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New Award Could Become Nobel for Engineering

  • Al Pessin

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth has launched a global prize for engineering that some people involved hope will become the engineering equivalent of the Nobel Prize for scientific achievement. The queen presented the first award to five men who invented the Internet and developed the ways one third of the world’s population uses it.

At Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth presented her first ever Prize for Engineering, including one million British pounds, to Americans Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, and Frenchman Louis Pouzin for inventing the Internet’s basic protocols. They shared the award with Britain’s Tim Berners-Lee, who created the Worldwide Web and American Marc Andreesen, who invented the first web browsing software.

The morning after they received the award, three of the winners spoke to hundreds of students from London schools, many of whom carry devices more powerful than the computers the men used to develop the Internet.

They were joined by students in Swaziland who participated, of course, through the Internet.

Award winner Robert Kahn said the Internet is so much a part of people’s lives, they don’t really think about it.

“A lot of people don’t really know exactly what the Internet is. To me, it’s all about the protocols for making things work together - to link together networks, computers, application programs - which a lot of people didn’t think was a particularly good idea when we first started out on it. But it’s turned out to be pretty impactful worldwide,” Kahn said.

Kahn’s co-winner and partner in developing the TCP/IP protocol that makes Internet traffic possible is Vinton Cerf, now a vice president of Google. He wore a Google Glass Internet micro-computer.

“The significance is not the winning. The significance is the existence of the prize at all, especially with Her Majesty’s name attached to it. It elevates engineering to the same level of visibility and recognition as the Nobel Prizes,” Cerf said.

Both men say their satisfaction comes from the broad use of the Internet and the fact that their basic technical architecture still underpins it.

But they acknowledge the privacy and security issues the Internet has created, highlighted most recently by revelations about U.S. government surveillance programs designed to fight terrorism.

“We are still in the middle of this rapid evolution of the Internet and its applications. And we are going to have to learn, as a society, which things are acceptable and which things are not, what we should prohibit, and what things we should punish people for doing,” Cerf said.

“Those are not tensions that are just easily resolved - check the box and proceed this way or that way. They require constant attention, especially in democratic societies,” Kahn said.

Kahn says technologies always have had what he calls “plusses and minuses,” and the Internet is no different. But he also says that even after 40 years, there is no foreseeable end to the demand for the technology he and his co-winners developed.

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