Vint Cerf’s internet history lesson at University of Waterloo mixes humour and hope with words of warning

Vint Cerf, University of Waterloo
The co-developer of TCP/IP shares thoughts on interoperability, accessibility, preservation.

I had some ideas about what I’d hear in a lecture from Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet,” at the University of Waterloo’s Humanities Theatre on Tuesday, June 11, for a public lecture titled “Internet: Past, Present, and Future.” 

Along with Bob Kahn, Cerf co-designed the TCP/IP protocol, which is the foundation for almost all the technologies we depend on today, from Slack and Instagram to remote surgery robots and autonomous vehicles. So I was prepared for him to cover 70 years of internet history, from his work on the ARPANET project in the 1970s to solving challenges on the interplanetary Internet project today.

I didn’t expect an explanation of artificial intelligence (AI) hallucinations as a Sigmund Freud impression. 

“We provided an incredibly inventive and creative new environment for people. What they decide to do with it is their decision, not ours.”

Asked about AI’s impact on humanity, Cerf shared a story of asking an AI tool to write his obituary. The obituary got some things right, but Cerf noted it also gave him credit for innovations he didn’t work on and even invented extra family members who don’t exist. 

What we have here is the artificial id and the artificial ego, und what we are missing is the artificial uber ego to control the uncontrollable impulses of the artificial id.

The comedy should have been expected. Cerf is known for being humble, funny, and—at times—self-deprecating. It’s a reputation that’s well-earned. In his hour-long lecture, Cerf wove decades of stories into a narrative of the internet’s origins and the challenges in bringing it to the Moon, Mars, and beyond—yes, the interplanetary internet is a thing. Keeping the pace at an almost breakneck speed, the 80-year-old innovator reminds you of George Carlin wearing a three-piece suit. 

But it wasn’t all jokes. After the lecture, Cerf stayed on stage for an extended Q&A session, fielding challenging questions about the current state of the internet. One audience member asked directly if Cerf felt responsible for any of the negative consequences of technologies created using the protocols he helped develop.

“All the bad stuff, right?” Cerf said to laughter before striking a serious tone.

“Personally, I don’t think that that’s a technology question. I don’t even think it’s a regulatory question. I actually think it’s a societal question, he said. “We need new societal norms that guide our behaviour in the online environment. Now, whether we can get there, I don’t know. But I kind of wish that companies like Google and others would benefit from hiring sociologists and anthropologists to help us understand what the impact is of these technologies on the way our societies work.” 

“We provided an incredibly inventive and creative new environment for people. What they decide to do with it is their decision, not ours. I will accept the point that there are bad things that happen and I would like to get rid of them. But I refuse to take responsibility for other people’s decisions to abuse the system.”

BetaKit continued the conversation with Cerf after the event about the state of the system he helped create. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Vint Cerf, University of Waterloo
You’ve written and spoken about your concerns about the “Digital Dark Age,” in which we lose access to physical media or digital formats because technologies become obsolete. What is the risk?

The thing that really struck me is that our ability to preserve content—writing, imagery, video, and so on—has eroded over time. Imagine it’s 4,000 BC, and we’re using clay tablets to keep track of inventory records in a warehouse, and the warehouse is burned down. The clay tablets get baked, and if you still can read cuneiform, we preserved that information for several thousand years on that medium. The next most common medium after that is sheepskin or calfskin. Then you get Papyrus, which doesn’t last all that long unless it’s in a dry environment. Then you get to rag content paper, which easily lasts 500 years or more. But then you get wood pulp paper, which doesn’t nearly last as long. It might last 100 years at best. Then you get newsprint, which lasts for three days if you’re lucky.

Then, you get to the digital media. We have eight-inch floppy disks for a word processor. The problem is that even if the disks survived and the bits are still on the disk, we can’t find anything to read them. The same is true for five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy, three-and-a-half-inch floppy, and DVD ROMs. 

It feels like the longevity of the media we use to store digital content is getting shorter, and I’m actually worried that in our increasingly digital world, which surreptitiously looks like everything should last forever, we’ll lose information because we don’t have the tools to access it. 

You spoke about your work to make the internet available to anyone who wants it. Today, over five billion people have access, but one of the blockers isn’t regulatory or connectivity-related. Instead, they have an accessibility issue. You and your wife are both hard of hearing, and I wanted to ask where you would like to see more effort put into making the internet accessible to people living with a disability.

What is really tough is that the people who make the software that makes the internet useful don’t always have very good intuition about how to make things accessible. If you imagine just putting a blindfold on helps you figure out what it’s like to be blind, you’ll be wrong. The same is true for hearing problems, you can stick wax in your ear, but it will not really teach you what it’s what the hard problems are about deafness. 

We need to train people in a way that gives them more intuition about how to make something accessible. One of the most powerful tools for training is giving people real-world examples of what works and what doesn’t work. It’s really surprising how we manage to intuit the essence of a good design from examples that show you what’s good and what’s bad. 

What about accessibility requirements, such as those in the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act here in Ontario?

It’s one thing to say you have to do this as a law. It’s something else to have the ability to do it. I see many people who desire to make things more accessible, but they don’t have the skill set or the intuition about design that’s accessible. Then there’s another term that’s increasingly used now called usability, which doesn’t over-focus on disability, it just focuses on what makes something useful and intuitive.

I think we need lots more catalogues and examples of things that work and don’t work and why they do and don’t work. The more people have those examples, the more likely it is they’ll ingest some understanding of what intuitive design really is.

I wanted to swing back to the interplanetary internet. When I heard of the interplanetary internet, I thought it was a lot farther off than it actually is. It’s here now. I think of the Wright Brothers who would be blown away by what flies in the skies today. You helped design the foundation that shaped how we live our daily lives nearly 50 years ago. What is it like to see what it has become today? 

How did we get the internet to happen at all? The answer is a whole lot of cooperative work. An amazing number of people contributed and continue to contribute to the evolution of the system. And it’s the fact that the system accommodates contributions from people in so many different ways, and it continues to evolve, and people continue to contribute. 

“That’s a very powerful motivator to feel like you’re part of something bigger than you are.” 

When kids ask me, ‘How do you do something big?’ And my answer is, if you’re smart, you get help from people who are smarter than you are. That’s what Bob and I did. We assembled a team of really bright people. I really wanted to make this work, and had different perspectives on what the challenges were and how they could be overcome. 

We didn’t imagine necessarily any things that we see today. But I think our model has as much simplicity as we could manage that would still give the needed interoperability. That was always a very high focus: how do we maintain interoperability? You then persuade people to build to those standards because they had reason to expect that things would work. 

That was, certainly for me, the primary goal. Making things interwork that would otherwise not. The internet really succeeded in doing that. I don’t think any of us go around with a big head saying, ’Look what I did.’ Because that’s not what happened. What happened is we found a way to allow a large number of people to contribute to making this thing work. 

That’s a very powerful motivator to feel like you’re part of something bigger than you are. I know, that sounds very cliche. But that’s really what this has been.

Images courtesy The University of Waterloo.

Alex Kinsella

Alex Kinsella

Alex Kinsella is a freelance writer based in Kitchener, Ontario. He's worked with some of Canada's most well-known tech companies in customer success, development, product management, PR, social media, and marketing. Alex has contributed to publications, including BetaKit, The Globe and Mail, The Community Edition, and Grand Magazine.

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