Nuala Hafner: Vint Cerf is one of the few people who can legitimately claim to have invented the internet. He was co-designer of the key protocols that govern how the internet works, TCP/IP.
Vint Cerf: It was part of a military project to connect a bunch of computer science departments around the United States who were doing research on artificial intelligence and computer science, and the defence department wanted them to share their computing resources and their software.
Nuala Hafner: That was back in the mid-1970s.
Vint Cerf: We were effectively looking for standards that could be implemented both by the communication systems, by the things that link them together, which we then called gateways. Today, we call them routers and of course the machines at the edge. And so the vision that we had might not be precisely what we’re seeing today, but it was certainly the idea that any computer should be able to talk to any other computer through any number of networks on a global scale, and have it work. And I would say that we were pretty successful with that.
Nuala Hafner: Vint Cerf is now 76 and still working at the frontier of tech as Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, but in mid-March both Vint and his wife were struck down with COVID-19.
Vint Cerf: We had just been in London for 10 days, and we’d gone to many different meetings, hundreds of people, you know, in various settings, cocktail parties, speeches and dinners. So I’m pretty sure that’s where we picked this thing up.
About five days after we got back around mid-March I started showing the classic symptoms. We went to be tested and that was hard by itself trying to find somebody who would actually do the testing. Then at that point we just had to wait because there was no treatment.
The thing that was hard was not the actual physical disease, which was with mild symptoms for both of us, it was not knowing whether it was going to get worse.
And, you know, we were hearing reports of all of the people ending up in hospitals and having to be put on ventilators and things like that. And of course you don’t know, during the course of this thing, whether it’s going to get worse or whether you will get better. By good fortune we very slowly regained energy, but it took about three weeks.
Nuala Hafner: He says the pandemic has rightly brought into question many of the things we take for granted.
Vint Cerf: I’m particularly worried about in general, the dependence we have on a variety of infrastructures, whether we’re talking about the road system or power generation and distribution, or water or supply chains, which we’ve discovered how easily they can be disrupted by things like the COVID-19 pandemic. So we should be thinking right now about how to make our infrastructure more resilient, more capable of coping with this kind of disruption or at least how to do rapid reconstitution in the event of major disruptions.
Nuala Hafner: You talk about future proofing technology. Are you worried about things that are human level? You know, we outsource so many of our skills to technology that if we lose that technology, for whatever reason, that we won’t be able to find our way.
Vint Cerf: Well, convenience is a very persuasive situation and made people give up privacy in exchange.
They give up a lot of things in exchange for convenience.
Think about the rapid growth of delivery of groceries or other things directly to your homes. Amazon, you know, has grown up on that capability and the pandemic has increased that tendency now for food deliveries and things like that. So we got very quickly accustomed to convenience and we are not willing to give it up very easily.
At the same time, one does wonder what happens when all that convenience isn’t feasible because you know, the supply chains are broken or other kinds of things are interfering with success. Do we have any backup? And I confess to you, I worry about that.
The world survived in 1918 pandemic, which was worse than this one, at least in terms of total numbers of deaths, on the other hand, they didn’t have internet in order to survive. And yet they did. So that tells us that there is a way to survive without the internet.
Nuala Hafner: Not that he’s predicting we’ll need to anytime soon. In fact, when I asked Vint for his tech predictions, the theme was clear: a world with more internet access, not less.
Vint Cerf: The arrival of the smartphone dramatically increased people’s access to the internet. And it mutually reinforced the value of both because the mobile allowed you to get access to the internet anywhere you’d get a signal, and the internet made the mobile more useful because of all the content and all the applications that you could exercise with it. So we can see that trend continuing.
We can see increasing amounts of fibre being pulled under the ocean to link the continents together at higher and higher capacities.
We’re seeing the lower earth orbit satellite phenomenon, which has yet to prove itself. But if it works with 25 or 40,000 satellites in low earth orbit, it will be hard to avoid access to the internet by the end of this decade.
We’re also – I am anyway – very excited about another evolution for the network and that’s the interplanetary extension of the internet. That work has been underway since 1998.
It became very important in 2004 when the prototype software that was being designed for interplanetary communication and extension of the internet was needed in order to essentially recover communications from Mars to earth from the two Landers, the spirit and opportunity that arrived in January of 2004. So the team I worked with at JPL uploaded prototype software into the rovers and into the orbiters around Mars in order to relay information back to earth in order to make sure that the missions could get all their data. And of course, for the last well, I’ll do the math 15 years or so, all the rovers and Landers that have arrived had been using those prototype softwares. In order to get the data back, we’re running the standardised version of the interplanetary internet on the international space station and those standardised protocols, which had been agreed internationally are intended to be used for the argument’s mission, which is returned to the moon that NASA is undertaking. So we have international agreement on the use of protocols to effectively extend I would say rich networking across the solar system.
For me anyway, it’s kind of like living in the beginning of the science fiction story. A story with many more chapters to come.