Vinton Cerf: Interplanetary googler

Posted on March 4, 2003 
Filed Under Julian, Profile, The Star

By Julian Matthews

It is hard to imagine the always dapper Vinton Grey Cerf used to enjoy blowing up things.

At the age of 10, he got his first chemistry set and, together with a cohort, made match-head rockets and mixed chemicals to mimic volcanoes in his backyard in California.Vint Cerf

“I read a book called The Boy Scientist and knew I wanted to be one,” he says.

Today, half a century later, that incendiary boy is the acknowledged “father of the Internet”. And it comes as no surprise he’s still dabbling with rocket science. Cerf is currently a visiting scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The admitted sci-fi buff is laying the specs for mankind’s first extraterrestrial contact and taking the Internet to infinity and beyond; to boldly go where no modem has been before.

In this interview, the amiable co-inventor of TCP/IP — the data transmission protocols that formed the basis for the Internet on earth 30 years ago — reveals he is partial to fine wine, channel surfs for Star Trek re-runs and personally books his wife’s hotel rooms on trips.

Vint, as he prefers to be called, also talks about the shuttle tragedy and the implications for the Interplanetary Internet project and comments on the infernal menace of spam, blogging and the dire possibility of an Internet “takedown”.


Trinetizen: Has the shuttle tragedy affected the roll-out of the InterPlanetary Internet?

Vint: The loss left us all with heavy hearts. We must acknowledge that space flight is still a dangerous and risky business.

Even our robotic missions have had successes and failures. Indeed our successes have been high enough in number that we tend to forget that these missions, manned and unmanned, rely on so many things going right that the probabilities of success, despite many back up systems, are by no means 100 percent.

The unmanned missions, as far as I am aware, will continue unabated. They use different launch systems than the shuttle. Indeed, while the shuttle missions are grounded, funding for the unmanned robotic missions might conceivably improve since the operational costs of the shuttle missions would be reduced in the near term.

Of course, a great deal of effort will be spent to understand and possibly revise the shuttle system although there are some opinions suggesting that the decades old shuttle design may have to be replaced by a space plane concept in which you literally fly to orbit. Such a change would probably take about 10 years and a substantial amount of money to develop.


Trinetizen: Spam is proving to be an unstoppable menace. What solutions would you suggest? Can astronauts on Mars one day expect to be spammed with ads for thermal underwear?

Vint: LOL! The problem is very clear: we like inexpensive (almost free) email and this preference invites spammers to send email to us because it is less expensive than any other form of mass communication.

If we tried to charge spammers, we would also have to charge ourselves for “legitimate” email. Of course, one person’s spam may be of interest to another - rather like the free catalogs one receives in abundance in the regular post. It feels close to impossible to eradicate.


Trinetizen: We have come to believe that the Internet will survive a nuclear war, yet we have seen how DDoS attacks on root servers, the Code Red II virus and SQL Slammer worm has affected performance considerably. Is it reasonable to suggest that - given a coordinated attack by a malicious group of hackers - the Internet can be taken down, or disrupted completely as in a blackout?

Vint: The Internet’s hosts have shown clear vulnerability to distributed denial of service attacks. Moreover, the sources of these attacks are computers that themselves have been demonstrated to be vulnerable to “capture” through gaining of control of the operating system.

The implementers of the operating systems with such vulnerabilities must bear some of the blame. Many of these systems were designed to be personal computers and little or no expectation that they would be universally networked went into their design and test criteria.

The underlying routers are also potentially vulnerable and polluted routing information can cause massive problems on the net.

Consequently, I think it is reasonable and even prudent to assume that the Internet is vulnerable to “take down” although in all the years it has been running, it has appeared to fail only in part even under fairly severe attack.

The recent attack on the root servers called attention to the possibility of seriously affecting the network’s capacity to respond to domain name queries, for example. A sustained attack on the roots or the top-level domain servers would clearly have a major effect on the net.


Trinetizen: The threat of “cyberwar” and “Internet terrorism” are terms being bandied about even as the US prepares for a war with Iraq. Do you believe a scenario in which one country or a band of cyber-terrorists could target another country’s electronic infrastructure is actually plausible or the stuff of paranoia and science fiction?

Vint: It is not science fiction or paranoia. As we rely more and more on the Internet and its applications for day-to-day business, we accept the risk that failure of the network will have a direct impact on our national electronic infrastructure. It is strong motivation to develop increasingly resilient systems at the host level and within the network itself.


Trinetizen: What do you think of the blogging phenomenon and our insatiable need to record and document everything online? Has the web swung us from couch potatoes to the other extreme of multi-tasking super-interactive beasts of opinion-mongers?

Vint: Since blogs have to be accessed by deliberate decision, at least these endless diaries are not “in your face” in the same way spam is (Oh, Lord, what have I just suggested? Blogspam?).

I think this is merely an indicator that we would collectively and individually like our lives to “count” somehow and if someone finds our blogs of interest, it is confirmation that our lives and opinions are making a difference to someone.


Trinetizen: Critics of Tim Berners-Lee’s Semantic Web suggest he is reaching for a utopia in which we will cede all intelligence to machines. They query whether if all intelligence migrates to the Internet, will we be left with a “stupid human network” on this side of the keyboard.

Vint: I think such a characterization is misaligned with fact. Tim’s idea is largely that by more carefully marking the syntactic and semantic “place” of words on the Web we increase our ability to isolate information more accurately through search engines.

Moreover, software that needs to interpret the meaning of, say, an invoice, can do so with more certainty if the contents are properly labeled. I see this as simply a step in the direction of improving the ability of software to work with the same documents we use, but to do so with increasing precision. One can see the principle at work in email already.

The headers of email messages have carefully limned meanings and are marked “To”, “From”, “CC”, “Subject” and so on. This makes it possible for the email transport agents to figure out where to deliver messages and the email client software to figure out how to present and sort the mail.

It is silly to equate these things with the migration of all intelligence into the Internet.

IPV6 in 2006

Trinetizen: You suggest your only regret when formulating TCP/IP was the fact you chose a 32-bit addressing system. How do you think the world will change with IPv6 when every human may have his/her own IP address? Do you foresee privacy problems? Is the slogan 6 by 6 a realistic timeframe?

Vint: There is great inertia in a system that continues to work well so there has not yet been felt great pressure among the users of the Internet to require IPv6 address scope. One should not characterize IPv6 as permanently assigning a label to every human. IP addresses are more like fixed line telephone numbers or postal addresses. They indicate where you have plugged into the Internet. They are not mobile labels. I do not think IPv6 poses privacy problems any more that IPv4 does.

Eventually there will be many more than 4 x 109 devices on the Internet and they will need addresses. NAT (Network Address Translation) boxes are simply an indication of the need for increased address space.

I still hope we can get IPv6 into regular operation by 2006 but there is a significant amount of work to be done to get there. Perhaps it will take longer.


Trinetizen: You have previously noted your disappointments about the Internet as :

(i)slow pace of high speed access for residential customers

(ii)continued difficulty caused by viruses, worms and DDoS attacks.

(i)Residential customers suggest they don’t want broadband until prices fall or there is a justifiable killer app. Do you believe the resistance lies with the telcos, providers or consumers?

Vint: The supply of broadband does not meet demand. Cable turns out to have the unfortunate characteristic that the more people on the system, the slower it gets. DSL is simply not available after a certain distance from the central office - there is much gnashing of teeth in new communities of homes too far from central offices for DSL.

I think the WWW and email are already killer apps for broadband - as is music and as will be videos. Perhaps when we all have our own video servers at home and we want to share contents, we will see that broadband, symmetric services (such as gigabit ethernet) are the preferred choice. However that will likely require fiber to the home or very nearby and that will be a costly step.

I have seen small groups of users combine their requirements to obtain 1.5 or 2 Mb/s service that they share using Wi-Fi among a few homes near enough for this to work. When all else fails, users often find solutions!

Trinetizen: (ii)Security experts suggest more complex virus-worms are in store in coming year and DDoS attacks will persist. What does it say of humankind when we attack the very thing that provides us constructive interaction?

Vint: Sadly the Internet is a mirror of mankind and vandalism has been and probably always will be a problem. That some people gain pleasure from causing others trouble has long been a mystery to me and a source of genuine sadness. That the magnificent gift of brains should produce such twisted results is an irony of enormous magnitude.


Trinetizen: There is great disillusionment about the Internet after the dotcom fallout, huge layoffs and the uncovering of shenanigans in Big Corporate America. There is now a certain cynicism towards tech companies and “new technology” of any kind.

What is your take on what took place and do you think the industry has sobered up, or is the party about to get started again? What do you tell people who are distrustful of the all-things-tech?

Vint: First I think the lesson here is not that high tech is bad or untrustworthy. It should teach us that arrogance and greed are a hypergolic combination.

In our greed to reap unwarranted gains, millions of people poured hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars into “investments” that had no firm business basis. The tulip craze in the Netherlands comes to mind as another such disaster. If anything, we should learn that “get rich quick” is not a formula for success but only for excess.

My impression is that the venture capital market is beginning to look at investment again, but it is doing so with caution and a jaundiced eye. Solid questions are being asked, as they should be, before significant investments are made.

I don’t think that the Internet has fully delivered on its promise and I believe there is much more to come but I hope we do not experience another Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in the course of its future evolution.


Trinetizen: Governments persist in trying to control the Internet and applying outdated laws to web access and use. They try to promote e-government initiatives to build bridges with citizenry who are increasingly borderless in their interactions and trading. This is especially true in some countries where government control is omni-pervasive and Internet penetration on the rise eg: blocking sites in Singapore/China, anti-gambling in Australia, online press censorship in Malaysia, etc.

How do such centralized/localized/entrenched institutions compete with a decentralized/global/anarchical phenomenon as the web and Internet? (Negroponte suggests the only thing to do is ’step aside’. Do you agree?)

Vint: Negroponte and I do not agree, assuming your characterization of his position is accurate. Geopolitical boundaries continue to be significant. We live in the real world and boundaries are going to persist. Nation states are not going away.

However, the democratizing and globalizing effects of the Internet are just one more step in a path started by the telegraph, radio, television and global satellites. Many conventional laws still apply on the net. Fraud is fraud and theft is theft.

But we will have to re-think some conventional laws to understand how they may apply in the online and digital world. The struggle over digital intellectual property is but one example.

However, it is fair to say that the borderlessness of the Internet is not too different from the telephone and postal services that allow global interaction.

Visiting a web site to place an order is not too different than using the phone or making a postal catalog order. One difference is that in the digital world, the results of the order may be delivered digitally and on the spot. That IS different and perhaps therein lies a significant change.

Government institutions are not all that centralized if you take into account municipal and state/provincial government in addition to national government. I actually think it is a good thing that government services are being offered through the World Wide Web. The potential to serve citizens 24 hours a day has a lot of appeal.


Trinetizen: Big media/music publishers are trying to wrest control of all digital content and enforce their intellectual property rights in a world where “piracy” is the order of the day. What is your take on whether such rights are enforceable, given that a little anarchy on the net is what made it flourish in the first place?

Vint: Piracy of intellectual property is a massive problem for the industry and has been since well before the Internet. Copying of tapes — audio and video — has long been an issue although the fidelity offered by digital copying is a qualitative difference of considerable concern to the industry. I think we will come out of this struggle with new notions of fair use just as the publishing industry had to reach new views with the advent of the xerographic copier.

I think there will be a number of experiments to try to manage digital rights and eventually a framework for doing so will evolve. But the ease of duplicating digital content will likely lead to new definitions of fair use.


Trinetizen: Developing economies continue to try to protect their telco incumbents and prevent VoIP in places such as India, China, Nigeria and Panama. Do you think such resistance is futile?

Vint: One hopes so since the economics of VoIP suggest that it is folly to resist the tide let alone the tidal wave. The economics of the telecommunications industry is in serious flux as the technology of the Internet introduces major alternatives to conventional systems and services.

A new equilibrium must be and will be reached. WorldCom has already taken the first step with its fixed price Neighborhood and business Connections services.

(Note: Vint is also Senior VP of Architecture & Technology at WorldCom)


Trinetizen: Give us a rundown of a day-in-the-life of Vinton Cerf. How much time do you actually spend on the web and what websites do you regard as daily must-reads ?

Vint: It hardly seems that any day is typical but I tend to be an early riser - around 5:30 - 6 a.m. most days, earlier on others. I’m not a big exercise fan so my day does not start with 100 squat jumps and push-ups. More like brushing teeth and a cuppa coffee, thanks. Grab the newspaper if I’m at home. Get on the net to check overnight email. Spend a couple of hours on email with occasional web surfing to pick up a fact or three. Typically a bunch of conference calls - with Powerpoint or Net Meeting on a conventional telephone bridge. If I am in the office (a rarity these days with all the travel) there will be a few meetings on technical designs, evaluations of new product plans.

Since I sit on a number of boards, many of the conference calls will be about board matters. I am chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and have monthly board calls and quarterly board meetings.

I sit on a number of other for-profit and non-profit boards. Last week for example I spent two days at Gallaudet University where I am a board trustee. This is a school in Washington, DC that specializes in education for the deaf.

(Note: Vint is hearing-impaired and wears two hearing aids)

I will fly to London tonight to meet with an Intel technology board and I was in London last week to meet with customers there, and in Berlin to participate in a study group looking at Internet governance policies. To be honest, a typical day seems to start out at a hotel somewhere other than Northern Virginia where I live when I am not traveling.

On travel, I am usually speaking at conferences or customer events, meeting with companies to review new products and technologies.

I spend a few days a month working on the Interplanetary Internet - every other month at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California where I have an appointment as a visiting scientist.

Because I am on the road a good deal, I keep a half-packed suitcase. Generally it takes about 10 minutes to prepare for a two-week trip (at least as far as packing goes).

As to typical web sites - I am an inveterate Google user - it has become an antidote to memory loss! This morning it helped to find information on the space shuttle, a hotel for my wife next week en route to New Zealand, current news, weather report, and some bill paying for local utilities.

Dinner at home typically means a trip to the basement wine cellar to find an appropriate bottle. On the road, the wine menu serves the same purpose (but is less fun, really).

By 10 or 11 pm I am channel surfing, hoping to find an episode of Star Trek before cracking a book to read myself to sleep. :-)

Published in TechCentral, The Star, Malaysia, March 04, 2003.


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