The Internet's future: Danny Hillis talks to Scientific American's Mariette DiChristina at the Compass Summit.

The Internet's future: Danny Hillis talks to Scientific American's Mariette DiChristina at the Compass Summit.

PALOS VERDES, Calif.--Danny Hillis recalls how simple the Internet was in the 1980s. When he wanted to hook up a computer he would ask Bob Kahn, a U.S. Defense Department computer scientist who was developing the technology, for an IP (Internet Protocol) address. “Bob would take out an index card from his pocket, give you a number, and then cross it off his list,” said Hillis, co-chairman and chief technology officer at Applied Minds, speaking here Monday at the four-day Compass Summit.

How times have changed. Now the Internet is so big and complicated that computer scientists don't understand it. Nobody knows what devices are connected to it, or even what it's true shape is, Hillis said. The Internet is now a kind of jungle, in which nobody can say for certain what is going to happen and why.

The jungle metaphor apparently extends beyond technology to the larger world. The economic and political landscape has changed in recent years almost beyond recognition, noted several speakers at the conference, an extension of ideas generated last year at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe. Whether this spells opportunity or trouble seems to depend on your disposition--and it was a point of disagreement at the conference.

The world is shifting toward what Parag Khanna, senior fellow of the New America Foundation, calls Globalization 5.0--an increase in the number of people who are connected by trade and technology. (The silk road in Asia was the first version, colonialism was the second, then came the industrial revolution and the post-World World II world.) Globalization is now happening, for the first time in history, on all continents among all societies. In 1990s the world centered on the U.S.; now it's moving toward a regional network, with different leaders in each region. “This is uncharted territory,” he said.

Cyberspace is the newest dimension of this globalization, Khanna said. A new fiberoptic cable linking countries comes online every month or two, the latest one connecting India to South Africa. Facebook and other social media transcend countries, creating a kind of meta-state. This trend is behind a demand for accountability from governments, and it's calling for changes in long-established practices of governance. Diplomats, for instance, have to make room at the table for the likes of Google, Wal-Mart and the Gates Foundation.

The speed of this transformation is unprecedented. It took the U.S. and Europe hundreds of years to urbanize and industrialize, but China and India are trying to do it in one-tenth the time and at 100 times the scale, said Richard Dobbs, director of McKinsey Global Institute. About 3 billion people will join middle class worldwide in the next 20 years, which presents a vast challenge. And it will be a hard challenge to meet: investment capital will be scarce in the coming decades, and prices of commodities such as copper and oil will rise. For the U.S., it means that the current generation of 25- to 44-year-olds are poorer than their parents--the first time in decades.

All this change is happening too quickly for understanding to catch up. Will it make the world a more dangerous place?

Elizabeth Stephenson, partner at McKinsey & Company, is optimistic about opportunities in China, India and other emerging countries. These regions grew faster than developed nations for first time in 2009, and barring some catastrophe this trend will continue for next 30 years, she said.

Khanna also is optimistic. Today’s global web of interconnections is like a spider's web, he said, and will make the world more resilient to change. “That's how we'll stop those black swans, those high impact, low probability events that can knock us off our feet,” he said. “It doesn't have to be as dangerous a world as we think.”

Geoffrey West, a professor at Santa Fe Institute, took issue with Khanna's optimistic assessment. The interconnections that Khanna talks about are always changing and complex, and so there is most likely a chaotic element to them, which means that sometimes one small thing that goes wrong can cause an outsized effect. We already see chaotic behavior in the Internet and the power grid. “People use these images without understanding the math and physics underlying them,” he said. Globalization 5.0 may be putting us at greater risk of disasters.

Hillis, though, remains unrepentantly optimistic. “Humans have a way of muddling through,” he said.

The Compass Summit is taking place for the next three days here at the Terranea Resort. Scientific American is a media partner with the event.

Participants from Scientific American, a partner in the conference, include Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina (@mdichristina), Executive Editor Fred Guterl (@fredguterl) and Editorial Product Manager Angela Cesaro (@aecesaro), who is live tweeting the proceedings from Palos Verdes, Calif.

Check out the tweets below and join in on Twitter at #compass11: