Much has changed in the world of cyberspace since Jan. 1, 1983, the date often called “the birthday of the internet.” Yet the internet’s fundamental architecture—the communications protocol that allows computer networks all over the world to talk to each other—remains essentially the same. This is largely thanks to a design that Vint Cerf sketched on the back of an envelope while holed up with fellow computer scientist Robert Kahn in a
cabana nearly 50 years ago.
“Bob and I were like two hands on one pencil,” Dr. Cerf, 79, says over video from his home in McLean, Va., dressed in his usual three-piece suit. “We had a Stanford secretary type it up, and what did we do with the handwritten original? We threw it away! Historians have never forgiven me,” he adds with a laugh.
“Cerf is still looking for ways to get more people online and to improve safety and security.”
The invention has earned Dr. Cerf a mantel’s worth of awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received with Dr. Kahn in 2005 for creating software code that has “transformed global commerce, communication and entertainment.” As vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, a position he’s held since 2005, Dr. Cerf is still looking for ways to get more people online and to improve safety and security. “The internet can be abused,” he allows, nodding to the way it helps spread misinformation and disinformation. To solve this “propagation problem,” he says, companies like Google need to better “understand how these mechanisms influence the way people behave.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Dr. Cerf was 10 years old when he decided that he wanted to be a scientist. He enjoyed reading about inventors and tinkering with chemicals to get them to explode: “I’ll tell you, chemistry sets in 1953 had stuff in it you’d never get today.” In 1957, the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik, the Earth’s first artificial satellite, led to a big federal push to teach more science and technology in U.S. public schools. “I got the benefit of that,” he says. At Van Nuys High School, he took accelerated programs in math, chemistry and physics and graduated as class valedictorian in 1961.
Computers bewitched Dr. Cerf at a young age. He was 15 when his father, a hardware salesman who served in the Navy during World War II, took him to see an early computer called SAGE, for semi-automatic ground environment. He was impressed by the way it used radar and a distributed network of computing systems to distinguish Russian bombers from Canada geese coming over the North Pole. With Steve Crocker, a fellow Van Nuys student and future colleague, Dr. Cerf would play with computers at nearby UCLA. “We’d use a paper-tape Bendix G-15 computer to calculate transcendental functions before anybody else in high school had access to computers,” he recalls wistfully. “That was one big deal.”
Before heading off to Stanford to study math on a scholarship, Dr. Cerf spent six months at Rocketdyne, a rocket engine design and production company, where he wrote software to analyze tests on the F-1 engines needed to propel rockets into space. “I worked on the
program in this tiny little way, but for me it was very exciting,” he says.
Having taken “every computing class” he could at Stanford, Dr. Cerf graduated in 1965 and returned to Los Angeles to work at
“The magic of computers is you create a world and you’re in charge of it, but then you discover it does what you tell it to do, not always what you want it to do,” he explains. “I discovered early on that creating bugs is easy and finding them was hard.” To learn more about fundamentals, he went to UCLA for a master’s degree in computer science in 1970 and a doctorate in 1972.
Dr. Cerf has worn hearing aids since he was 13. “I was just discovering girls,” he recalls, “and it turns out when you’re making out your hearing aids squeak, but when you take them off you can’t talk, which was awkward.” He credits his disability with nudging him to work at companies that invested in the development of email and also for introducing him to his wife, Sigrid, whom he met in 1965 because they shared a hearing-aid dealer. On their first date he told her that one of her favorite paintings, a wall-size Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, looked like a floating green hamburger. “To my good fortune, she decided I was reparable,” he says; they got married in 1966 and have two sons.
While at UCLA, Dr. Cerf got swept up in what would become a precursor to the internet. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, another post-Sputnik federal effort to drive technological innovation (later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA), sought a way to reduce costs and speed progress in computer science and artificial intelligence by linking various university computers together. With a team led by his high-school friend Dr. Crocker, Dr. Cerf helped to develop a protocol that allowed diverse computers to exchange data and electronic mail through a network called ARPANET. “We were blasting open a whole new field,” he says of the early days. “Of course I got drawn into this and never escaped.”
In 1973, Dr. Cerf was a professor at Stanford and Dr. Kahn was at DARPA when they began working on a protocol flexible enough for ARPANET to connect with military units all over the world, including at the front line. They developed a design for the new Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) within six months, spent the next few years refining it, and demonstrated it in late 1977. Dr. Cerf recalls jumping up and down and saying, “It works! It works!” “Anytime software works it’s a miracle,” he explains.
At the start of 1983, a few select operating systems around the world switched over to the TCP/IP, marking the beginning of what is now called the internet. To hasten its spread, Dr. Cerf and Dr. Kahn decided not to patent it or have the government declare it classified. “We wanted it to become an international standard,” he explains.
Efforts to monetize the internet, which soon included national labs and over 3,000 universities, began cropping up in 1989. Dr. Cerf recalls learning that a two-story display of networking equipment from
cost around a quarter of a million dollars. “I thought, holy cow, somebody must think they’re going to make money out of the internet!” Commercializing the internet has widened its reach, but Dr. Cerf acknowledges the downsides, noting that feedback algorithms seem to be steering people to “more divisive and extreme stuff.”
He says that users need more tools “to defend our safety and security and privacy” and that businesses should do more to rein in trolling, bullying, lying and spying on the internet. But Dr. Cerf insists that there is no easy technological fix. “This is a sociological and psychological problem as well,” he argues. “We need more critical thinking.” The bugs, in essence, are human, too.
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