Vinton Cerf speaks at SAP

Vinton Cerf, Father of the Internet, Discusses Challenges Facing Today’s Digital Society

Today we cannot imagine a life without the internet. But have you ever questioned how it was developed?

Thanks to the Laureate Forum and the SAP Knowledge and Education organization, led by Bernd Welz, Vinton Cerf, chief internet evangelist at Google and one of the fathers of the internet, spoke recently at SAP headquarters in Walldorf about his invention, its past, and its future.

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum brings the best mathematicians and computer scientists worldwide together with talented young scientists. The laureates, winners of the most prestigious awards such as the Fields Medal or Turing Award, and scientists have the possibility to exchange during workshops, lectures, and discussions. The Forum was founded by the Klaus Tschira Foundation (KTS) and the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies.

From ARPANET to Internet

It all started in 1969, when the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) connected four computer network nodes at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California, U.C. Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah, launching the ARPANET.

Four years later, in 1973, Vinton Cerf and his colleague Bob Kahn began experimenting with ways to connect the packet-switching based ARPANET to the radio and satellite networks, using their co-developed the TCP/IP protocol. In 1977 they finally succeeded. Cerf remembered himself jumping around in his office screaming, “It worked!”

Talking to his audience of SAP employees in the Walldorf canteen, he said, “It’s a miracle when software works. We not only believe in miracles, we depend on them.”

Although the forerunner of the internet was born, it was still not possible for different companies to interact with each other until January 1, 1983. That was when TCP/IP was adopted as the universal protocol and backbone of the internet, setting the stage for the commercialization of the internet in the 1990s.

Five Key Findings and Their Importance 

During his lecture at SAP, Cerf talked about “unfinished business” associated with the challenges of today’s digital society. Here are his most important messages:

1. Connectivity is not enough.
Today, half of the world’s population has access to the internet, but according to Cerf this is still not enough. The internet was born out of the idea of sharing information, and it needs to be affordable and sustainable for everyone – everywhere.

2. If you don’t learn something new every day, you are no longer relevant.
Technology changes dramatically, and with it, so does the way we work. If you don’t learn something new every day, you are no longer relevant. Imagine you’re born today, living a hundred years, including at least 70 years of working life. That’s seven decades of new and evolving technologies. Lifelong learning is no longer an option; it is a fundamental survival tactic.

3. We have the responsibility to protect users from what they don’t know.
According to Cerf, we haven’t improved our ability to write software over the past 70 years. There are bugs that can cause real trouble and we, as software experts, have the responsibility to protect users from what they don’t know.

Today especially, data privacy, reliability, and safety are priorities for customers and end-users.  You don’t want information to escape from systems without going through a strongly authenticated and approved system. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is a very powerful tool, so we shouldn’t give it too much autonomy. Why? Because we don’t know about the mistakes that developers may have built into AI systems.

4. We are heading for a digital dark age.
Cerf also said he is worried about the lifetime of our data because our whole lives – including our photographs, videos and other data – are stored as digital bits of information. “How long will our devices last? 500 years? Probably not. Today’s digital media might last 10 years. But what happens to it once the hardware stops working? We definitely need to find a way to maintain our data safely.”

5. The internet is still evolving. Keep it simple.
The design of the internet is 45 years old, but it is still evolving. Its layered structure offers plenty of flexibility. The packets of the Internet Protocol layer don’t know how they are carried or what they are carrying and as Cerf put it: “We did that on purpose. A certain amount of ignorance leads to a very powerful and flexible design.”

Finally, Cerf ended his presentation with a call to action, saying, “The future isn’t written yet. It’s in your hands.”