Computing Pioneers Discuss the State of the Net

Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, pioneers in the development of the Internet, recently won the Turing Award, considered the Nobel Prize of computing. They are due to present their assessment of the Internet and its future Monday.

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On Mondays, the business report focuses on technology.

Lots of people have played a role in developing the computer network that we now call the Internet. Al Gore, of course, comes to mind, but most people agree that two men rightly deserve to be called the fathers of the Internet. In the 1970s, Robert Kahn was working for the Department of Defense when he got interested in how to get different computer networks to talk to one another, and he later collaborated with a Stanford University professor named Vint Cerf. Together they created the basic computer architecture that became the Internet that we know today.

These two men recently won the prestigious Turing Award, which is considered the Nobel Prize of computing, and as part of that, they're set to give their assessment of the Internet and its future at a conference later today. They've agreed to fill us in first.

Gentlemen, good morning.

Mr. ROBERT KAHN (Internet Creator): Good morning.

Mr. VINT CERF (Internet Creator): Good morning.

INSKEEP: As you look at the Internet today, is it what you imagined it would be?

Mr. KAHN: In the early days, this was a research experiment. There were no personal computers back in the early '70s. There was one communications carrier of note back then, namely AT&T, which didn't see this as a big commercial opportunity. And of course, the networks that we were dealing with were government-owned networks which hadn't yet been opened for commercial use. So it would have been difficult from the early '70s to see exactly what had happened. It just didn't seem like it was going to be a reality until little by little, we saw some of these obstacles falling by the wayside.

INSKEEP: Mr. Cerf, the Internet, of course, has changed a lot of people's lives. I understand that there's a personal reason that it has particularly affected yours.

Mr. CERF: Well, you should know that I've been hearing-impaired, not quite since birth, but I've been wearing hearing aids since I was 13, so I'm very conscious of the difficulty of voice communication. Written communication is a tremendous help for me, and so when electronic mail was invented in '71, I got very excited about it, thinking well, gee, the deaf community could really use this, or the hard of hearing community as well. So I tried to stay in job settings in which electronic mail was a common practice, and by good fortune, I've stayed that way for the last 35 years. It's been a huge boon for me, and I'm glad to see the public Internet now has this facility available to the general public.

INSKEEP: Does anything disappoint you about what the Internet has become?

Mr. CERF: Well, it reflects the societies in which we live, and so the content on the Net and some of the abuses that you see on the Net are reflections of that. In some sense if I'm disappointed, it's because I'm disappointed in people in general. It's like reading Shakespeare. People's motivations haven't changed in maybe 400 or maybe 4,000 years.

On the other hand, there are things that have excited me to no end, and it's the sharing of knowledge that has come about on the network, and I see at an increasing pace this ability to share what we know.

INSKEEP: So the Internet is like Shakespeare only with a lot less editing, I supposed.

Mr. CERF: One could put it that way. Bob, what do you think?

Mr. KAHN: Well, I think the notion that it's a microcosm of society is a very accurate one. I can't say I'm particularly happy about all the spam and the viruses and the equivalent that we see on the Net, but I think technology can deal with many of the problems that we're now seeing, whether it's filtering or whatever, and laws may help a lot. But ultimately, I think we're just going to have to live with the microcosm in the electronic world of the kind of things that we might see in the physical world.

INSKEEP: If I were to name some things that the average person does with the Internet--and this is by no means a complete list--the average person sends e-mail, the average person reads a newspaper, the average person does a Google search, maybe buys something in eBay. Can either of you imagine just one thing that you think will be added to that list in the coming years?

Mr. KAHN: I guess the one thing that I would add is I believe in the not-too-distant future, people are going to learn to trust their information to the Net more than they now do, and be able to essentially manage very large amounts and perhaps their whole lifetime of information in the Net with the notion that they can access it securely and privately for as long as they want, and that it will persist over all the evolution and technical changes.

Mr. CERF: OK. I'm going to add one more. My belief is that there will be very large numbers of Internet-enabled devices on the Net--home appliances, office equipment, things in the car and maybe things that you carry around. And since they're all on the Internet and Internet-enabled, they'll be manageable through the network, and so we'll see people using the Net and applications on the Net to manage their entertainment systems, manage their, you know, office activities and maybe even much of their social lives using systems on the Net that are helping them perform that function.

INSKEEP: Vint Cerf, father of the Internet, thanks very much.

Mr. CERF: Well, thank you.

INSKEEP: Robert Kahn, the other father of the Internet, thank you, too.

Mr. KAHN: You're very welcome.

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