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The Man Behind the Internet

A chat with worldwide pioneer Vinton Cerf

Q: What was your path to becoming a pioneer of the internet?

I got introduced to a computer for the first time in 1958. It was taking radar signals coming from the northern part of Canada and was used to figure out whether Canadian geese were coming over the border or Russian bombers. And a couple years later I started programming. I had played the cello up until that point, and I had been taken at age 15 to a master’s class by Pablo Casals at Berkeley, and, you know, it was one of those eye-opening moments. How could any human being produce this kind of sound? But I got to the point where I was juggling cello lessons and programming computers. And programming computers was so fascinating. You create your own little universe, and then it does what you tell it to do.


Q: Tell us about your role in the invention of the internet.

A: [Electrical engineer] Bob Kahn and I did the design in 1973. We worked for about six months to figure out how do you connect a whole bunch of different computer networks together and make it look like one net. We published a paper in 1974, and then we started implementing it.

Q: What is your biggest regret when you consider how the internet has changed our lives?

The people who were building it were a bunch of engineers — pretty much a homogenous bunch of geeks, and all we wanted was to get it to work. The general public has a rather broad range of characteristics; some people do not have other people’s interests at heart, and so they run scams and generate malware and do all kinds of things that are harmful. I’m unhappy that the internet is host to that. But it’s like every infrastructure. It’s like the road system we depend heavily on, but people get drunk, and they drive, and they destroy property or kill themselves or other people. And we don’t look to get rid of cars. So we just have to learn to make the system more secure, make you and me safer in our use of the net.

Vint Cerf, Father of the internet

Photo by Christopher Sturman

Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf: "Programming was fascinating. You create a universe and then it does what you tell it to do."

Q: Are you concerned at all that the internet isolates people, forces them into self-selected bubbles?

We do the same thing with which books we read, which movies we watch. I’ve discovered that searching the internet doesn’t necessarily get you only to the thing that you were looking for. Maybe this is like wandering around the stacks in the library and pulling the book next to the one you were looking for, and discovering there was something interesting there. This is part of critical thinking. We really have to accept the responsibility in this online environment to think critically about what we are seeing and hearing, and deliberately pay attention to the other side of the argument.

Q: Do you share any of the concerns people have about artificial intelligence?

When I surf the internet today and pull up a page that happens to be in Russian, the translation is automatic. I see a page of English, which is not too bad in terms of accuracy of translation. I see these artificially intelligent elements augmenting my own abilities. So people who talk about the bugaboo of AI and the robots taking over, I think, are simply painting an unnecessarily dim view. Imagine you’re a researcher trying to understand the data that you’ve been accumulating and you get this really smart gadget that’s able to organize the data for you. This, in my view, is a very optimistic future.

Q: Can you talk about the intersection of art and technology?

We’re starting to see computer programs that are ingesting a style of music, or style of writing, and then generating things. It’s slightly unnerving to think a computer could do something creative, and to be honest, most of the time when you look at this stuff, it goes “clunk.” But every once in a while it looks like ordinary dialogue. So we may find people not writing fiction, for example, but programming systems to produce fiction.

Internet pioneers Jon Postel, Steve Crocker and Vint Cerf use zucchini, coffee cans and drawings to represent the primitive Net they helped to create.

REDUX archive

In a "Saturday Night Live" parody, Cerf, right, with fellow internet pioneers Jon Postel, left, and Steve Crocker use cans and drawings to represent the primitive Net they helped to create.

Q: Do you ever encounter a bias about older people using the internet and new technologies?

There are some people who imagine that older adults don’t know how to use the internet. My immediate reaction is, “I’ve got news for you. We invented it.” On the whole, our older Americans are quite capable of using these kinds of technologies.

Q: What lies ahead in creating a cooperative environment for the internet around the world?

Some governments see the net as a threat because citizens may be exchanging information about their unhappiness with the government. Anyone who watched the Arab Spring or read about it will recognize how powerful services like Facebook were in inciting that particular sequence of events. I think the next decade or two will certainly be challenging because in order to make the internet a constructive, positive environment, we will need international cooperation, and we will need societal agreements about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior on the network, and then we’ll have to find ways of enforcing that. So, we have a ways to go.

Q: What is something coming up that might change our lives the way the internet has?

Our whole understanding of genetics and how the body functions. We’ve learned very, very quickly that just having the genetic sequence of our human DNA is insufficient to understand our bodies. So, the understanding of our human organism from the dynamic, epigenetic point of view is a very important part of the future.

Q: Your title at Google is “chief internet evangelist.” Preach a little about the work going on there.

We’ve worked very hard on something called Google Assistant and Google Now, where we take information you’ve given us, like your calendar, for example, and we provide you with advice. If we know where you are, and we know you are supposed to be at a certain place at a certain time, we can pop up a little window that says, “It’ll take you 45 minutes to get to that destination, so you might want to leave now.” The ability to interact with a computer presence like you would a human assistant is becoming increasingly feasible.     

Q: What kind of cachet comes with being a father of the internet?

In all honesty, my family has paid a price for the 40 years that I’ve been associated with the internet and its evolution because I’ve been distracted, and I’ve traveled a lot — 80 percent of my time. Fortunately, my family hasn’t disowned me, and they are users of the internet. My wife spends an enormous amount of her time online, finding things like where are we going on vacation, or, “How about renting the Duke of Northumberland’s house for our 50th wedding anniversary in London?” Which she did, and which we celebrated on September 10th.

Q: You are 73, and don’t seem to be thinking about retirement much.

I’ve asked people who have had very successful careers, and they tell me, "don’t retire, keep working in some fashion or other." For me, personally, the interaction with young people makes a huge difference. On top of that, of course, there’s always new science, and for me, new science has always been the ultimate attractor. That keeps me very much alive and curious.


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