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Internet Pioneer Vint Cerf Still Looking Forward


Vint Cerf is often called the "Father of the Internet." He doesn't like the title much, saying there are others who deserve to share the credit. But he was there at the beginning, as a co-designer of the basic architecture of the Internet. He now works for Google as their chief Internet evangelist.

But just because Vint Cerf doesn't like to be called the father of the Internet doesn't mean that he's not proud of the youngster he helped bring into the world.

"Well, the kid certainly has gotten a lot bigger than it was when we started," Cerf says.

"If you looked at 1997 statistics, just 12 years ago, there were about 50 million users. Now there's over 1.7 billion of them. It's also being used in ways that it wasn't being used when we were first doing the design. So the rate of introduction of innovative new applications has been pretty dramatic. And as the number of users grows, the rate at which innovation occurs also increases. So the Net is transforming itself literally day by day."

Along with fellow Internet pioneer Robert Kahn, Cerf has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Technology.

Helping the world get online

As Google's chief Internet evangelist, he says his job is to promote the expansion of the Internet.

"Well, it mostly means that part of my job is to help get the Internet to go where no Internet has gone before. Only about 25 percent of the world's population is in fact online and able to access the Internet. So the other 75 percent needs some help, and my job is to stimulate thinking about investment in the expansion of the Internet in every dimension possible."

In an interview during an industry conference in Washington, Cerf spoke about the so-called digital divide that separates the Internet haves from the have-nots. He says the digital divide is usually a consequence of economics.

"If you can't afford to buy the equipment, or you can't afford to pay for access service, then you are disenfranchised," he says. "The question, then, is what to do about that.

"By good fortune, technology is moving in our favor. The cost of the devices that can do Internet is coming down. More and more mobiles are capable of doing Internet, for example. In addition to the reduced cost of the equipment, competition or other regulatory actions is driving the cost of access down as well."

And with the drop in those prices - for equipment and Internet access - more people will be able to afford to go online.

Another way the digital divide is being bridged, Cerf said, is with more Internet cafes, which effectively spread the cost of equipment and access over a community of users.

"But I think the most dramatic one will almost certainly be mobiles, because they are rapidly proliferating around the world. There's an estimated 4 billion of them in use right now. Not all of them are Internet capable; maybe 20 percent of them are. But right away that's 800 million more people using the Net."

The Internet's downside

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf says his biggest disappointment with the Internet is the vast amount of poor quality information now available online, not to mention cyber-pathologies such as viruses, identity theft, stalking and so on.

"That's an inescapable side effect, unfortunately, and although I regret it, I recognize that that's also a sign that the Internet has become available to a very broad swath of our planet."

Moving beyond the World Wide Web

When asked what has been his biggest surprise, he talked about the eagerness, the determination of users to post information on the Internet for all the world to see.

For all of this world to see, so far. In recent years Vint Cerf has actually been working on an Interplanetary Protocol, for moving data around a future Internet not stuck here on our home world.

The problem is that the current system for moving data around the Internet wasn't really built to cope with the very long time lags and poor reliability of space transmission.

"And so we had to invent a new suite of protocols that we call 'delay and disruption tolerant networking.' What surprised me out of all that is that we discovered that those protocols are actually useful terrestrially in earthbound application, so now we're seeing people using these interplanetary protocols in order to make more robust the surface communications in mobile operations."

How to keep up with changing technology?


Life in the digital world changes so rapidly, that files created only a decade or so ago may be unreadable because they were created with what is now obsolete software. Will a PowerPoint or Microsoft Word or JPG or MP3 file be useable in 100 years? A thousand? Cerf has written about what he calls "bit rot."

"The thing I worry about is that, as we create more and more digital content and put it into the Net, that we run an increasingly large risk over time of not being able to interpret the data that we're accumulating in the Net. There are a tangle of problems associated with this thing I'm calling bit rot, not solved yet. Librarians [are] caring a great deal about this problem, and others as well. [We] must solve [it], or all the information on the Internet will eventually become useless."

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