RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — When more than 1,700 technology experts from around the world envision the Internet's future, they see cars and household appliances that are online, wireless Internet networks in remote African villages and astronauts e-mailing one another from different corners of outer space.
Such visions of the future were trumpeted at a landmark U.N. Internet Governance Forum to plan the next stages of one of the most revolutionary communication tools in history. Participants can't make binding decisions, but can lay the groundwork for future policy.
Many of the government officials, technology experts and other trendsetters at the conference, which ended Thursday, said the Internet has only now hit its stride. Key to its future, many said, will be bringing online the four-fifths of the globe that still lacks Internet access, as well as combating cybercrime and other malicious uses of the network.
The next generation of technology is on its way and will make the Internet an even more integral part of people's lives, said Vinton Cerf, a U.S. computer engineer and one of the fathers of the Internet.
He's now chief Internet evangelist to technology giant Google and remains a pioneer. One of his side projects is helping the National Aeronautics and Space Administration build an interplanetary network that would let astronauts e-mail each other without routing their messages through Earth.
"Wherever you are, you'll have the potential to get all this information, really all of the world's knowledge," Cerf said. "If you don't take advantage of this information available to you and others do, you'll have a hard time competing."
Holding up his BlackBerry, Cerf said that such mobile devices would soon become the main portal to the network, with global positioning systems that tell users where they are and what's around them, no matter where they are on the planet.
He also said that molecular-scale computing would become the norm as conventional technology bumps into the laws of physics that limit how quickly processors run and how compact they can be.
Molecular computing means harnessing the computing power of DNA and other biological material to run computers tens of thousands of times faster than those with today's conventional processors.
For billions of people in the developing world, however, just getting online would be an improvement, said John Dada, the program director of a nonprofit Nigerian anti-poverty agency.
More than 4 billion people aren't online, and many of them have never sent an e-mail or accessed a Web site, he said. Only 4 percent of Africans are online, compared with about four-fifths of U.S. residents.
"There is absolute awareness of the Internet in the world," Dada said. "The hardware is the problem."
Dada's organization has done its part by building Nigeria's first rural wireless network, which relays satellite-based Internet to about 300,000 people in the country's north.
About 60 percent of people there live on less than $2 a day, and many use public computers to go online and ask for medical advice from far-away doctors or sit in on Webcast classes.
"I have proved a point that it is doable," Dada said. "The next step is for the regional authorities to let the private companies move in and duplicate this."
In developing countries such as Chile, where the Internet infrastructure is more robust, spreading e-commerce is the plan, said Margarita Valdes, a legal and business manager at NIC Chile, which oversees the .cl domain name used in Chile.
"We're educating small businesses how to use the Internet as a tool to reach customers," Valdes said. "In Chile, governments and big corporations are already doing this. Now, we want to spread this technology throughout society."
The future of the Internet also holds dangers, however, as more countries try to censor online information and people use the network to commit cybercrimes.
Fighting such threats and preserving the security and transparency that have fueled the Internet's growth are essential to continuing its expansion, said Miriam Nisbet, the director of the Information Society Division of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
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The U.N. Internet Governance Forum Web site: www.intgovforum.org