Events and Programs

Discovering the Untapped Potential of the Internet

A discussion with the architect of the internet

Taking risks is key to unlocking innovation — at least according to one of the co-creators of the internet, Vinton Cerf.

In the 1960s, Cerf and electrical engineer Robert Kahn began exploring a better way for computers to communicate. Decades of research and implementation led to the internet many rely on every day, earning Cerf the 1997 National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Cerf will discuss the untapped potential of the internet, and its growing pitfalls, with Washington Post technology reporter Brian Fung on April 5 at the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation event “An Evening With Vint Cerf,” at the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. 

“I see enormous value and at the same time potential risk,” Cerf said. 

“Young people ... should not feel fettered by the conventional wisdom,” he added. “Sometimes ideas that may seem crazy — to current thinking — are not as crazy as they may sound.” 

The internet is based on a technology called packet switching, which was viewed by the telecommunication world as “an infeasible and unworkable method for computer communication.” Packet switching allows a message to be transmitted from one place to another by breaking it down into several pieces of data sent independently.

“Packet switching was considered to be a very speculative technology unlike the telephone system, which had been around for a hundred years,” he said. “A lot of people were very skeptical that it could possibly work. The conventional wisdom was that we could use the same technology as the telephone system.” 

“It turned out to be an incredibly successful technology and fundamental to all computer communication,” Cerf added.

The success of packet switching led to a more ambitious project — the internet.

“[We] said let’s see if we can take an unlimited number of packet-switch networks and interconnect them in a way that looks uniform,” he said. “When Bob Kahn and I did the original design we basically gave it away, saying if you can build a system that behaves this way then you should be able to connect with other similar systems. We hoped this would grow in a very organic way, which is exactly what has happened."

Connecting two far away places is what drove Cerf to pursue this technological innovation.

“I have been motivated by this potential to make things happen at a distance,” he said. “I was completely beguiled by the idea that you could create your own universe by programming it and that it would do what it told you to do. You could do something Los Angeles, and something would happen in Boston.”

Improved communication and information flow created a new kind of accessibility for people with disabilities, like Cerf who is hearing impaired.

“One of the things that attracted me to networking was electronic mail because that was easier for me to use than telephone calls and conference calls,” he said. “You could read what people were writing. You had precision. You didn’t have to ask people to repeat themselves. Electronic mail turned out to be a tremendously valuable and important communication medium for me.”

Cerf calls assisted technology a “very powerful enabler,” noting there is still great room for improvement and innovation to empower people with impairments.

“We should be insisting that our computer-based systems be increasingly easy to use for people that have to overcome various disabilities,” he said. 

You don’t make progress if you don’t take risks

But Cerf said, for all the advancement and accessibility, the internet developed a “dark side” as well.

“When you create this kind of infrastructure, that infrastructure can be abused,” he said.

“We’re now seeing … people abusing their access to this global communication system in order to harm other people or at least not have their best interests at heart,” he said. “You have people committing fraud you have people injecting false information into social media you have bullying — you have a whole variety of bad behaviors.”

“That simply puts the burden both on companies that are participating in providing the service and also the users, like you and me, to be more thoughtful about how we use the system,” he added.

Now, as Google’s vice president and chief internet evangelist, Cerf is working to combat the “dark side” of the internet. 

“A major part of my work is policy,” he said. “I travel about 80 percent of the time, much of it outside of the United States meeting with senior people who have policymaking authority. We often talk about how we defend ourselves against abuses of the internet.” 

This is the area with the greatest untapped potential, according to Cerf.

“There are some serious dissertation topics waiting to be written in order to make this a safer, more secure and adequately private environment,” he said. “If we don’t proceed in doing that people won’t trust the system and they will not want to rely on it as much as we tend to do today. Keeping up with people’s expectation is going to be a big challenge.”

Aside from abusing technology, Cerf is concerned about reliance on faulty technology and software as well — like the Internet of Things connecting everyday devices. 

“These are millions of devices with software in them that communicate with each other and communicate with us that theoretically make our lives easier,” he said. “This can be an exceedingly powerful and enabling technology, but at the same time it can also be quite troublesome."

"If the software has bugs, then things won’t work the way … you were relying on them to work,” Cerf added.

But each new risk has forced new innovative solutions.

“You don’t make progress if you don’t take risks,” he said. “There is unexplored territory. People who are implementing things and trying out new ideas are like explorers that are going to places where no one has ever been. The great thing is they come back and tell you what is there, so you don’t have to go out and find out on your own.”