Internet Inventor Says It Works Like a Charm

Recently a number of articles devoted to the history of technology and the internet have been published. Given the significant developments in these areas over the past 20+ years and the societal demands which continue to drive further research and development it is certainly appropriate to take some time to reflect on both the history and possible future directions of information technology–including the internet.

The following is a question, answer interview with Robert Kahn one of the pioneers in the creation and development of the internet and who continues to actively work on techniques related to information technology. The interview was published in the October 7, 2007 issue of The Star Ledger and is being reproduced here for the benefit of our readers:

Sunday, October 07, 2007
Move over, Al Gore. If anyone deserves credit — or blame — for the Internet, Robert Kahn will do nicely. An alumnus of Princeton University and Bell Labs, he teamed with Vinton Cerf in 1973 to invent a crucial technical standard.
Star-Ledger staff writer Kevin Coughlin recently talked with Kahn about where the Internet came from — and where it’s going
.Q What exactly is TCP/IP? Why is it important?

TCP/IP is the protocol that Vint Cerf and I developed back in the early 1970s, the sort of glue that makes the computers work together. It’s a combination of protocols (Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol). The protocol basically deals with the messages you send, and put ting them back together again.

Q There’s a popular notion that the Internet was designed this way to keep information flowing around any Soviet nuclear at tack. Is this true?

Because it was done in a Defense context, many people looked at how it would apply to military situations. But I would say it was never done with the specific intention of dealing with a nuclear situation.

Q So what did you envision when you were inventing the Internet?

There were multiple networks being developed by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Our task was how do we get them to work together? That was the problem we were addressing right there.

Q How do you feel about the way the Internet has turned out?

It seems to work like a charm. For some things, it probably works too well. Some people have complained about a lot of viruses on the Net. That’s not a problem of the network — it’s a problem of attacks on the operating systems on the network. I think the Internet has been a major success. It’s taken for granted as part of the infrastructure of the world
Q. What are you proudest of?

That we were able to demonstrate it was possible and work to make it happen.

Q What has surprised you the most?

I was very surprised at how much junk mail there is, all the spam. The biggest surprise early on was how many networks we had. … We felt 256 networks would be more than we would ever have to encounter. You have to remember, there were no personal computers back then.

Q Why is it so hard to make technical changes to the Internet?

It’s very hard to change a system that encompasses so many pieces. … It’s really become a standards problem in recent years.

Q If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?

That’s like saying to the guys who invented radio in the 1910s, what would they have done differently if they had access to today’s technology and semi-conductors? I don’t think you can go back and relive that experience.

Q Why is security so porous on the Net?

I think that problem’s as much a policy issue as a technical issue. There is constant tension between the desire of industry to have really tight security and the need of law enforcement and national security to have access to communications. … Industry, if left to its own devices, would have gone one way, and government probably would have gone another.

Q But don’t viruses and spam exploit the Internet’s open technical standards?

I don’t know that it’s a net work problem as much as an ap plication problem. If you’re talking to a Web site, you would like to know that Web site is who it purports to be. It looks like a perfectly viable site, from a well- known institution, but it turns out not to be. How would you know? That’s in the Web applica tion — a layer above (the basic Internet standards).

Q What special circumstances allowed the Internet to happen?

We had a clear playing field. You have to remember, the Internet started as a research project. Eventually people started to use it and depend on it, and industry was able to find a big enough market that made sense for them to get into that field.

Q When did you realize the Internet was bigger than a research project?

It kind of dawned on me gradually, hey, look what these guys are doing. There was a series of events along the way that altered the possibilities. One was the creation of the personal computer industry. Suddenly, a lot more people had access to machines capable of dealing with the Internet.

Q Is it time to replace the Net?

I don’t know who’s suggesting that. Who would scrap it? It’s a big part of industry.

Q What about future-Internet projects, like GENI? (Global Environment for Network Innovation, an experiment that has roots at Princeton and Rutgers.)

I’m open to all kinds of suggestions people might have. We should take a look at all of them.

Q What do you love about the Net?

The fact that the uptake is so great. It really changed the economic landscape, changed the way government works, made the information more accessible.

Q What Internet applications do you use?

I’m pretty much a bread-and- butter kind of guy when it comes to the Net. I do my own e-mail, and my secretary, Alice, does a lot of it for me. I use it for presentations, for dealing with textual materials, and for spreadsheets. I’m not one who keeps his nose to the screen 24 hours a day looking for the next new thing.

Q Do you carry a BlackBerry or iPhone?

I do carry a cell phone with pretty advanced features.

Q Which model?

I’d rather not say.

QYou’re often introduced as “father of the Internet” or “in ventor of the Internet.” How does that feel?

I don’t like it … It probably grates on lots of people who’ve made lots of serious contributions
Q. What are you up to now at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives?

We’re working on techniques for managing information on the Net, via something called Digital Object Architecture. It’s about how you find things on the Net. You can go to Google right now, but it won’t find your medical records or your bank records or your personal accounts. It’s just not out there. How do you iden tify data sites, and archive stuff, and so forth? I just think there are better ways to do it.

Q What will the Internet look like in 10 years?

Come back in 10 years, and maybe I’ll have a better notion! I’d like to be able to use gravity waves to communicate securely, and teleportation over the Internet! But you can’t do that too easily. If you talk to Vint (Cerf), he’d like to communicate to outer space, do interplanetary stuff. Basically, my hope is we have really good ways of managing information.

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