Capital I Interview Series – Number 2 (Part 1)
KimmiC chats with ‘Father of the Internet’, Vinton ‘Vint’ Cerf
(Along with our particular questions, we invited some of our readers to submit their own queries to Vint, which he was happy to answer. Thanks go out to to “e-Patient Dave” Dave deBronkart, Brent Hall, and Roger Kermode for taking part!)
Imagine having the opportunity to ask Johannes Gutenberg about his thoughts on how his printing press would change the industry – let alone his opinion on how his press would change the world. Well, essentially, that’s the chance that I’ve had this morning, when I was given the opportunity to speak to Google‘s VP and Chief Internet Evangelist, Vinton ‘Vint’ Cerf, known around the world as one of ‘fathers of the internet’.
When looking for a ‘poster child’ for Capital I Innovation, Vint is, to many – myself included – at the top of an impressive, international list. His list of awards and medals from around the globe is vast, as is his experience and range of interests. I do believe, in this instance, it is fair to say that when discussing Capital I Innovation – especially as it relates to the internet – ‘Father really does know best’.
As this series is based on Capital I Innovation, Lets start with how you define Innovation?
I think capital “I” innovation happens when something new is invented that has very large potential for cultural and/or economic change. However, it is important to appreciate that some innovations are stillborn if they are not, in fact, taken up widely.
In a recent book entitled Why the West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris (2010, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York), evidence is given that strongly points to the long term evolution and adoption of agriculture ultimately replacing a hunter-gatherer way of life. The process is not instantaneous but it has dramatic effects on culture and economy.
We sometimes think of Innovation as a sudden invention but often it takes decades and even centuries to have an effect. The printing press took centuries to have its primary effect. The telegraph, railroads, highways, radio, television and even the Internet took decades but those are a blink of the eye in terms of human history, which is fairly short itself (a few tens of thousands of year for prehistory, perhaps 8,000 for “history”).
Do you see a difference between ‘little i’ and ‘Capital I’ Innovation?
Yes, I think of the lower case instance as sequential refinement and adaptation while the basic Innovation might be a dramatically different way of doing something.
The Industrial Revolution is capitalized because of that – a shift from manpower or animal power to harnessing non-biological forms of mechanical energy (water power from rivers; steam from coal and wood; hydro-electric, oil, gas, wind or solar generated electricity; internal combustion engine; fractional horsepower motors).
The Transistor (and reed switches or vacuum tubes) ushered in the harnessing the power of “mechanical” thought using computers and programs. The Telegraph ushered in new forms of communication that eventually lead to the telephone, radio, television, optical fiber, coaxial cable, microwave, etc.
The combination of computing and communication, once the economics reached a certain level, created the conditions for the invention of packet switching and, eventually, the Internet and many other kinds of computer-based networks.
With that in mind, do you think that Cloud Computing is big enough – different enough – to be capitalised?
Yes I do, for a couple of reasons. I’ve been jokingly saying that it is like time-sharing on steroids, as, like time-sharing, it does share the same resources. However, the scale of a Cloud system is so dramatically different than any time-sharing system that’s ever existed that it does deserve to be Capital I. There is a common belief that once you scale up by a three or four orders of magnitude you are in a different space than you were before.
Of course, this raises a very interesting question about the internet, because the internet is now 6 orders of magnitude bigger than it was when we first launched it in 1983. You have to ask yourself, is it still the same architecture, the same protocols? What’s different?
Of course one thing that’s different is that there are two billion users. Another thing that’s different is that the world wide web wasn’t there, and now it is – that [came] 10 years after launch. Its also available on mobiles, which didn’t exist. So, there are a whole bunch of things about that scaling up, including data and video, which could allow you to argue that this is a whole different beast now.
The meeting I just came back from in Paris suggests this. If anyone had suggested to me in 1983 that in 2011 there would be a meeting of 50 or so countries in the OECD, for two days talking about the internet economy, concerns about intellectual property, crime on the net and so on… I would have scratched my head and said, this thing is for the military, and the research community.
You’re called by many, one of the ‘fathers of the internet’. What do you think of your baby now?
- Astonished at its evolution and growth,
- Hopeful that it will reach well beyond the present 2 billion users,
- Amazed at the response to the WWW infrastructure,
- Worried about government intervention that might seriously harm the openness that has driven innovation in and around the Internet,
- Excited by the possibility of extending its operation across the solar system to support manned and robotic space exploration,
- Envious of kids who get to use it at age 5 when I had to wait until I was 28… and we had to invent it first!
What is the most important piece of innovation, which has launched in your lifetime?
The obvious answer for me is, of course, the Internet, but in fact it depended on the creation of conditions that allowed this idea to be explored and, ultimately, exploited.
The ARPANET, the successful invention of packet switching, the invention of the Ethernet, the invention of the Unix operating system, the invention of the mini-computer (ie. something that could afford to be replicated and used as packet switches or routers), the invention of high speed, long distance communication technology (wired, wireless, satellite, mobile…). Those, and so many more technologies, all had to be readily available for the Internet to grow.
Business models had to be invented, not only to make and sell the equipment and software needed for the Internet to operate but for the support of the enterprises that grew up around the World Wide Web (WWW). The WWW itself would not likely have amounted to much had it not had an Internet on which to be supported. It was invented or at least became operational in a single node in December 1990, six years after the Internet became available to the academic and military communities and contemporary with the development of a commercial Internet service.
I was born in 1943. I grew up using a three-party, black dial up telephone with long-distance operators. There was no television to speak of. Jet planes were purely military. Early in my life, the atomic bomb was invented, tested and used. Microwave and radar were military systems. Sputnik happened when I was 15 and just entering high school.
We landed on the moon when I was 26. At 18 I worked in a small way on the F-1 booster rocket engines used in the Saturn V rocket that put the astronauts in orbit around the Earth.
The microwave oven became a commodity in my lifetime as did jet travel. The computer was very new during my early lifetime and I was introduced to the tube-based SAGE system (Semi-Automated Ground Environment) when I was 15.
Lasers were invented in my life time and have myriad uses today. Robotic surgical systems such as the Intuitive Surgical Da Vinci system were invented in my lifetime. So was the Pill (by Syntex and others, for birth control). The discovery of the structure of DNA occurs around 1953 when I am ten years old.
While relativity and quantum theory were already a few decades old when I was born, the existence of quarks wasn’t really demonstrated until 1968 at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), at about the time I am working on the ARPANET at UCLA. The cochlear implant, invented by Graeme Clark beginning in 1973, was a long process, but had utterly spectacular results. My wife, who was profoundly deaf for 50 years, has two implants and is living a second life as a result!
What piece of innovation did you expect to happen/take off, that didn’t?
Two things were really disappointing. When I was working on the Saturn F-1 engines in 1962, I really did think that we would have regular, weekly space launches in 20 years, maybe out of the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles where the famous Lockheed “Skunkworks” is located. I also thought that we would be flying personal helicopters by then, too.
I also thought 20 years was a long time (more than twice my lifetime at that point). I was wrong about all three, but I am not disappointed to have outlived thrice my lifetime at age 19!!
Where does the Interplanetary Internet project stands at the moment – and why do you think it is important?
The standards are firming up well. There are implementations of the Bundle Protocol and the Licklider Transport Protocol that realize the Interplanetary Internet architecture. Instances are on board the International Space Station and the EPOXI spacecraft. Discussions are underway in the Consultative Committee on Space Data Systems to standardize these protocols for international use.
If all space-faring nations adopt these protocols, then all espacecraft will be able to communicate with each other. Once they have completed their primary scientific missions, they can be re-purposed to become part of an interplanetary backbone network. One can imagine the aggregation of a solar internet over a period of decades, in support of both manned and robotic exploration.
Here on earth, are entrepreneurs born or made?
I think there has to be a combination of conditions to allow entrepreneurship to happen. A person has to be willing to take risks, and that often has a genetic component. But a person’s experience with risk also has to have had some positive feedback effect. If you are never successful at taking risk, you are likely to learn to be very conservative.
Conditions also have to be right to allow the risk-taking to go on long enough to produce results. This is the so called “runway” needed to go from the idea to a successful, profitable or at least self-sustaining business. It should be noted, however, that not all inventors are entrepreneurs. They may take risks in the technical sense but not necessarily in the personal (livelihood) sense.
Conditions for invention may actually require that the inventor be shielded from economic risk while exploring ideas that may have a high pay off in some sense, but such high risk that no one could afford to take the personal risk needed to explore them.
This is one reason that it is often a government that has to make the investment in research in high-risk area,s since no business or inventor would take the economic risk. It is also why inventors often die in poverty (think of Tesla) [while] others harvest wealth in addition to technical success.
What do you think are the main barriers to the success of innovation?
Sometimes they are technical (can’t process that much information in a timely way, can’t store it, can’t build a big enough data platform, uses too much power) or economic (can’t deploy the necessary infrastructure, devices out of consumer reach) or operational (too bulky, battery life too short, displays don’t work in all lighting conditions). Sometimes the major barrier is that the private sector doesn’t give innovative employees the freedom to fail.
For any particular innovation, the conditions for its sustainable growth and use may simply not yet be ready.
What do you think is imperative to allow ‘Capital I’ Innovation to occur?
Not all Innovations require government support, but often this is the only path to initial success because the risks are too high for the private sector, even venture capital or angel investors to take.
Google was essentially entirely private sector funded and that’s something of an anomaly, given its stunning success. In that case, angel investment was an important component.
Economics is another critical factor. It is possible to have a breakthrough invention that is simply too expensive for widespread adoption.
Mobiles have been stunningly successful but took many years to emerge because the costs and the physical size, battery life, and infrastructure were a long time in development. Tax breaks can be sustaining but generally don’t lead to capital I innovation, to first order.
If you could give a ‘Capital I’ Innovation Award to anyone, who would you nominate? This could be individuals, organizations and/or companies (it could also be yourself!).
- Graeme Clark for the cochlear implant
- DARPA for decades of innovation
- Bob Kahn for initiating the Inter-netting research program at DARPA.
- Larry Roberts for the ARPANET effort.
- Posthumous award to J.C.R. Licklider at MIT who was the first director of DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office from which the ARPANET project began.
- Steve Crocker for creating and pioneering the underpinnings of the structure of standards for making the ARPANET and Internet.
- Intuitive Surgical for the Da Vinci robotic surgery system
Does Innovation have a nation?
I think there is no country that has a lock on innovation but some places, like Silicon Valley, have conditions that support it better than many other places. You have:
- a continuous stream of trained, high technology graduates,
- experienced business people,
- venture capitalists,
- a liquid stock market,
- mobility from company to company, and
- a community of players that know each other.
It is a potent brew. There are more smart people, in absolute numbers, outside of Silicon Valley than inside, but the conditions in SV are remarkable.
Is innovation an overused term?
Yes in some ways. It is too much the focus when one should be asking “under what conditions can innovation take hold and become a real driver of economic growth?”.
It could be said that a huge amount of the core innovations that we use seems to have come out of either government funding and/or telco’s (for instance MCI and AT&T). Do you agree with this? And if so, do you think it was past structural, political and economic situations that made these innovations possible.
I think we should be very careful to distinguish between innovation and participation within the infrastructure. MCI supplied point-to-point high speed pipes to build the NSFNET backbone, to build the vBNS network, and to ultimately build Internet MCI a publicly available internet service.
Where they DID pioneer was in the commercial use of optical fibre. You have to give them credit for that, and for participating in the National Science Foundation Network by contributing underlying transmission resources. The fact that they were willing to get into the game is different than them being the inventors of it.
The real innovators for NSFNET were Merit and IBM. Particularly IBM, which designed and built the original routers; though they didn’t really follow up on that. Ironically IBM built the routers for the NSFNET back bone but Cisco systems, Juniper and others turned out to inherit all the commercial value from it.
AT&T, as a very successful monopoly, had an enormous amount of resources, which they put into AT&T Bell labs. Bell Labs was absolutely one of the most innovative places anywhere in the world. Nobel prizes have come out of there, the transistor came out of there. There’s no doubt in my mind that something was lost when AT&T was broken up.
The one thing about MCI which was interesting was that, instead of doing research, they would dangle a $250m dollar cheque in front of company and say, “If you can do this, I will buy a quarter of a billion dollars worth…” Its amazing how much R&D you get out of people when you do that. So, rather than taking all the risks themselves MCI simply said, we’ll buy a lot of stuff if you make this happen.
And yes, there’s no question in my mind that government sponsorship for this kind of high risk research is important.
Many nations are in the midst of debates about Broadband. You were recently quoted as saying that you believe” internet bandwidth can increase exponentially,” adding that this would, among other applications, “enable greater access to high-def video.” Other than being able to get the latest blockbuster downloaded in no time, where else do you see it being of use?
The term “exponential” is not one I would use (a reporter put that word in my mouth). However, I do believe we are far from fully taking advantage of communication technology to achieve many gigabits per second, end-to-end on the Internet.
These speeds have a transformative potential because they dramatically reduce the cost of moving information in large quantities from one place to another. It allows replication for resilience and safety. Large files like MRI scans will be easily retrievable and processable with higher speed transport.
We can build much larger data processing systems when we can interlink the processors at terabit and higher speeds. In a recent technical session, serious mention was made of 1000Tbs (that’s a petabit per second). Holographic simulations will benefit from speeds of this kind.
This is the kind of infrastructure investment that probably would not ever be made by the private sector. There would be parts of the community left out, there would be economic decisions that would reduce capacity….
This is a very big deal and I’m hoping that it all works out. If it does, it would be a bell weather example of why government investment in fundamental infrastructure is so important.
This leads neatly to Roger Kermode‘s question: What advice would you give Australian ISPs, governments and businesses to take best advantage of the NBN?
First of all, because its a Level 2 infrastructure, anybody who wants to is free to put up a level 3 routing system on top of it. That means they can all compete for any business or individual subscribers service. Then on top of that you have the enabling effect of the broadband capability. This means that people can put applications up there that they would never have put up without such a broadband infrastructure.
Next, with the fact that everybody is online, or very nearly everybody, you can begin to say, “We are going to do ‘X‘ for the entire population,” and have a reasonable expectation that you will, in fact, reach the entire population.
For example, when it comes to healthcare, and the possibility of remote diagnosis and things like that, you’d be in a position to actually exercise that idea. Whereas, most other places, including here in the U.S. would not.
I anticipate that if this infrastructure goes into place and it operates reliably that you will be exploring a space of ‘online-ness’ which no other country has ever experienced.
End of Part 1 – Follow our blog and Part 2 will be delivered to your in box next week!
Part 2 – Next week we talk about net neutrality, eHealth, Telcos, Google, the Open Government Initiative and more (including a message to Australian Senator Stephen Conroy)!
(Kim and Vint Skype’d between from their homes in Sydney and Washington D.C.)