Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, often referred to as the “Fathers of the Internet,” united once again on April 4th for a talk dubbed “A Look at the Internet’s Future.” The event was hosted by the Princeton Club of Washington as part of its speaker series for Princeton University alumni in the Washington, D.C. area.
In 1974, in what essentially began as a research project pushed by Kahn’s inquisitive mind, the two invented Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which enables machines on different networks to transmit data and serves as the architectural foundation for the Internet. Despite their immeasurable contributions, the two innovators were strikingly humble and quick to dole out credit to others, describing the creation of the current Internet as a function of the efforts of thousands of people, and attributing its success not just to the underlying technology, but to the social structures developed to grow, evolve, and manage it.
This emphasis on collaboration emerged as the theme for the evening. TCP/IP’s open-architecture and packet encapsulation were intentionally designed to allow anyone to build their own piece of internet and connect it to others without any central control. This has facilitated what Cerf refers to as “permissionless innovation” — that is, people’s freedom to try out new ideas.
Cerf and Kahn did acknowledge one failure of TCP/IP: the inability to function at the interplanetary level due to celestial motion and the sluggish speed of light. But not to worry; Cerf chairs the InterPlanetary Networking Special Interest Group (IPNSIG) and is working to ensure new protocols are developed to bring Earth, Mars, and the International Space Station “online” by 2020.
Cerf and Kahn also pointed to the importance of ensuring collaboration over time, calling it out as one of the more daunting problems yet to be solved: how do you sustain the ability to find and interpret digital content over thousands of years? Proprietary programs are typically required to manifest specific types of data, but these programs evolve on a regular basis, making files and their data difficult to access after five or ten years, let alone a thousand. With this in mind, Cerf emphasized creating protocol to identify information by its data structure rather than the technology of the day. The challenge here is reinventing the semantics of digital objects to allow for inter-operability and future interpretation.
As time marches forward, technology will continue to progress in many unforeseen ways. It will be up to us as users to preserve our data for future generations. The free and open exchange of information and methodologies exhibited and advocated by Cerf and Kahn is perhaps the best chance we have to ensure the viability of our digital ideas.
Post by: Ann Watters, an analyst for the Praescient Initiatives Group.