Most of us, if we helped invent something that would bring in a decent amount of money (not to mention change the world), would expect to receive a decent share of the profits, if not the lion's share.
Vinton Cerf, however, does not belong to most people. He is most often referred to as the “Father of the Internet”, although he will modestly and squeamishly correct anyone who uses the term in his presence. In fact, he is the co-inventor of one of the key protocols on which the Internet has been based for 50 years, and one of the few pioneers who have been working on it since the very early days of its existence.
Eight of the 10 richest people in the world owe a significant part of his fortune – in the aggregate more than one trillion dollars – is the work of Cerf, but Cerf himself is not a billionaire. In fact, for the past 18 years, the 80-year-old has worked for Google, a company founded by two of the eight men, in the role of “Chief Internet Evangelist” for which he is uniquely qualified.
It's been 50 years since Cerf and Bob Kahn invented the TCP/IP protocol on which the Internet is based, and this month marks 25 years since Google, Cerf's employer, was founded and revolutionized the Internet for the masses. .
Sitting in his Google office in Reston, Virginia, in a three-piece suit and matching pocket square (Cerf is known for his impeccable good looks, decades ahead of the sweatshirt aesthetic associated with the tech world), he shares this evangelistic view: although 50 years later for years it has been tinged with anxiety for the future.
“Everyone shared their results, their software, accessed their computers, and it sped things up a lot…and then email came along.” Photo: Jason Andrew
But Cerf is keen to point out one thing: the first few decades after the launch of what would become the Internet, it didn't really matter.
The network that became the Internet began with rather modest goals. In the late 1960s, US universities regularly asked the Department of Defense (DoD) for money for new computers to help them with computer science and artificial intelligence. But computers, which at the time were the size of a room, were incredibly expensive, and the Department of Defense wanted to save some money and was also looking for a way to test communications technologies at low rates that could help control and manage nuclear weapons.
Then the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) found a way to kill two birds with one stone.
“The computer science departments asked Darpa, “Please buy us another world-class computer every year so that we could continue to conduct research around the world,” recalls Cerf. “And Darpa says, 'We can't afford it – these are million dollar cars!'
'And then Darpa said: “We are going to build a network and you can share.” And they all hated it. But the Darpa agency said: “We are building the network anyway.”
The first connection that would become the Internet was activated in 1969 quite quietly: several graduate students in a UCLA room tried to test the new connection by logging in remotely. The intention was to send a “login” message. In practice, “l” was sent without problems, as was “o”, but when they tried to send “g”, it immediately crashed the remote computer, meaning that the first online message sent was surprisingly successful. lo'.
Cerf has been working on the networking project since his early days as a doctoral student, although he didn't attend the very first test. Despite the reluctance of some scientists to network their computers, the idea quickly became popular and more computers were added.
Serf moved from academia to work directly at Darpa. But throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even though most of the technologies that created the modern Internet had been developed, it remained almost completely unknown to the public.
This does not mean that Cerf's family was unknown to anyone in the 1980s – just that he was not a celebrity among them. In 1979, Vint lived with his wife, Sigrid, and two young children in the suburb of Annandale, Virginia (the usual residence of the Department of Defense, the CIA, and others).
Winton and Sigrid, circa 1969. Photo: Hamid Nafisi
Sigrid was shocked by the cover of Time magazine, which depicted a starving one-year-old child in Cambodia, and was touched. take every possible action while trying to look after two very young children. She started baking bread, first a family-style Swedish rye bread, and then other varieties.
She sold them to her neighbors, then to other members of her church, and donated the proceeds to help children in Cambodia. The business grew quickly, with neighbors helping out with the garden or offering storage space so she could bake more. Cerf estimates that in eight years his wife has baked at least 50,000 loaves of bread for charity, an almost continuous activity every winter in their home kitchen.
“For about three years our best client was the CIA,” recalls Cerf. Someone from the CIA contacted us and said that he would like to buy a certain amount of bread, and he asked how they would get it.
“They said:” Well, just leave it in the garage on the hood of the car ', he recalls. “So how are you going to pay for this?” he asked. They'll just “leave a bag of money” in his garage. “All I can think about is that this must be a secret branch… but that was okay.”
This story – minus the details about the CIA – was picked up by the national media throughout the 1980s, but if Vint had been mentioned, it would have been only the most passing mention. Sigrid's profile in the Washington Post in 1982 mentions “her husband, Vint, a computer engineer,” followed by an enthusiastic quote about his wife.
That admiration, as well as a small memory of the competitive spirit, lives on to this day. When the Internet began to take off in the 1990s, Vint finally got a one-page profile of himself and his invention in People magazine – only to see Sigrid earn a whopping six pages a few years later, long after she stopped baking. “She doesn’t even have a public relations department,” he grumbles. “A little sore spot in our relationship.”
However, his friendly tone returns very quickly: “People ask me, 'Will you write a biography?' And I say: “Yes, my wife.” Her story is much more interesting.”
Here, Cerf may be doing himself a disservice; while his wife's philanthropic work attracted attention in the 1970s and 1980s, there was some serious work going on at the heart of the Internet.
To the surprise of the scientists, who only signed on to the project because Darpa had strong – arming them, the respective departments quickly found that they enjoyed the web.
1974: Vinton demonstrates how the network can be used Photo: Courtesy of the Computer History Museum
Darpa insisted that the different labs combine their discoveries and research, as well as their computing power, and this seems to have set off a chain reaction that no one did not foresee.
“Everyone shared their results, their software, got access to their computers, and it made things much faster,” Cerf says. “And then in 1971 email came along and everyone was like, ‘Wow, that’s cool. Now I don't have to be awake at the same time as the other guy to collaborate.”
Time zones are less of an issue: if you wanted to add a European university to the network, you didn't have to be awake at the same time , as its researchers, because you could leave an email instead of talking on the phone. Thus, more computers in more countries joined the early Internet.
By 1972, there was a rudimentary version of social networking—mailing lists. These lists roughly resembled today's online message boards, which were based on different topics. “The first ones I joined were sci-fi and yummy,” recalls Cerf, the latter being a board where restaurant recommendations were exchanged. “Thus, we already had an idea about the social component,” he notes.
Cerf cites these examples to emphasize that some of the people involved in the early development of the Internet had some idea of its potential long-term potential. before it became popular, and to point out that most of the ways we use it today arose organically in its very early days, when its users numbered in the tens or hundreds, not billions.
His own major contribution (with Bob Kahn) – TCP/IP – was formalized in 1973 and consisted of two components: TCP stands for Transmission Control Protocol and creates the standard for data transmission over the Internet.
Screw in 1973. Photo: Caroline Tainai
IP, short for Internet Protocol, may be more familiar to some users as it is the Internet's addressing system – both TCP and IP are still in use today, the latter being one of Cerf's regrets, albeit a rather nerdy one. The Internet is still running on version 4 of IP, but it is limited to four billion devices – and now we are approaching this limit.
The Internet is trying to move to a new version that will allow trillions of devices. devices, but Cerf has tried to persuade his colleagues to make it viable in the past – though, he laments, it's very hard to argue that four billion isn't enough when there are only a few hundred users online.
The speed with which the number of Internet users has grown from thousands to millions and billions is simply breathtaking. The breakthrough came in the early 1990s when the World Wide Web, which made possible the magazine-type web pages we take for granted today, gained popularity thanks to its invention by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who made it freely available. .
In 1986, about 1,000 devices were connected to the Internet. By 1990, about 2.5 million people had some form of access. By 1997 it had exceeded 100 million, and by 2000 there were over 400 million people online. In 2005, their number reached a billion, and today more than half of the planet is connected to the Internet.
Cerf played a second, less well-known role in fueling this boom by convincing the Federal Grid Council to allow private companies to create use of the net where they had previously been banned. At the time, he was working for the email company MCI Mail, and the company wanted to offer its services to a wider range of users.
“I made an offer to the Federal Network Council, which was in charge of policy,” he recalls. “And basically I said, 'Would it be okay if I tried connecting MCI to the internet, just to see if it works, since I've developed both of them?''
Vinton outside MCI WorldCom headquarters Photo: Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images
To say that everything else is history would be an understatement. Elon Musk, currently the richest man in the world, raised the money to buy Tesla and founded SpaceX with the help of online payment company PayPal. Jeff Bezos, in third place, relied on the Internet for Amazon, and fourth place goes to Larry Ellison's Oracle, which sells servers that power the Internet.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates is the sixth richest person on the list, while its first CEO, Steve Ballmer, is in 10th place. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Cerf's employers) are in seventh and eighth places, while Meta/Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is in ninth. Of the two remaining, one is mega-investor Warren Buffett, who has made quite a few of his billions in online business. -invented. And yet this man himself does not seem sincerely sorry that he is not among them.
“The reason I don't do this is because I made a conscious choice not to try to commercialize my personal interest,” he explains. “Maybe the reason for this sounds silly, but I figured that if I did that, I wouldn't be able to convince people to use internet technology because it would sound self-serving.”
Of course, others who popularized the Internet have raked it in – not least the founders of Google, who have changed how the Internet works every day. Prior to Google, search engines tried to show relevant results by looking at how many times a search query appeared on a page—this system was very easy to fool, but not very efficient. Google understood that links mattered: if a lot of people link to a certain site, it is probably more valuable than a site that no one links to. This simple idea turned out to be revolutionary.
“Larry and Sergey came up with the best idea. First of all, they noticed that you can download the index of the entire World Wide Web,” Cerf says. “And secondly, they realized that pages that were pointed to by many other pages might be more important than those that no one pointed to.”
Cerf notes that Right now it’s just one of the dozens of metrics Google uses to gauge the relevancy and usefulness of a particular page, but he shares the popular concern that artificial intelligence could thwart a future of open, easy-to-find information web.
The surfer is known for his flawless looks. Photo: Jason Andrew
In this interview, we saw firsthand that Google is far from infallible. The search giant's mission remains to “organize the world's information and make it public and useful,” but he sent me and a Telegraph Magazine photographer to a completely different office, leading to a wild 18-mile race through Washington, DC, and Virginia.
These are, of course, trifles. The potential for failure on the Internet is much higher, especially given the habit of today's so-called “large language models” of AI software, such as ChatGPT or Google's own Bard, to “hallucinate” or invent things that look like facts but are not facts. . not connected to reality.
“These big language models are just amazing. But depending on what you ask them to do, they have hallucinations,” he says. “And I find that fascinating… so if your bio and my bio are on the same web page, it needs to be coded – and, to put it simply, she can pull something out of your bio and link it to me, and something from my biography can connect with you.”
Many of these confusions would be mostly harmless, though still a problem for a company trying to organize the world's information – but as anyone who shares a name with a serious criminal knows, they may not be harmless at all.
Serf hopes the AI can be taught “context”, meaning it can learn to attach specific information or facts to specific targets so it doesn't confuse his bio with mine just because they appear on the same website, for example conferences. However, there is only one problem: “I have no idea how to do this,” he says.
However, in some ways he is optimistic. “I still believe that we will eventually figure out how to discipline large language patterns,” he says, before suddenly giving the impression of Freud, German accent and all. “I feel like Sigmund Freud: “What we have here is an artificial id and an artificial ego. Here you are now missing an artificial super-ego that controls the impulses of an artificial identifier and an artificial ego.
Artificial intelligence and the “context collapse” it creates are far from Cerf's only concerns about the future of the network he helped create, which now shapes the world economy and is a central feature of global politics. He definitely experienced it.
“I remember having lunch with Henry Kissinger in New York once, probably at least ten years ago,” he recalls. Sitting down for lunch, Kissinger said, “I hate the Internet.” So maybe lunch is already over.
“Why, Dr. Kissinger?” [I asked]. And he said: “People on the Internet expect two paragraph answers, and I write books with 700 pages.”
Cerf wants people to get two paragraph answers when they need them, but still have the opportunity to soak up the 700-page version of events. And just as he remains proud that the Internet is raising voices that would not otherwise be heard, he is concerned that it is raising voices that should not be heard – “think of QAnon as an example.”
When I ask Cerf — such a well-known optimist and idealist that he has served as chief internet evangelist for nearly two decades — about what gives him hope for the future of the online world, I am surprised to find mostly a list of fear.
He worries about the preservation of digital evidence to hold wrongdoers accountable, as well as how the Internet is governed in general. He is concerned that countries are restricting Internet access or even considering disconnecting themselves from the global Internet. He is concerned about the use (usually by dictators) of the Internet shutdown to cut off information in times of crisis.
Like many people in their 50s, the Internet has its problems. But Cerf doesn't think it's completely lost its magic.
“Despite all this, I'm still very optimistic about this system,” he concludes. “Look, he worked for 40 years, increased 10 million times … He goes beyond the planet – I'm still very happy about this.”