From AI assistants to Big Tech breakup: World Wide Web inventor’s top predictions as it turns 35

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From AI assistants to Big Tech breakup: World Wide Web inventor’s top predictions as it turns 35

Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989. But he has been dissatisfied with the way his original vision for the web has panned out.

Rita Franca | Nurphoto | Getty Images

Personal artificial intelligence assistants that know our health status and legal history inside out. The ability to transfer your data from one place to another seamlessly without any roadblocks.  

These are just some of the predictions for the future of the web from the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, on the 35th anniversary of its invention.

Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the world-changing technology in 1989 while working at CERN, the Swiss particle physics research center. 

The London-born computer scientist submitted a proposal for an information management system to help his colleagues share information among themselves. 

When it started, I couldn’t have predicted that it was going to be like this, this change.

Tim Berners-Lee

Inventor, World Wide Web

Berners-Lee got to continue working on his idea for this information sharing system, and by 1991, the World Wide Web was up and running.

When Tim Berners-Lee started work on the World Wide Web 35 years ago, he had no idea it was about to become the ubiquitous force it is today. “I couldn’t have predicted that it was going to be like this, this change,” he told CNBC.

Fabrice Coffrini | AFP via Getty Images

In 1993, Berners-Lee convinced CERN to release the Web protocol and source code into the public domain without any patents or fees. Berners-Lee has attributed the runaway success of the web to this decision.

Berners-Lee remembers what things were like when the web got started 35 years ago. “When it started, I couldn’t have predicted that it was going to be like this, this change,” he told CNBC.

He could tell there were signs the web was going to grow in a big way early on, though. Traffic to the very first website, info.cern.ch, “was going up by a factor of 10 every year, so doubling every four months.” 

“We lost track of the logs because they cut off,” Berners-Lee recalls. “Now this is going to be a serious thing. We need to make sure it doesn’t collapse.”

In the decades that have passed since the web’s creation, Berners-Lee sees some of the downsides that have come about. For one, social media feeds tailored by AI algorithms have meant people “feeling angry and upset, or hateful,” he says.

Meanwhile, the ease of producing content on social media platforms and spinning up new websites and blogs has led to a “disempowerment” for people and businesses — and a loss of ownership over our data, he adds.

But Berners-Lee still has some optimism for the future. Here are some of his top predictions for what the web will look like in the next 35 years.

Prediction 1: Everyone will have a personal AI assistant 

One of Berners-Lee’s big predictions is that AI will transform the way we interact with the web.  

With the arrival of generative AI tools like Microsoft-backed OpenAI’s ChatGPT, tech firms are betting consumers will become much more engaged with digital chatbots to get information they need and help them produce written materials and even code. 

There are already firms trying to reimagine what our interaction with the web will look like using AI-powered devices, including Samsung with its Galaxy S24 smartphone, and U.S. startup Humane AI with its wearable Pin device. 

You will have an AI assistant that works for you, like a doctor.

Tim Berners-Lee

Inventor, World Wide Web

Berners-Lee thinks that one day we’ll have AI assistants that work for us — similar to our doctors, lawyers, and bankers.

“Some people worry about whether, in 35 years, AI will be more powerful than us,” Berners-Lee told CNBC via a Zoom video call last week. 

“One of the things I predict — but it’s something we may have to fight for — is you will have an AI assistant, which you can trust, and it works for you, like a doctor,” Berners-Lee said.  

Robert Blumofe, global chief technology officer of Akamai, said he thinks the web will cease being something that humans use — and that AI agents will take the reins on our behalf. 

“You can imagine a world years from now where the web is a realm of AI agents and humans no longer effectively use the web,” Blumofe told CNBC in an interview last week. 

“It would all be done through AI agents; you would never go directly to your bank account online, or your health provider online, or any e-commerce sites.”

Akamai was founded in response to a challenge Berners-Lee posed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in early 1995 to create a new way of delivering web content to end users faster.

Three decades after inventing the web, Tim Berners-Lee has some ideas on how to fix it

Blumofe still thinks we’ll go online for entertainment TV shows, movies, and video games. But he thinks a lot of the daily functions of our online lives will in future be managed by AI. 

“Human beings can go back to our lives in the physical world greeting each other face to face as a physical experience, rather than a virtual experience,” he said. 

Prediction 2: We’ll take true ownership of our data across all platforms — including VR 

Another thing Berners-Lee is forecasting is a web in which we’ll all have full control of our data. 

So, rather than handing away ownership of our data to Google, Meta, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and other tech giants, we’ll instead be able to own our data through a data store, or “pod.” 

“You’ll think of your data pod as your digital space, you’ll think of it as being one thing you’re very comfortable with,” Berners-Lee explains. 

Pods are a technology Berners-Lee is working on with his startup Inrupt.  

Tim Berners-Lee is forecasting is a web in which we’ll all have full control of our data. So, rather than handing away ownership of our data to Google, Meta, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and other tech giants, we’ll instead be able to own our data through a data store, or “pod.”

Sebastian Derungs | Afp via Getty Images

Inrupt is behind something called the Solid protocol, which “aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy.”

In 2022, the firm raised $30 million from venture capital firms including Forte Ventures, Akamai, and Glasswing Ventures. 

You can go do things with a VR headset, and then when you take the VR headset off, you could do it with a huge screen. And whenever you move, you can grab your phone and the experience will be as one. It should very smoothly go between different devices. 

Tim Berners-Lee

Inventor, World Wide Web

In Berners-Lee’s vision for a future web, you’ll be able to use your digital pod to access all your essential applications for instance, email across your phone, but also your laptop, desktop computer, and bigger screens like TVs.

Berners-Lee added that his idea is for us to have a set of “trust apps” that we can allow to communicate with each other to share information and do important tasks much faster.  

Take, for example, buying flights. Berners-Lee predicts that the future experience for the web will be one where you can use your wallet to purchase flights off a flight aggregator, and then give it access to data you entrust it with to come up with plans for what to do at your destination. 

“All of your to do lists, calendar events and so on, and all the different parts of your data, will come together, so the ability to live your life becomes much more powerful.” 

Chintan Patel, chief technology officer for software firm Cisco in the U.K., said he thinks the web is ultimately moving to place that’s open and where information can be shared more easily.

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“Even though we have seen increasingly the web becoming a little fragmented with more siloed platforms — more information is collected, sold, even misused in many cases,” Patel said.

However, he noted that OpenAI’s ChatGPT — and several other popular generative AI tools — are powered by data sourced from the open web.

“For all its faults, the web has brought way more benefits to society and made many more things possible,” Patel said.  

Berners-Lee predicts his vision for the web will also go a step further with virtual and mixed reality, where the physical and digital world both interact through powerful headsets, according to Berners-Lee. 

“You can go do things with a VR headset, and then when you take the VR headset off, you could do it with a huge screen,” he said. “And whenever you move, you can grab your phone and the experience will be as one. It should very smoothly go between different devices.”

Mixed reality is a new dimension for accessing the web experts expect we’ll get more used to over time.

“There’s going to be some great shifts happening in terms of some serious digital connectivity,” Patel told CNBC in an interview. 

“It will be called by then some form of spatial computing and spatial environment which won’t be something we are looking for, but an immersive experience delivered to us.” 

Prediction 3: A Big Tech company could get broken up 

Another thing Berners-Lee says might happen in the future is a big tech company being forced to break up. 

Last week, the European Union’s landmark Digital Markets Act (DMA), which forces tech giants to change their platforms to allow for competitor products to flourish, officially came into force, in a major step that advocates hope will lead to a healthier tech competition landscape. 

If a tech firm breaches its obligations under the DMA, the European Commission can enforce some meaty legal measures. That includes fines worth up to 10% of a company’s global annual revenues, or 20% for repeat offenders. 

Things are changing so quickly. AI is changing very, very quickly. There are monopolies in AI. Monopolies changed pretty quickly back in the web.

Tim Berners-Lee

Inventor, World Wide Web

In some extreme cases, the Commission can demand the breakup of companies — although most antitrust lawyers think such an outcome is unlikely, given the legal hurdles Brussels may face. 

Berners-Lee said he always prefers it when tech companies “do the right thing by themselves” before regulators step in. “That’s always been the spirit of the internet.” 

He uses the example of the Data Transfer Initiative, a private initiative that launched in 2018 and is now backed by the likes of Google, Apple, and Meta, to encourage portability of photos, videos and other data between their platforms. 

“Maybe the companies were prompted a bit by the possibility of regulation,” Berners-Lee said. “But this was an independent thing.” 

However, he added: “Things are changing so quickly. AI is changing very, very quickly. There are monopolies in AI. Monopolies changed pretty quickly back in the web.” 

“Maybe at some point in the future, agencies will have to work to break up big companies, but we don’t know which company that will be,” Berners-Lee said. 

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