Computer scientist Fernando Boavida was one of the members of the team that, in 1991, connected Portugal to the Internet. 30 years later, the lecturer and researcher at the University of Coimbra describes the work done and the atmosphere experienced by those who carried out this pioneering work. And he reflects on the transformations that have occurred over the following three decades: "The Internet has radically changed society".
Next autumn it will be 30 years since Portugal was connected to the Internet. Can you describe us the role of the FCCN Unit(then Foundation for the Development of National Means of Scientific Calculation) in this process?
The Foundation for the Development of the National Means of Scientific Calculation played a decisive role in connecting Portugal to the Internet, by framing a project proposal submitted to the Science Programme which came to support the means necessary for this connection. The project was the result of an initiative by university teachers/researchers, informally led by Professor José Legatheaux Martins, who was, from the very first moment, the "soul" of the whole process. The commitment of the Foundation, represented by Professor Doctor Vasco Freitas, was always total, having immediately recognised the importance that connecting to the Internet would have in the national scientific and academic community and the consequent potential for the development and modernisation of the country.
As part of the team that executed the project connecting Portugal to the Internet, what can you tell us about that time and that experience?
Those were times of great enthusiasm and sincere collaboration among university institutions, as well as between them and FCCN. The commercial communication services available at the time were quite limited and expensive, so the possibility of having more effective ways of communicating with the international scientific and academic community was something we all looked forward to. This enthusiasm extended to the interior of each participating institution.
In the case of the University of Coimbra, the Communication Networks group, led by me and my colleague Edmundo Monteiro, was directly involved in the process. In fact, initially, the access point of the whole University of Coimbra to the then designated National Scientific Calculus Network was supported by a single server of the Communication Networks group, the mercurio.uc.pt machine. Later, in a phase of generalized "production" to the whole University of Coimbra, this access was ensured by the Centro de Informática da Universidade de Coimbra (CIUC), whose technical manager was Mário Bernardes.
Over the next three decades, we saw an exponential evolution of the internet and underlying technologies. Was this something you anticipated as the way forward in the early 1990s? Was it possible to predict its impact on society?
Computing, networks and computers are so present in all aspects of our lives that we hardly notice them any more. Our reality confirms the vision of Mark Weiser, the computer scientist who, way back in the 1980s, devised and defined the concept of ubiquitous computing, according to which technologies would be so present in our lives that they would be almost invisible. Despite this vision, more centred on computing than on communication, the Internet's impact on society has surpassed anything imaginable at the time. That is, after all, the most exciting part of scientific and technological development, which is made up of small steps that, without being expected, can lead us to discover totally unexpected "landscapes".
The Internet has radically changed society. It began by changing the scientific community, then it drastically changed the business of telecommunications operators - who in a few years saw business models that had existed for many decades disappear - and suddenly made huge amounts of information available to the general population. After that - and based on that - e-commerce was developed, all kinds of online services, teleworking, social networks, cellular networks, communication between all kinds of devices, interaction between the virtual world and physical devices, intelligent buildings, cities and transport.
Today, very little can be done without access to the Internet and everything works on top of IP technology, to the extent that elections are conditioned, wars are fought, attacks are carried out and crimes are committed over the Internet. Not even Mark Weiser could have imagined all this in 1990.
Do you feel that the online world today broadly fits into the goals and mission that you advocated in 1991?
Nobody can want to condition technological evolution to objectives or missions established three decades ago. When we divulge an idea or launch a challenge we realise that we are contributing with a starting point, but the decision of the path to follow is in the hands of those who build it. Naturally, we can and should influence the evolution to the extent possible and desirable, like any other stakeholder.
Internet technologies and the highly distributed environment in which we are immersed have made it possible, in recent times, to develop applications for monitoring people and extracting knowledge, with the most varied purposes. The real world is increasingly an artificial world. We are moving towards a society that we do not want, too artificial, in which everything is entirely predictable and controlled.
Deep down, we don't want the houses we live in to control us or tell us what to do, we don't want to be constantly located - at school, at work, or during leisure time - we don't want to be told which way to go from A to B because, sometimes, it is when we get lost that we find ourselves, we don't want an intelligent system to constantly measure our vital signs because that is not what gives us the joy of living. Perhaps Artificial Intelligence and the so-called Internet of Things will bring many benefits, but what is certain is that we, human beings, do not want to be the Things of the Internet.