Vinton Cerf spoke with students, faculty, and others about his life, career, and passion for science and technology.
Allie Bidwell For NSTMF
April 10, 2017
If you’re moving at 900 miles per hour working toward a goal or passion, you can’t slow down or stop moving – because you’ll just fall over. So you just keep moving, keep pushing on.
That’s what Vinton Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet,” said of his motivation to continue working to improve his creation, despite the fact that he’ll be turning 74 this year. Cerf was speaking to a group of students, faculty, and other attendees gathered at Georgetown University on March 27, 2017 for a discussion hosted by the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation.
Adding to a career that has already spanned academia, the government, and the private sector, Cerf in 2005 joined Google as its “Chief Internet Evangelist,” where he said there is a “constant stream of kids with fresh ideas, and willing to challenge anything you have to say.”
While some of those ideas are not exactly new, but rather debunked ideas sometimes from decades ago, Cerf said the passion and drive of his younger colleagues in a way keeps him going.
“I have to remind myself there’s probably a reason it didn’t work [back then],” Cerf said. “I’ve been forced to rethink a lot of ideas. I consider it to be a very invigorating challenge.”
Eileen Cahill – vice president of professional development for Stemme, a Georgetown student organization that partnered to host the event – said she particularly enjoyed hearing Cerf talk about the younger generation of scientists and innovators.
“He said when he was first starting in developing the Internet, they created something where it could grow, but they didn’t plan on it growing,” Cahill said. “I think that’s important for us to realize is that whatever we’re working toward might not be realized immediately, and it’s a long-term goal. There is so much to discover, and our fearlessness helps us in an incredible way.”
But Cerf’s job today isn’t just rethinking ideas that might have been rejected 25 years ago due to a lack of technology. As the Internet has grown, so too has a new range of issues, such as cyber security, ethical concerns, privacy, market competition, and more.
With new advancements in technology, individuals, experienced scientists, and industry leaders have all speculated about the potential dangers with artificial intelligence. But Cerf said he’s not “terribly worried about the scary things,” such as robots taking over the world. Rather, he’s more concerned about problems with software that we rely on – such as devices in our homes, offices, or cars – and with privacy.
“It feels to me like privacy has been eroding pretty dramatically over the last 100 years or so,” he said, mentioning, for example, that people now have the ability to take photographs of other people on their phones and share them without the other party ever knowing or giving permission. “I think we’re still struggling right now with the right kinds of social mores to go along with the technology we've invented.”
In some ways, the Internet was intended to be open and functioning without too many barriers, he said.
“The Internet was designed with the idea that anything can talk to anything,” Cerf said. “We liked the idea of anything communicating with anything else. At the time we did the design, we also assumed any device on the network could refuse to communicate with someone else. You didn't have to communicate, you just had the possibility.”
But as time has gone on, people have tried to put limits on the openness of the Internet. At the same time, social media has exploded across the globe, and the volume of content available on the Internet is “well beyond anything in human history,” Cerf said.
“No country has ever been faced with that situation before,” he added.
“From my point of view, all the mechanisms in the world to try to deal with this … won't successfully filter according to someone's idea."
"The best filter you have is the one between your ears. You have to teach your kids how to think about this sort of thing because when they grow up, they’re going to get misinformation and disinformation … and they're going to have to distinguish among all these things. The important thing here is to teach people how to distinguish good quality from bad quality content.”
Although Cerf said he doesn’t feel too much personal responsibility for certain drawbacks of the Internet – you don’t shut down all the roads because people drink and drive, he said – he does believe scientists and technologists have a responsibility when it comes to ethical considerations.
“The internet is a mirror of our societies. If you don't like what you see in the mirror, fixing the mirror doesn't do you any good,” Cerf said. “Instead we make up rules. or we figure out ways of technically inhibiting certain kinds of bad behavior.”
On the back end, though, Cerf said those creating software and new technological advancements also need to be aware that other people may be relying on what they produce.
“I would like programmers to feel a lot more pressure,” he said. “We can build software in the programming environments that will pay more attention to what we're trying to accomplish, software that tries to catch bugs before they get loose and cause trouble. They need to feel some pressure to make sure that reliability is there.”
Amy Meng – chapter president of The Triple Helix, another student organization that co-hosted the event – said Cerf’s comments on responsibility were particularly striking, and a sentiment she would take back to share with her organization.
“A lot of technologies that are being created, their social implications are not known. And by the time we do figure it out, we’re going to have so much deaths, casualties, injustices,” she said. “I think that when we’re approaching STEM, [we should do it] not just for the intellectual stimulation because it’s fun and cool, but also because it’s ultimately a service for the world. We have to think about the people we’re serving before we think about ourselves.”
Following the event, Cerf said he hoped that attendees took away “how invigorating” this kind of research can be, and that maybe a few were inspired with ideas for their own work.
“I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but I’m still just as excited now as I ever was about this kind of research,” Cerf said. “Persistence and patience are the two properties that are most important to success. You have to be really persistent, and you can’t give up. That’s certainly how it was for us on the Internet.”