Our society depends on the internet for a lot of things – for entertainment, but also for banks, hospitals, and businesses. Almost everything we do today is impacted by the internet. What would happen if it suddenly stopped working?
Catherine Rosenberg, Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo, spends her days trying to make sure we never have to find out. Her group studies wireless systems, creating mathematical models and gathering data to make sure that internet wireless technology can handle increased traffic and doesn’t become a bottleneck.
Rosenberg is also the Canada Research Chair in the Future Internet. Currently, the internet is mostly used for connecting people – to chat, to watch movies, to play games. But according to Rosenberg, we will soon see the “internet of things”. Smart devices like phone, TVs, even buildings, are now embedded with sensors and electronics so that they can communicate, collecting and exchanging data wirelessly over the internet.
“Instead of having many millions of users, those users being human, we are going to have billions of things trying to talk over the internet,” explains Rosenberg.
The reasons we like wireless technology are also the reasons why it’s a difficult medium over which to transmit information. Wireless signals get sent through the air, and we share the air with many users. Soon, we’ll also be competing with millions of objects too.
“If we don’t do anything, the internet won’t be able to sustain this kind of traffic.”
The challenging part of Rosenberg’s research is that, it’s very hard to predict what the next big thing will be, that will push the limits of our current systems.
When Netflix launched in Canada in 2010, there was no way of knowing how ubiquitous it would become. Now, it’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t have a Netflix account and few people actually watch TV shows on TV anymore.
Unfortunately, expansion of the internet has not reached everywhere equally, creating polarization between the internet-rich in large, urban areas, and the internet-poor in rural areas. Rosenberg’s work is also related to improving technologies, such that the internet can reach rural areas in a cost-effective manner.
Despite all this, Rosenberg sees the internet as one of the greatest feats of engineering.
“It has never collapsed and… I’m very impressed because nobody could [have imagined] how the internet was going to evolve.”