Sunday 19 November 2017

Inventor of world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee wins top computing award

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is this year's recipient of the AM Turing Award (AP)
Sir Tim Berners-Lee is this year's recipient of the AM Turing Award (AP)

World wide web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been named as this year's recipient of the AM Turing Award - computing's version of the Nobel Prize.

The award, announced by the Association for Computing Machinery, marks another pinnacle for the Briton, who has already been knighted and named as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century by Time magazine.

"It's a crowning achievement," Sir Tim said. "But I think the award is for the web as a project, and the massive international collaborative spirit of all that have joined me to help."

The honour comes with a prize of one million US dollars (£800,000) funded by Google, one of many companies that made a fortune as a result of his efforts to make the internet more accessible.

Sir Tim managed that largely by figuring out a simple way to post documents, pictures and video - everything, really, beyond plain text - online.

Starting in 1989, he began working on ways digital objects could be identified and retrieved through browser software capable of rendering graphics and other images. In August 1991, he launched the world's first website.

Besides coming up with the web's technical specifications, he "offered a coherent vision of how each of these elements would work together as part of an integrated whole", said Vicki Hanson, president of the Association for Computing Machinery.

In an even more significant move, Sir Tim decided against patenting his technology and instead offered it as royalty-free software. That allowed others to build upon the foundation he had laid, spawning more than a billion websites today that have helped lure more than three billion people online.

The web's widespread appeal gratifies Sir Tim, who now splits his time shuttling between the US and Britain as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Oxford.

But he fears parts of the web will become less accessible in the US if the Federal Communication Commission dismantles regulations protecting "net neutrality".

That's the principle that internet service providers should treat all websites equally instead of favouring some destinations that might be willing to pay for special treatment.

If the Trump administration tries to dump net neutrality "it's going to have a fight on its hands because I think the American people realise it's important", he said. "It allowed America to benefit from a thriving internet market for connectivity and content. It has become part of the spirit of America."

Sir Tim also worries about governments around the world using the internet as a surveillance tool, calling it a "recurrent threat".

He admits that preserving personal privacy as technology advances remains a thorny problem, one that he does not have a ready solution for. But figuring that out is "really important to the future of society", he said.

"As an individual, I should be able to keep my own notes, keep my own journal and not share it with anybody. That is just part of being a person."

Like several other prominent figures in technology, he is not sure if humanity will be better or worse off as computers grow better at thinking like people via artificial intelligence.

"Computing has grown exponentially more powerful, so it's only logical that it will get to the point when computers will become smarter than us," he said. "So, yes, we should logically think about those consequences."

This is the 50th anniversary of the AM Turing award, named after English computer scientist Alan Turing, whose revolutionary work with early computers and artificial intelligence helped crack Nazi Germany's codes during the Second World War.

AP

Press Association

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