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The Future of the Internet

with Dr Vint Cerf

In the future, your alarm clock will be able to wake you up, alert your coffeemaker to start making a fresh brew and even turn on the lights so that you do not have to stumble around in the dark.

Your self-driving car will also be able to download weather and traffic information from the Internet to calculate the fastest route to your destination, and communicate with other vehicles and traffic lights to avoid accidents.

These seemingly fantastical scenarios could well become reality, as companies, universities and government agencies work to realise the full potential of the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), where everyday objects have network connectivity and can “talk” to one another.

One key issue, however, will be to develop standard protocols so that devices from different suppliers can interwork, says Dr Vinton Cerf, who is regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet itself.

In an interview ahead of the upcoming Global Young Scientists Summit 2017, where he is scheduled to speak, Dr Cerf said that he has been researching issues related to IoT, particularly in the areas of reliability, safety, privacy and security.

In 2015, for instance, his paper on a potential method to secure Internet-linked devices was published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Internet Computing journal.

“It is also important to ensure that these devices can function even when the Internet is not available. One does not want to have a house that doesn’t work if the Internet connection is broken!” he said.

Birth of the Internet

Dr Cerf’s involvement in the IoT field is fitting, given that the field would not exist without his pioneering work. To have an Internet of Things, after all, you need to have the Internet first.

In the early 1970s, computer networks were few and far between, and those that existed operated in silos.

Dr Cerf and Dr Robert Kahn, another scientist, developed a pair of protocols, called the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), that enabled computers on different networks to act as if they were part of one common network. This was, in effect, the foundation of the Internet.

The TCP/IP encouraged the Internet to grow quickly and organically, as anyone could now build a piece of the Internet and connect his or her work to that of others.

In fact, without the protocols, many of the key components of the Internet that we take for granted today, including 3G/4G networks, Wi-Fi and e-mail, would not be as useful.

Developing the protocols, however, was just the beginning. It took Dr Cerf, Dr Kahn and many others 20 years, from 1973 to 1993, to refine the TCP/IP protocol suite and triumph over two competing efforts to create international standards.

“Another difficulty was that, at the time, computer companies had proprietary networking technologies. We had to persuade these manufacturers to adopt a non-proprietary protocol that allowed different brands of computers and different networks to be interconnected freely,” Dr Cerf recalled.

Dr Cerf and Dr Kahn have won numerous accolades for their work on the TCP/IP, including the Turing Award, which is regarded as the Nobel Prize in computing, and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the country’s highest honour for civilians.

The Internet through space and time

Since the TCP/IP breakthrough, however, Dr Cerf has continued to push the boundaries of the Internet.

Working with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he helped to create a new set of protocols for a ground-breaking, interplanetary space-based network.

The Bundle protocols, as they are called, are now being used on the International Space Station. The current crop of Mars exploration rovers, including the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, are also using the prototype software that led to the Bundle protocols, to relay information to Earth.

Another issue close to his heart these days is the preservation of digital content, including the software that may be needed to access that content.

In recent years, he has repeatedly raised the spectre of a “digital Dark Age”, where virtual information is lost to future generations due to software becoming obsolete or unusable.

This is especially troubling as more and more information is stored virtually today, with no physical copies.

“We’ve created billions of images, videos and other digital objects such as e-mail, text documents and spreadsheets. All of these may become inaccessible if the software that ‘knows’ how to manipulate these objects is no longer functional,” he said.

He noted that most people have already experienced some version of this, for example when they are unable to open electronic documents created using outdated software.

Dr Cerf said that one way to preserve a digital record of life in the 21st century would be to take virtual “snapshots” and safeguard them in servers in the cloud.

This would involve making virtual copies of not only the digital content, but also the application used to access that content, the machine used to run that application and even the operating system installed on the machine.

Some researchers have started on such work. The Olive project at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, for instance, aims to preserve digital content in virtual machines so that the content can be precisely reproduced in future.

In the meantime, Dr Cerf said he is also looking into the issue. “Avoiding a digital Dark Age is the focus of my attention,” he said.

He also continues to serve as one of technology giant Google’s vice presidents and as its Chief Internet Evangelist, and was recently elected as the chairman of the Marconi Society, an American organisation dedicated to furthering scientific achievements in communications and related technologies.

Asked to describe one moment in his illustrious, decades-long career that continues to stand out to him, however, his answer was not an award, appointment or accolade.

Instead, it was the Nov 22, 1977 demonstration of a fledgling Internet that connected just three networks using the TCP/IP protocols.

“It was a major milestone,” he said.

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