Vinton Cerf discusses his role in the creation of one of humanity's greatest technologies and talks about what's next for the information age
Most of the people who invented the great technologies -- the telephone, the printing press, and the internal combustion engine, for example -- that irrevocably altered the way humans live, work, and even think of humanity itself, share two common characteristics. The first is that they didn't know what they were getting us into back when they were toiling away on their world-altering advances. The second is that they're dead, which is inconvenient.
It's inconvenient because we will never know what they thought about when they were changing the course of humanity, why they did it, and what they wanted out of it -- and that's a sad loss to history. In one way, Vinton Cerf, Ph.D., is like those other pioneers. Dr. Cerf, who designed the TCP/IP protocols and architecture of the Internet with pioneering computer scientist Robert Kahn, didn't recognize the impact of his work while he was doing it. But unlike them, and conveniently for us, he is very much alive -- and kicking.
Most of us might decide that creating one world-altering contribution to humanity was enough, but Dr. Cerf has been at the forefront of several historic social changes. He led the team of MCI's advanced networking framework architects, which was key to getting individuals and businesses online. More recently Dr. Cerf joined the senior management team of Google, a company that may yet change the nature of business on the Internet, as well as the business model for all communications organizations. In the meantime, he's received dozens of awards, including the U.S. National Medal of Technology and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
All of this gives Dr. Cerf a unique perspective on what is arguably the greatest advance of our age. In this, the first of a two-part interview, Dr. Cerf discusses the birth of the Internet, his thoughts on its future and its impact on how the world does business, and the social implications of his invention. But first, he explains why he'd like to lose his most famous title: "Father of the Internet."
GMJ: You've been awarded countless honors, among them the title "Father of the Internet." Tell me how you invented the Internet.
Dr. Cerf: First of all, it would be wrong for people to solely attribute fatherhood of the Net to me. My involvement was very much in a collaborative mode, first with Bob Kahn, then later with many other people who participated in the further evolution of the Internet architecture. In fact, Robert Kahn, who is frequently recognized as another father of the Internet, started the project in late 1972 and early 1973 at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He invited me to work with him on this project in spring of 1973, when I was at Stanford. We had worked together on the ARPANET project [ARPANET was the first experiment in wide area packet switching] in 1969 and 1970, so I knew him. He realized that, when he was trying to figure out how to do this open network idea, he needed somebody who knew something about operating systems and how on earth to get this idea to work across a variety of different operating systems.
I happened to have been a graduate student at UCLA at the time when the first node of the ARPANET was installed at UCLA. My job was to write the software to interconnect a computer up to the ARPANET, and that's how I met Bob Kahn. Then four years later in 1973, when Bob was working on several other demonstrations of packet switching, the first one, the ARPANET, was very successful. So he started looking at packet switching in mobile radio and packet switching on satellite.
Now, you can understand the military interest here, because ships at sea have to communicate over radio, and satellite is particularly attractive because of its wide-area footprint. Mobile radio is needed in tactical communications. So if we were going to use computers in command and control, we needed to be able to incorporate this capability in ships at sea and in mechanized infantry.
So when Bob came out to Stanford in 1973, he was asking me how to get this packet satellite, packet radio, and ARPANET thing to work, how do we get all the networks to interconnect? That was the Internet problem. And that was what he and I basically solved during a very intense six months, from March to September 1973, and we came up with the basic design of the Internet architecture and the basic protocols.
So we wrote a paper together, which ultimately was published in May 1974 in the Communications of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineering proceedings. That paper is now a classic, and copies of it have been auctioned off for as much as $4,800, much to my surprise. I don't have any more in my files; otherwise I'd be retiring by auctioning pieces of paper.
GMJ: In 1973, did you imagine anything like this? Did you ever think that this project you were working on would change human communication forever?
Cerf: Well, no. Our work in the early 1970s was all very technologically oriented; it was, "Can we do this? How can we do this? Can we show that it works? Can we standardize it? Can we make it an international standard?" And that occupied a good ten years before we got to the first rollout in 1983 and then another ten years to get to the point where the general public had access to it.
By 1989, however, I absolutely recognized the requirement to commercialize the Internet service. It was very clear by that time that it would not be possible for the government, either in the United States or elsewhere, to fund access to the Internet for the general public. And if I wanted that to happen, and by that time I did want everybody to have access to the Internet, it seemed to me the only way to do that was to build a business engine underneath it, which meant commercializing Internet service.
GMJ: How did commercialization of the Internet begin?
Cerf: Fortunately, the National Science Foundation, which at that time was sponsoring the NSF Net backbone, shared a common interest in pursuing that goal, so they took various steps that permitted commercialization to happen. They made it possible for the government-sponsored backbone to carry commercial traffic, which up until that time was not permitted. Then in 1992, Congress passed legislation that officially allowed that capability as the government carriage of commercial traffic. By 1995, the NSF Net backbone was retired because of the growth of the commercial service providers -- the backbone service providers. So by 1989, I was very convinced that the Internet should be a commercial enterprise.
I don't think that I could possibly have envisaged all of the applications that have arisen on the network. It would be simply outrageous for me to make such a claim, and I don't. But it seemed to me that the standards were so open that it permitted just a huge range of experiments and trials to be conducted by very creative people who could find ways of using this network to exchange information and to supply services to interested parties.
GMJ: Do you think business is exploiting the Internet's full potential?
Cerf: Oh, not by any stretch. I mean, we're just barely scratching the surface of what we can do with this kind of communication technology. And I think you can see that almost daily as you look at new product announcements that involve networked devices. So I'm expecting to see many billions of devices using the Net to communicate with each other. This is not just for human communication, which has been tremendously valuable, or human sharing of knowledge, which has also been very valuable, but it can also be used for managing and controlling various devices.
So my entertainment system should be manageable through the network; third parties should be able to offer to me the ability to manage devices around the house and the office and in the car and maybe even on my person. Once these devices are able to communicate with each other, it means that third parties can build software that services those devices, interact with them, and manage them, or provide services to them.
You see this happening already as mobile phones become Internet-enabled and as you see more and more functionality being injected into personal digital assistants. I carry a BlackBerry with me -- it's a mobile phone, and it's a PDA in the sense that it has calendar and e-mail. It also has access to the Net. And there have been times when the ability to do a Google search from a BlackBerry in some random spot has been extremely helpful -- whether it's finding the nearest gas station or a restaurant or telephone number of the hotel that you're trying to get to, or even just exchanging e-mail with someone in order to coordinate where you're going. This kind of capability is very attractive. I think we are only at the beginning of understanding what we can do with communicating devices.
GMJ: That brings up a social point -- it can be very difficult to unplug yourself. People call BlackBerries "crackberries" for a reason. Do you think electronic communication is supplanting face-to-face communication?
Cerf: No, I don't. There's a certain amount of rudeness that one can associate with BlackBerries or mobile phones or similar devices. I mean, sitting in a restaurant with someone and talking to someone else on a mobile phone is a kind of rudeness that we ought to resist. The same thing can be said about sitting there checking e-mail while you should be chatting with someone.
On the other hand, I have found my ability to stay in touch with a much larger number of people to be dramatically enhanced by having these capabilities. For one thing, they cross time zones, so that if I have an idea that I want to share with somebody, I don't have to wait. I just send them an e-mail and don't have to wait six hours because of the time difference. So I'm very attracted to e-mail in part for that reason and in part because it's a group communication medium in addition to a one-on-one medium. I can keep multiple people apprised of what's going on. The younger generation prefers instant messaging to e-mail; they think of e-mail as being old hat. Maybe when they get older, they won't feel that way, but right now the immediacy of interaction with their friends is very attractive. So I see this as simply enhancing social interaction as opposed to inhibiting it.
GMJ: But has it enhanced communication or only broadened it?
Cerf: In my view, all sorts of things have been enhanced by the convenient ability to communicate and to actually multitask. This is an interesting phenomenon. At Google, it's very common to have a meeting, and everybody brings their laptops, and while they're meeting, they're also doing their e-mail. Some have to be warned ahead of time that multitasking is a badge of honor as opposed to an insult and it's expected that you'll be able to do that. Kids are growing up now very accustomed to multitasking. If you walk into any teenager's room, you'll see a laptop going with a number of instant messaging windows open, a Google search happening, maybe they've got a television going in the background, and they've got their headset on listening to an MP3 that they downloaded. It's very common to see that kind of dynamic. So it's an expansion of the kinds of relationships that we're able to maintain.
GMJ: What do you think about wireless communications? Do you think that's going to make a huge change?
Cerf: I think it already has. You now see on the order of two billion mobiles in the wireless telephony world, and that has brought telecommunications to a cadre of users who never had access to telephony before or who had to wait years to get a wire line telephone. So in absolute numbers, it's made a huge difference. The expansion of functionality of these mobiles to include Internet applications is an even more powerful force, because it means that people are using wireless communications to get access to information that they never had before. So just on the pure telephony side, which is being augmented now by Internet access, that's important. Wireless access to the Internet has also had some interesting side effects -- it's actually changed some of our behavior. We often leave a laptop at the dinner table and when questions come up that we don't have answers to, we Google it. And it allows for, in some sense, longer and more in-depth conversations to happen because otherwise we just get stuck -- you know, who invented X or where is Y?
GMJ: It turns the Internet into our spare brain. And as such, do you think there's a danger to that?
Cerf: Perhaps. I do worry about how people do things if they don't memorize or can't remember things, because they are very dependent on being able to get access to them online. I am. I mean, I forget people's names now. And at the age of 62, I find my brain cells are starting to work more poorly than they did when I was 22, so I find myself turning to my e-mail in order to remember people's names. I'll do a Google desktop search because I know I was talking to some person about something. Now that's kind of embarrassing, but it suggests that Google is my solution to old age.
In part two of this interview, Dr. Cerf reveals his thoughts on Google's next moves, what he sees as the real threats to the Internet, and how governments can ruin the Net -- and vice versa. To read part two, see "Getting Six Billion People Online" in the "See Also" area on this page.
-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison