Vint Cerf (L), Charlie Rose (R)
The opening session featured an interview by noted TV interviewer Charlie Rose speaking with Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet and now Internet Evangelist at Google. Cerf gave us a fascinating look at how the Internet developed, where we are now, and some of the major issues we face. Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
CR: How has the Internet has become what it is?
VC: The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was founded in the aftermath of Sputnik. It explored computer science and how that could be used by the military. Out of their explorations came the ARPANET. In 6 months, we had figured out the basic design of the Internet, and on January 1, 1983, it was rolled out to the academic community. We knew this would be very powerful technology, but we did not know what it would be like to have millions of people sharing ideas.
CR: What did Al Gore do?
VC: He sponsored legislation to help found the NSF Network and recognized the importance of this in 1986. He also sponsored legislation that allowed industry to see that there would be a market for these services, and we owe him a tremendous debt.
CR: So the breakthrough was in allowing computers to talk to others?
VC: It’s like the road or power distribution system—it should be simply there in as much quantity as you need, but we still have a long way to go. The economics must become affordable to everyone. I hope we will be able to double the number of people on the Internet to 3 billion by the end of 2010.
CR: Would that be because of the penetration of mobile communication?
VC: Exactly. There are 3 billion mobiles in use right now, and some people have more than one.
CR: What are the values of access or openness?
VC: The net was designed originally in the academic world, which trades in information. The internet design was completely open, so if you can build something using the protocols, you can be part of it. You do not have to get permission from anyone to create a new application: you just do it. The power of the Internet is its openness, accessibility, and freedom to try things out, and I hope we can preserve that.
CR: What is the significance of users also being providers?
VC: The system is permitting people to share what they know. Somehow, when all this is matured, everyone will have access to the knowledge of everyone who wants to share what they know. That idea is so wonderful. You can learn something from anyone!
CR: Where are we on the digitizing of libraries?
VC: Google is working on digitizing the images of books, but we are very far from complete. I’m deeply concerned that we are relying on software to understand the complexity of digital objects, and if that software becomes obsolete, we will not be able to understand the objects—I call this the “bit rot” problem. Sharing information works. It’s not information that is power, but the sharing of it!
CR: Do we need any kind of international standards or regulations?
VC: Yes. Think of what we would like to do with the Internet. We would like to foster e-commerce, and that means digital signatures. Does a digital signature mean the same thing in the US, China, and Japan? We need enabling legislation that gives us a uniform context in which to work, and we need to be able to deal with unacceptable behavior. We need to make sure the infrastructure is solid, reliable, and secure, and we need to find a way to detect malware and eliminate it.
CR: Why can’t we eliminate spam?
VC: Because the Internet is free, and that lets people send spam.
CR: Your dream is to make everyone online. How long will it be until that happens?
VC: 3 billion should be online by 2010, and 70% by 2013.
CR: Some countries are trying to resist the Internet, like China or Iran.
VC: Every country has some access to the Internet, and they cannot escape its importance to their economies. They will have to accept the Internet whether they like it or not, and then the information will flow. I don’t think you can stop that.
CR: How will search change in 15 years?
VC: If we are very lucky, we will go beyond statistical matching of texts to a better ability to match semantic meanings of texts. But this will be very difficult.
CR: Do you expect the US to continue to lead the way in this area?
VC: It is important to realize that the Internet was not designed solely in the US. A very diverse group of people have influenced its development, and our legislators need to understand that. I expect that the US will continue to lead as long as funding for scientific development is available.
CR: What makes you optimistic about the Internet and what do you fear?
VC: If the Internet stays open, it knows no boundaries because it’s mostly software which is an endless environment. My fear is that constraints could be placed on it, which will dramatically hinder usage and advancement in many areas.
Columnist, Information Today