I found our discussion of the Alexa-Cortana integration to be a fitting introduction to the challenges of digital standardization, without which the Internet could not exist today. I’ll start with a discussion of the personal assistant sector before extrapolating to the broader Internet. AI-driven digital assistants that live on our phones, smart speakers, and just about anywhere imaginable have become an integral part of today’s digital landscape, creating a consumer-facing focal point for advances in natural language processing and artificial intelligence. For consumers, however, it’s still a bit of a Wild West. Sure, Alexa can talk to my lightbulb, but what about Siri? Who do I call to turn up the thermostat? The lack of a common protocol hinders usability and broader adoption of these assistants beyond early-adopters.
In this context, it makes perfect sense why Amazon and Microsoft would want to tie their assistants closer together. By doing so, they create a virtual environment from which users can access all the services they want. They sacrifice a walled-garden approach to make a more usable product for consumers. Taking a look at the two companies’ prior actions, this isn’t too far out of the ordinary. Microsoft has shown itself willing to get its Office software on as many platforms as possible, including iOS and Android, in an effort to being wherever their users are. Amazon has opened up Alexa to third-party software/hardware developers through Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service, respectively. It all fits into an ideology of moving fast and breaking things, being unafraid to cannibalize your own product lest technology leave you behind.
As we read in When Wizards Stay Up Late, excessive competition and lack of coordination hindered US defense capabilities until Eisenhower established ARPA to unify military R&D. Similar to Amazon and Microsoft, where competition from Google/Apple forced collaboration, Russian competition forced the US to revamp its military operations. I’ve heard about the rivalry between military branches firsthand while working at the Naval Research Lab this past summer. My mentors would always keep in mind that competition for resources is intense, and so developing systems that dynamically allocate these was part of my work there.
What’s fascinating about the book’s introduction to ARPANET is the collaboration between military, industry, and academia. ARPA had the resources and governmental authorization to set up such a complex network, BBN Technologies provided instrumental contracting in building the infrastructure, and universities comprised the major nodes in the network. Collaboration like this is what allowed the US to become the birthplace of the Internet. Likewise, the idea of IMPs sharing a common protocol for sending packets is ultimately a precursor to Internet routers and HTTP today. Somehow, the Internet was able to set up these base protocols that enabled boundless innovation atop in the future.
Nonetheless, we still see many of the issues stemming from the early days of the network today. We mentioned in our discussion that security was not an integral consideration when designing the Internet originally. Since then, the scope of the Internet has expanded exponentially. How do keep billions and their data safe? How can we create a secure online voting system? Much work involves adapting to use the network in new clever ways, but often, we also need to revamp fundamental parts of the Internet, while avoiding breaking protocols. Moving from IPv4 to IPv6 has been one such transition. One thing’s for sure: somehow we agreed on this standard, and it’s here to stay, touching everything in the process.