Vint Cerf: Musings on Birthing the Internet, AI, and Wishing for the Star Trek Computer

Vint Cerf, father of the internet and Google's chief internet evangelist. Image credit: Google
Source: VentureBeat | Originally published on March 15, 2017

The internet was created 44 years ago and, as one of the world’s most important technological breakthroughs, has undergone continual transformation ever since. From websites to emails, banner ads, social media, connected devices, artificial intelligence, smartphones, cloud computing, on-demand services, cyber attacks, and bots, the internet has mutated into what renowned technologist Vint Cerf calls “a reflection of the society we live in.”

As “father of the internet,” a title he shares with Bob Khan, Cerf isn’t surprised by the evolution of his creation, but he believes too many people around the world are still suffering from a lack of access. And as companies like Google — where Cerf currently works as chief internet evangelist — Facebook, and others pursue ways to improve accessibility, Cerf has launched the People Centered Internet (PCI) organization to take a stab at the problem.

Internet Access for All

His approach doesn’t involve drones or balloons but is instead tied to large-scale infrastructure projects that countries are already building. Working with the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, Internet Society, National Startup Resources Center (NSRC), 100MLives, and IEEE, the goal is to get countries to think about how internet technologies could be included in road work, railways and energy distribution projects.

“Why this is attractive is because it’s a small incremental cost. It’s not a separate project all by itself, which has to be justified, and…when you get it all done, the internet availability reinforces the utility of the major project,” Cerf told VentureBeat in an interview.

This isn’t an effort to supplant other infrastructure priorities, nor will PCI compete directly with efforts from the private sector. Cerf also refuted claims that it is an attempt to misappropriate resources, saying infrastructure building is not a zero-sum game, nor should we think about this issue as an “either/or, black and white proposition.”

“There is a non-uncommon assumption that there’s a finite set of resources, and that’s an unreasonable position to take,” Cerf said. “Some of the most impoverished people in the world are refugees who end up in refugee camps. Guess what’s the first thing they ask for when they get to the camps? Wi-Fi. Why would they do that? The answer is that [the internet] is where they’ll get their information, that’s where they may be able to stay in contact with family members elsewhere, they may be even able to get out of the camp…”

PCI’s role within these global organizations is more on the advisory side. It will assist in evaluating internet-related projects submitted by countries and will leverage its resources and contacts to bring the internet to more people.

“Our thought is that we want to be a facilitator of progress, and we may have different roles depending on what the projects are. We certainly want to install the [idea for] large-scale infrastructure funders to think ‘internet’ when thinking big infrastructure,” Cerf said.

Projects PCI could work on include existing efforts led by IEEE, Google, and other groups in developing countries.

Parachuting in for the Long Haul

World leaders in targeted countries may have heard pitches of large-scale internet connectivity projects before and be quick to dismiss what PCI is doing. There’s a theory put together by the NSRC that companies tend to parachute in, build something, and leave without providing any real connection or establishing long-term relationships.

Cerf thinks the goal should be to “parachute in, train people on the ground to design, build, and implement pieces of the internet, [and] help them devise business models, which can vary anywhere from having the government sponsor the whole thing or sponsor the backbone [to having the] private sector sponsor the backbone at wholesale prices.”

“The idea here is to get people prepared to sustain the operation of a portion of the internet,” said. “We believe at PCI that we can begin to put the pieces together in a coherent way, draw parties together with a desire and interest in doing this. [Efforts like Project Loon can] contribute to this growing infrastructure. The layer we put on top of this, however, is not just the physical facilities, but what people do once the internet is there. We want to make it locally useful, want it to contribute to people’s well-being…”

Nearing 50 Years of the Internet

As society approaches a significant milestone in the internet’s history, we asked Cerf whether anything about its transformation has really surprised him. He admitted that while a lot of developments were “anticipated,” he is astonished by the quantity of tools and services available today.

One of the things that particularly caught his attention in the nearly 50 years since the internet launched is the mosaic browser that transformed the network from a command line UNIX interface to a magazine format with images and formatted text. Cerf also expressed amazement at the explosion of content that flowed onto the internet and how willing people have been to share what they know. “They were not looking for compensation,” he said. “They were looking for the satisfaction that what they knew was useful to somebody else.” This resulted in the rise of the search engine, one of the biggest surprises for him in the 1990s.

The smartphone was another thing Cerf highlighted, describing that besides “Nokia and some smart-functional phones, the iPhone really made a statement” when it came on the scene and that moving from a phone to a camera was a “transforming element.”

“The thing that was the most interesting for me was in 1973, when Bob Khan and I were doing the first designs [of the internet], [Motorola’s] Marty Cooper, who was doing the design of the handheld phone, nobody knew anything about it…Ironically, he turns on his mobile phone the same year we turned on the internet, in 1983. It took us all ten years to get there,” he said. “[The internet and the handheld cellular mobile phone] go in parallel, having nothing to do with each other until 2007 (24 years later), and suddenly the smartphone and the internet come together and do so in a way that’s mutually reinforcing. The smartphone gets access to the internet’s resources and makes the smartphone more useful, and, of course, the smartphone makes the internet more useful because it makes it more accessible.”

Cerf describes the internet and smartphone as being incredibly powerful together, calling the emerging properties “quite remarkable.”

He did express concern about what’s going to happen to everything stored online. He highlighted that while we might think that information stored in the cloud or on a hard drive will be impervious to the ravages of time, that’s just not true. And while files could become corrupted, we should also worry about changes in software that could make it impossible to read a document, photo, video, or file. “What if the software doesn’t exist anymore 50 years from now, or ten years from now? What are we going to do about that?” Cerf asked.

He also addressed the issue of negative content, saying that in order to change what’s on the internet, we need to think of it like looking in a mirror and seeing a bad image of ourselves. “To the extent [that] what we’re seeing on the internet is a reflection of our society and ourselves… if we don’t like that, we have to change ourselves in order to change the reflection,” he said.

Privacy and Security

There’s no question that the internet has become more weaponized in recent history, both as a place where confidential or private information can be revealed, and as a way to launch attacks on companies or countries.

Cerf believes that personal privacy should be preserved and that more tools are needed to protect that privacy, but he also appreciates the work being done by intelligence agencies and law enforcement. “There are bad people out there that want to do harmful things, and we have to discover them before they do that,” he said. Cerf also cautioned that efforts have to be taken in order to “preserve the things that are fundamental to this country’s democracy” and called safety and security “an important part of the social contract.”

Redefining Jobs and the Rise of AI

Uber ships its self-driving cars to Arizona after being blocked by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Image credit: Uber
Uber ships its self-driving cars to Arizona after being blocked by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Image credit: Uber

Cerf mentioned the Internet of Things (IoT) more than once during our interview, so I asked him about the impact these connected devices and automation will have on jobs. He said that he’s been working on the issue through his Innovation for Jobs organization that looks at how technology is changing the workforce and how to retrain those who are displaced. Cerf said we should be asking, “’How do you craft jobs for people?’ — not the other way around.”

“We’re living longer on the average, so our careers will be longer. That means you can’t learn enough to prepare yourself for 80 years of work, which means you have to keep learning.,” he remarked. “You can go to school, work, learn some more…the internet can be helpful not in solving all problems, but in helping people learn more.”

“We have to literally reformulate our thinking of how we match people to work.”

When asked whether the continued proliferation of connected devices will negatively impact the internet, resulting in a need for sub-networks dedicated to those in agriculture, the home, and other specialties, he was adamant in saying that there needs to be “one internet, fully connected.”

A collection of Amazon devices powered by Alexa. From left to right: Echo Dot, Amazon Tap, and Amazon Echo. Image Credit: Ken Yeung/VentureBeat
A collection of Amazon devices powered by Alexa. From left to right: Echo Dot, Amazon Tap, and Amazon Echo. Image Credit: Ken Yeung/VentureBeat

“If we allow it to break apart into a fragmented thing, then you lose one of the most important features of the internet, that if you plug in directly, in theory you can get to anyplace else. It’s one of the most important connectivity aspects of the internet, because you don’t know ahead of time which things might need to talk to other things, and you need that freedom to make that decision,” Cerf said.

Is he concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence, as other industry professionals are? “No, they’re overblowing the autonomy of the AI systems,” he said. “I’m much more worried about bad code, not about AI going berserk, just bad code with mistakes and bugs that either get exploited or make mistakes. That can cause more trouble than just rogue AI.”

The Future of the Internet Is ‘Star Trek’

So what’s next for the internet? Cerf hopes there’ll be a way for him to integrate a lot of the functions that are currently working independently and separately, an area where AI could be helpful. “I want to be able to talk to the internet like an assistant — asking it to do things, find information, perform tasks, and conduct analysis,” he said.

In an ideal scenario, he’d like to have the computer from the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was voiced by Cerf’s dear friend, the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry.

“I think we’re on the edge of being able to do a lot of these things, especially at Google.”

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