Vint Cerf: Engineering the Internet

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14 April 2020 3 minute read


Whether you're streaming your favourite TV show, video conferencing with colleagues, posting a photo of your food on Instagram, or helping to build a to a global, community-driven supercomputer – you need the internet.

Throughout history there have been several feats of engineering that have forever changed the way that we communicate, and how we see our world – inventions such as the printing press, the telegraph, and the steam engine all fundamentally altered daily human life. One of the most recent of these life-changing innovations is the internet. With around 4.5 billion people online in 2020, few other innovations can compare to the internet’s sheer ubiquity, speed, and global impact.

This ‘network of networks’ is pervasive; it's created a degree of global connectivity that would not have been thought possible 50 years ago. With just a few clicks, we can work with people thousands of miles away, keep up to date with local or global news, monitor core infrastructure, and learn a variety of new skills. There’s also a lot of pet videos to watch.

The internet is now weaved through nearly every aspect of modern life and yet, despite this familiarity we have with it, for most people there are still a lot of unknowns. How does an email actually travel from place to place? Is access to information a human right or is it owned by corporations? Is fake news here to stay? Can we make an internet in space?

In this episode of Create the Future, we answer those questions with one of the internet’s creators: QEPrize winner, chief internet evangelist, and trademark three-piece suit wearer, Vint Cerf. We explore his work creating the fundamental protocols of the internet, unpack what it means to evangelise the internet, and discuss the biggest challenges that face the internet’s future.

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About the guest

Vinton (Vint) Cerf, born 23 June 1943, is an American computer scientist who is considered one of the ‘fathers of the Internet’. He obtained a BSc in mathematics at Stanford University and a PhD from UCLA in 1972, where he met Bob Kahn and worked on ARPANET. Cerf then moved to the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Cerf has been Vice President of MCI Digital Information Services and Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI). He was Founding President of the Internet Society and served as Chair of the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. He was a member of the US Presidential Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) and continues to attend committees focused on cyber-security.

In October 2005, Cerf became Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. He is President of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and sits on the Board of Directors for a number of organisations. He was appointed by President Obama to serve on the National Science Board beginning in February 2013. Cerf is a Fellow of many institutions is a member of the US National Academy of Engineering. He has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and has a number of awards recognising his leadership and contribution to the internet.

Episode Highlights

  • "The Internet Protocol layer is easily understood if you know anything about postcards."
  • "Much of the design of the internet is a consequence of thinking logically about the constraints on the problem and then deriving solutions which were almost obvious."
  • "I think this is the essence of engineering, it is the desire to design and build things that other people can use. There's nothing more satisfying to an engineer than to be given a problem to solve and to have the solution be useful to other people. Those are two really wonderful incentives for being an engineer."
  • "It is an engineering success. And I consider myself [an engineer], although I am trained as a computer scientist. I like to build things, and I like people to use what I build. So there's a synergy between the computer science side, which is the theory behind packet switching, which is what animates the basic internet structure. And then there's the practical side, which is building something which is affordable, which is reliable, which is secure, which we have some work to do on, and which provides a platform on top of which new applications can be built."
  • "I didn't ask for that title. In fact, when they asked me what title I wanted, I said Archduke. But Larry and Eric and Sergei went away and came back and they said: “You know, the previous Archduke was Ferdinand, and he was assassinated in 1914, and it started World War One. Maybe that's a bad title to have. Why don't you be our Chief Internet Evangelist?”"

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