just in English is colloquial, conveys richness of things, of contents, but The Information Mine is TIM, which was a little bit too egocentric.
Döpfner: When the project was finished, did you realize that you developed something very big or was it more like: “this was an interesting project?”
Berners-Lee: This is still an interesting project. What are all the things we have to do to keep this project on track? So the phases, there’s never been a next. There’s never been, “Okay. The World Wide Web is now stable.”
Döpfner: How close are we today to your original vision of it, and how far are we away from that?
Berners-Lee: Well, of course, the original vision didn’t foresee that the search algorithms would become so good. When people gave talks about the Web initially, the search engines were the butt of all the jokes because their results were terrible. But then the Google guys discovered this algorithm which looked at the links instead of the words.
Döpfner: When did you meet the Google boys first?
Berners-Lee: I met Larry Page back a few years ago.
Mathias Döpfner: But not in the early days. They didn’t consult you?
Tim Berners-Lee: No, not at all. During those boom days, nobody had time to talk to anybody. Lots of things have happened that I could never have imagined. For example, the first maps that Steve Putz of Xerox PARC made were really clunky. You had to click to move the app, the whole thing. Then later on, you could switch the maps around. Now people using an online map find it so easy, and they’re so powerful, and they know when the buses run and everything. So we’ve come a huge long way.
Döpfner: What is the best thing so far that you have seen happening with and because of the World Wide Web and what is the worst?
Berners-Lee: I don’t put things in order.
Döpfner: If you don’t put it in order, is there any moment where you really had the feeling, “Oh my God, what they did, they simply abused my invention?”
Berners-Lee: One example of the system not really working as designed was the interaction between the for-pay advertising system and political system last year when these guys in Veles, Macedonia, just had websites where they were trying to attract traffic. They were using the Google Ad system. So Google would financially reward them very quickly if they could get more people to follow the links and click on more links.
So these people during the election season, they ended up finding that, if you just wanted to tweet out a headline and get somebody to click on it, then the US election is definitely a great topic.
Then the Google Ad system trained them just like you train a dog. In a way, it just gave them more money for the things which were more clickable. So they learned that untruth was more clickable than truth.
Döpfner: I think it was found out that Uber is tracking your movements not only while you are using the product, but they identify you or rather your mobile phone by means of a sort of digital fingerprint even if you deleted the app at some point.
Is that something where you’d say, “Well, we should have expected that because everything that is doable will be done, and that’s all fine?”
Berners-Lee: Absolutely not. No, I’m not one of those people. You might find Eric Schmidt, who famously says that privacy is over, get over it, but actually, no, I’m not one of those people. I believe that privacy is really fundamental to all.
Döpfner: Or they say that he who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear.
Berners-Lee: Absolutely. That attitude is very sinister, but also, the idea that we have privacy only for things which we feel guilty about. We have privacy. Any company has things it discusses within the company. That’s how it functions. It can plan its new products. It can look at its successes and failures. You have groups within the company as well which don’t share things with the other groups.
Döpfner: I think it’s an element of a free society that you have the freedom to define – within the framework of legality – what you want to share and what you don’t want to share within the framework of legality. If that is defined by other people, by political authorities, or by companies, actually, I think it is changing our model of free democracies.
Berners-Lee: Yes, exactly.
Döpfner: Would you agree that total transparency can lead to totalitarianism?
Berners-Lee: Well, that’s too simplistic. I don’t like to use the word transparency for that. If you’re having a meeting about how Berlin is going to fix the holes in the road and how much money should be spent on this, that should be public. It’s information by the public, for the public. The public is paying for it. So there is a duty of transparency. You don’t have the right to keep that private.
I’m very much in favor of privacy. I think that Germany has been a great leader for the rest of the world in that case and so should hang in there. There have been times when Germany has led the EU into insisting on privacy throughout the European Union, and that’s been beneficial for everybody.
Döpfner: In a way, you could say there have been two iconic and culture-defining experiences in America and in Europe regarding privacy. In Europe, it’s the Holocaust. It is an example how total transparency was used an abused by the Nazis. They knew who was Jewish, where which Jews were living, what they did und thought. They registered and tracked each and every one of them, they even tattooed a number on their arms before putting them in a concentration camp. That was unlimited control, totalitarian transparency.
In contrast, the United States – their traumatic experience is 9/11. After 9/11, in order to avoid terrorism of that kind, the most efficient way was total transparency. You know everything about your potential enemies, which means you know everything about your own population. You track everything. You spy on everything because that is considered to be the best way to avoid terrorism and ensure security. So it may be that these two traumatic experiences led to very different conclusions. Here is a deeply rooted sensitivity for too much transparency, there it cannot be enough transparency.
How do you experience these differences in mentality when talking to your colleagues in England and in the Silicon Valley?
Berners-Lee: So it is interesting to live half and half. When it came to open data, both the UK and the US were pretty good leaders. When it comes to privacy, then I think, to a certain extent, as I said, Europe has done better, but there are strong privacy guarantees in the States. The strongest things are the things that are constitutionally based.
The most interesting example recently, when a loudspeaker manufacturer was taken to court, because when you listen to the speaker, if you use Spotify on your phone, you could hand off the Spotify playlist to that speaker using Spotify Connect, and then the speaker would then play it by itself. So the speaker would know which songs you were playing, and the speaker was reporting the songs to Bose, the manufacturer of the loudspeaker.
So we noticed it. I tweeted about it. I don’t normally read the terms and conditions at all, but for the Bose speaker, I thought, “Why do I have to get an account at Bose just to use a loudspeaker?” And it turns out that they were monitoring them.
So that is an example. They were successfully sued under wiretap laws, and they appealed to a high court, and they lost. So basically, the idea that you can do what Uber does, I think that the wiretap law is basically the interception of messages, and the interception of data is illegal in the States.
Döpfner: Some peope might be surprised, mainly because you can hardly be blamed for being anti-progress or anti-technology. It’s very difficult to say who should decide those questions of anonymity and accountability. Is it the company? Is it the legal system of a market, a country? I think that these developments are posing a whole set of completely new questions.
Berners-Lee: I think, by the way, that whereas initially it might be an AI, and then it may be the company, at the end of the day, the arbiter has to be the court system.
Döpfner: Right. But was does that mean for fake news?
Berners-Lee: What’s the fake news? How do they define fake news in this case?
Döpfner: Well, that’s already where the problem starts. That means that, in the end, Facebook or another social media platform can define what fake news is, and I think it should always be the prosecutor and not a private company. Facebook should be a neutral platform. People exchange all kinds of things, good and bad, truth and lies. However, only if something is illegal, the prosecutor should intervene. If Facebook with its almost two billion users – ushered by well-intentioned politicians – morphs into a universal media monopoly making editorial decisions and even judging on who gets to read what, then we have a problem. And it is exacerbated if that happens in a closed system.
Berners-Lee: Let’s talk first about a monopoly and then about data. We know about monopolies. Before the Web, there was the telephone system. A large number of countries had monopolies because that’s the way they decided to do the telephone system.
It did mean that, if you were a telephone engineer and you had a brilliant idea and you weren’t working for the telephone company, you were out of luck because the telephone company was the only entity who’s allowed to sell telephones. But then they changed that and increased the amount of competition. Competition was improved. AT&T was broken up.
There was AOL, of course, which was pretty much a monopoly pre-Web. When the Web started, people were worried Netscape was far and away the most popular browser. So there was the concern that the company Netscape had potentially complete control over the whole Web until, one day, people turned around and realized that, actually, no, Microsoft not only has a dominant browser, but they have the operating system, and they’ve locked them together. So it’s worse. Why were they ever worried about it? Bring Netscape back in.
So then they were worried about Microsoft, and they continued to be worried about Microsoft as being the dominant software player until, suddenly, they realized they weren’t worried about Microsoft anymore because they realized, no, it doesn’t matter which browser you use if you always go to the same search engine. So they worried about Google. Some, still worry about Google, but then some, they stopped worrying about Google because, actually, what people do is they Google Facebook, and they go to Facebook, and they spend the entire day on Facebook.
Döpfner: But that’s exactly the point.
Berners-Lee: There have always been monopolies. They have always been an issue. They’ve always been a concern. They have not always been permanent.
Döpfner: No, almost no monopoly in the history of business has been permanent. That’s why you could say we shouldn’t worry about monopolies because they will always be disrupted by other big aggressive players. In the long run, neither Standard Oil nor Bell Telephone Company survived as monopolies. Most of the monopolies were disrupted by competition, but in some cases, the regulator could help and had to help.
Peter Thiel wrote that book on monopolies with an underlying theory or main theory that monopolies are for winners, and competition is for losers. Where is the balance? What should the regulator do in dealing with monopolies, basically leave it up entirely to the market because the market will resolve it in the long run, or restrict the dominant positions of certain players?
Berners-Lee: I think the antitrust system is really important. The market works while there’s a mix of people, while there’s a mix of big players and small players all in the same market. The moment that mix is gone, then the market’s not functioning anymore.
Döpfner: Is there a particular challenge for the digital world because of the effects of the network economy? There is that book by the famous Chief Economist of Google, Hal Varian, who used to be an independent professor and wrote a book about the network economy, where he basically proved that, in the digital world, you use or abuse your existing monopoly in order to create new monopolies because the old monopoly’s going to be disrupted. But if you let a player go that way too long, then the combination of monopolies with a search algorithm, with a browser, with devices and everything, can be simply too dominant. By the way: It’s funny that this principle has been implemented very systematically by Google.
Berners-Lee: I think one of the nice things about the digital world is the fact that the Internet was net neutral. The net was built as a neutral space without attitude. That’s why it has “permissionless”. That’s why I could build the WWW product on top of it.
So the markets for the websites, the markets for content, the wide markets for whatever you build on top of the Web have been independent of the market for connectivity.
So you could choose to get fiber at your house from a competing market without that affecting which movies you can watch tonight, so different from the American paid cable system, which the net replaced.
So net neutrality has been a really, really important part of these new markets, but you can’t join them together. You shouldn’t bundle together the content.
Döpfner: Are you advocating net neutrality without exception?
Berners-Lee: Yes. It’s been really important, and it is very important now. We should fight for it whenever it’s threatened, as it is currently under threat .
Döpfner: Again: How about the whole fake news phenomenon? How should society deal with that? Should publishers help Facebook to correct their fake news stories, or is it basically more about media education, that people should learn that not everything that is distributed on a social media platform is necessarily true?
Berners-Lee: I think we have to be very scientific and look at how these systems interact. The Macedonian websites we talked about earlier generated ad revenue by making up things about the US election, and affected that election even though their motivation was not at all political, only commercial. The ad network trained them that lies can generate more revenue than truth. As a system engineer, I look at that and say, “Well, now, something’s broken here.” So one of the possibilities is for Google at that point to tweak the way they reimburse people not just on the clicks, but on some other function.
Döpfner: So you could say the fact that Facebook is incentivizing people to distribute bad content, fake news, has to be changed in the very interest of the social media platform.
Berners-Lee: The guys in Veles, Macedonia, they were indepenent , they were not on Facebook. They were only on websites. They pointed at them with Twitter. So it wasn’t a Facebook phenomenon.
There’s a separate Facebook phenomenon which I’m told was an important factor in the election. That is targeted advertising. Targeted advertising on social networks is very effective. There’s a blog. He claimed that what they did was divided the entire American voting population into 32 different subtypes, like Myers-Briggs, different sorts of people, different demographics, and so they could then send targeted information.
So to one group with children, you’d say, “Our candidate is going to fight for education.” Then there’s a group without children, and they can say, “Our candidate is going to save money by cutting down education”“ Because it’s targeted advertising, it’s not public so nobody can check.
So one simple rule could be that you could say, actually, targeted advertising by political bodies is not democratic. Therefore, from now on, if you want to advertise as a political person, you have to say same thing to everybody because, that’s what democracy is.
Döpfner: You said at the very beginning that you think net-net, of course, the World Wide Web and the whole digitization of our society has more positive elements than negative ones, but among the negative ones, which is your biggest worry?
Berners-Lee: I used to say blocking and spying and Web censorship. The censorship, of course, is bad, but if censorship is bad, spying is worse. The really bad regimes, they let you go to the sites they don’t like, and then they monitor you, and they find your family, throw you in jail.
Döpfner: Is there a government that is particularly worrying you?
Berners-Lee: Turkey is a classic example of blocking. They blocked Twitter, and they put it back on. I hope they realize that that’s no way to run a country and that it will just become so inefficient, and I imagine there will be protests.
Döpfner: Yeah, absolutely. And now they block Wikipedia.
Berners-Lee: That will be a battle. Some of the Middle Eastern countries have been pretty reprehensible in the past when it comes to spying on people and using that to round up their critics.
Döpfner: How about companies? Governments and their possibilities to manipulate and abuse data is one thing. The other thing is big international conglomerates that could also end up in the hands of certain governments. How do you see that? The first ring is governments, but the second ring is big companies, or are you less afraid by the role that big corporations are playing?
Berners-Lee: I’m just as afraid really. It’s funny. Growing up in the UK, and UK people have a fond trust of their government, but they’re deeply suspicious of companies. And in America…
Döpfner: …it’s the other way around.
Berners-Lee: Yes, they have a faith in corporations but are taught as children to distrust their government. I think the British contingent will end up overtrusting their government, and the Americans will end up overtrusting their corporations.
Of course, sometimes, in China, it’s hard to tell the difference. Sometimes, in America, it’s hard to tell the difference, too.
Döpfner: But you are deeply rooted in the free market economy, aren’t you?
Berners-Lee: In the free market, yeah.
Döpfner: And free market needs competition.
Berners-Lee: It does need competition.
Döpfner: And diversity.
Berners-Lee: It does need to have a separate market for connectivity and for content.
Döpfner: To which degree will virtual reality, augmented reality change the Web and change the world? Is it hype, or is it a game changer?
Berners-Lee: In 1994 when we had the first Web conference at CERN, one of the sessions was on virtual reality, and it was on designing Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML). So we thought that, within a few years, by the end of the ’90s, all the websites would be 3D. They would just be so much more interesting.
So I think it’s going to be really hard to make predictions. I think augmented reality is to an extent already there because when we use a map, then you have the ability to see more logical details about the things you’re looking at. Augmented reality will increase. Virtual reality, I think it would be great fun to try a world in which you and I can have this conversation.
Döpfner: Without being in the same room.
Berners-Lee: But where really the pixels or the stereoscopic system is so good, I really have to look at you very carefully to realize that you’re not here.
Döpfner: That you’re not here, yeah, and you can even have a certain simulation of the senses.
Do you share the vision that, in a couple of years, maybe the normal conversation that people are having is not happening on the phone, it’s not happening through email? It is really happening like a virtual reality conversation where you basically meet without being in the same room?
Berners-Lee: I think a lot of people do that now. A lot of people meet on Skype and Facetime.
Döpfner: Yeah, but that’s a two-dimensional experience. You don’t really have the feeling, as you just described it, that you’re really sitting in the same room.
Berners-Lee: I don’t know. We’ll see.
Döpfner: So looking, let’s say, 50 years ahead, what will the world look like, particularly with regard to communication and the effects that digitization has on it?
Berners-Lee: Well, we’re at an interesting time now. The World Wide Web has been increasing exponentially, but now it’s got to 50 percent of the world. It’s pretty amazing that this proportion of the world is using it at all.
We set up the Web Foundation a decade ago when the concern was that only 10% of t the world was using the Web. The challenge was the other 90%. Now as we have got to 50% and people are getting online faster than ever, and soon the issues will change as they online world becomes the majority. Then different things become a concern when most of sub-Saharan Africa villages are online, when 3G, 4G, 5G cell towers will be ubiquitous.
People who can’t get online at that point will need a different sort of technology. There will be low earth orbit satellites, for example or something or balloons, but there has to be a new push to get them online. That push may have to be subsidized because those people will be in remote areas. But the problem will be that the discrimination against them will be much more intense because it’ll be so efficient for any company to assume their customers are online..
Döpfner: So a widening gap? Isn’t digitization closing the gap?
Berners-Lee: A widening gap between those who have and those who don’t have because there will be a mounting assumption from anybody providing a service that you’re online. For a government or a company, just it will be economic nonsense to go to the trouble of catering to the people who haven’t bothered to connect.
Döpfner: But so far, until today, you could find very good facts and figures to prove the opposite theory, that digitization has closed the gap or that digitization has redistributed money from the wealthy to the not wealthy. Basically, if you look to the developing countries, they are more and more benefiting from digitization with regard to the accessibility of knowledge and the distribution of wealth.
Berners-Lee: It’s absolutely true, yes. No, I was talking about the last 10 percent. So as they benefit, yes, then the benefit to humanity is lots and lots of people can get healthcare information. It’s huge, clearly, although when you look at that sort of thing, you might see the benefit to the people who were poor are now less poor and are connecting throughout the developing countries.
You might also look at where some of that money has all gone, and you might be very concerned about the economic distribution in the developed countries, which is worse than ever before.
Döpfner: The historian Yuval Harari just wrote a book called Homo Deus, where he basically says that mankind has had to deal for the last centuries with three main challenges. That was war, famine, and plagues. He said that these things are basically resolved. More people are dying from too much sugar than from not enough food. Never in history were less people dying from war and violence. most of the plagues are resolved because modern medicine has basically killed pests, pocks and almost everything.
then he says the new project of mankind will be longevity or immortality. Is that something that you see as a big trend for the next decades if we’re speaking of a 50-year time horizon that people could live for 120, 150 years, or that they may even be able to live forever, like Ray Kurzweil has described it with his singularity theory? Is that something that you take seriously?
Berners-Lee: Yes, I do.
Döpfner: You do. That’s good news. Tell me why.
Berners-Lee: I take it seriously because, when I talk to people who build robots, they complain that it’s so hard to make them smart. They can’t imagine the singularity coming when they’ll be smarter than them.
However, but when you step back and you look at the steps, the huge tasks that the AI community has checked off of machine understanding, machine translation, motion, all this planning, finding your way across a city, playing chess, that sort of thing, playing Jeopardy, diagnosing medical things, I feel that there’s certainly reason to imagine that the machines that we build will at some point become smarter than us.
We have to decide what our priorities are and whether our priority is in fact to promote exclusively the human race or whether we’ll be promoting other machine intelligence.
Döpfner: So do you think, like Elon Musk, that there is a likelihood that artificial intelligence is going to be smarter than human intelligence and is going to win the battle?
Berners-Lee: I find it very hard to argue against that, yes.
Döpfner: So a last question, in that context: do you think that man and machine, robots and human beings are going to merge? Or is it more purely medical progress that makes it easier for people to live longer?
Berners-Lee: I think machine intelligence will help. It’ll be machines which aids, but a great intelligence I think will be designed by people, but it will be not a person in itself.
Döpfner: Timothy Berners-Lee is a living legend as an inventor of something that really has changed the world. Has that ever put pressure on you? Did it cause certain crises about your next projects or scientific research or invention?
Berners-Lee: Well, my day job for many years has been as the Director of W3C, and that has been a great community of people. It’s been very collaborative. It’s involved wonderful sparkling minds from across the industry getting together to build the Web from being the World Wide Web of static webpages as documents to webpages as programs and so webpages as a computer.
Konrad Zuse invented the computer. In a way, what we’re doing is we’re making that invention but within the website. A webpage is now something you can program.
So that’s been a huge change, been very exciting. Most of the time, in day-to-day life, people at W3C just know me as this guy who has got certain sometimes annoying personal feelings about how the architecture of the Web should be. People in the Lab, (MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, CSAIL), know me as another guy that builds things.
Döpfner: What’s the most important project that you’re working on at the moment? Is there anything that is particularly on top of your mind?
Berners-Lee: One of the things which we’re doing in the lab at MIT is we’re reacting to the world in which people don’t control their data by designing a technical solution that’s called Solid. The idea is that we imagine a world in which you completely control your data.
So when you start an app, it says, „Where do you want to store it?“ I’ll store this on this computer, and I’ll store this in my Cloud. But whether it’s your computer or your Cloud, it completely reports to you, and you determine who gets to use it for what.
So we’re imagining that world. It’s not just about privacy, but it’s much more about enabling you because we believe that the data that you have about yourself is actually more valuable to you than to anybody.
Döpfner: What are the books that you’re reading? You’re reading scientific literature, history books, or also novels, and if so, which?
Berners-Lee: I read all kinds of stuff, but I suppose I rarely read a book from beginning to end. I get pointed at so many things. I follow a few news sources on Twitter of reliable news. Random people introduce me to things. I’m in lots of different discussions on different media.
Döpfner: Is there any book that changed your life?
Berners-Lee: It would be tempting to talk about Enquire Within Upon Everything, but really, that was just the title of the book. The book didn’t change my life. that was a Victorian book in which it was a sort of a Wikipedia. It was on my parents’ shelves, and I used it as a programmer as a title for the program I made in 1980 way back then in the days of green screens, so Enquire Within Upon Everything.
Mathias Döpfner: Do you believe in God?
Tim Berners-Lee: Not in the sense of most people. I’m atheist and Unitarian Universalist.
Mathias Döpfner: Thank you very much.