We already know that the internet is incredibly flexible. It can be used for communications, entertainment, information storage as well as crime, law enforcement and to swing elections.

It doesn't end there though: some patient Aussie researchers used the internet as a social science platform, to map human behaviour and to answer the perennial question of whether or not expanding the global network boosts the economy.

The experiment collected a vast amount of data points - over a trillion - between 2006 and 2012, by scanning the original, Internet Protocol v4 (IPv4)-addressed internet. That's truly big data.

It was a simple scan that looked at if an IPv4 address had a device behind it, and when it was active, every 15 minutes over eight years. As IPv4 has over four billion addresses, and the internet spans the globe, the researchers figured they should be able to glean some insights into how that amazing network shapes humanity.

Advertisement

And they did: the researchers found a correlation between increased number of Internet Protocol (IP addresses) per capita and GDP growth. A 10 per cent increase in IP addresses per capita was linked to an 0.8 per cent bump in GDP. If that can be verified, it could scotch the notion that the internet is only good for sending cat pics and nothing much else.

This is the sort of research that couldn't have happened before. Now there are billions of people connected to each other over the same, general purpose technology; that's what the researchers called the internet, and that's a good term for it.

There should be more, similar interesting research coming up as more and more devices come online - and more challenges too: since we've run out of IPv4 addresses, the world's currently moving to the newer IPv6 protocol.

The main difference is that the new protocol has 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 addresses, or 340 undecillion of them, which should last us a while. It also makes the IPv6 internet much bigger (eventually) and it'll be interesting to see how it can be scanned and how much data will be generated, especially since devices nowadays tend to be always on.

Moving up from the network layer into applications should also open up new research opportunities.

For the first time in history, hundreds of millions of people are signed up to the same platforms, and observing their actions and behaviours on those should produce some fascinating patterns and insights.

Facebook, which now apparently has 1.86 billion members, is the natural target for researchers. Not just because of the sheer weight of its user numbers, but the richness of the data available on Facebook too.

Fingers crossed that Facebook and other large social networks will use that power for good, to support science that provides useful new insights into humanity. The risk is always that commercial entities with narrow business interests and no ethics will have a go as well, and that's power they shouldn't have.

Something to watch out for over the next few years.