Vint Cerf: Musings on birthing the internet, AI, and wishing for the Star Trek computer


Ken Yeung

March 17, 2017

More than 44 years ago, the internet was created, and certainly there’s no shortage of events that have occurred to transform one of the world’s most important technological breakthroughs. From websites to emails, banner ads, social media, connected devices, artificial intelligence, smartphones, cloud computing, on-demand services, cyber attacks, and bots, the internet has been incredibly mutated into what renowned technologist Vint Cerf calls “a reflection of the society we live in.”

For the father of the internet, a title which he shares with Bob Khan, Cerf isn’t surprised by the evolution of his creation, but believes too few worldwide suffer without proper access to it. And as Google — where Cerf currently works as chief internet evangelist — Facebook, and others are pursuing ways to improve accessibility, Cerf has launched the People Centered Internet (PCI) organization to take a stab at the problem.

Internet access for all

His approach doesn’t involve drones or balloons, but instead is tied to large-scale infrastructure projects countries are building. Working with the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, Internet Society, National Startup Resources Center (NSRC), 100MLives, and IEEE, the goal is to is to get countries into a habit in thinking about how internet technologies could also be included in road work, railway, and energy distribution projects.

“Why this is attractive is because it’s a small incremental cost. It’s not a separate project all by itself, which has to be justified, and…when you get it all done, the internet availability reinforces the utility of the major project,” Cerf told VentureBeat in an interview.

But this isn’t an effort to supplant other priorities a country has in improving its infrastructure, nor will PCI compete directly with efforts from the private sector. He denied that this was an effort to misappropriate resources, forcing leaders to choose how to improve their citizens’ lives — it’s not a zero sum game nor should we think about this issue as an “either/or, black and white proposition.”

“There is a non-uncommon assumption that there’s a finite set of resources and that’s an unreasonable position to take,” Cerf said. “Some of the most impoverished people in the world are refugees who end up in refugee camps. Guess what the first thing they ask for when they get to the camps? Wi-Fi. Why would they do that? The answer is that [the internet] is where they’ll get their information, that’s where they may be able to stay in contact with family members elsewhere, they may be even able to get out of the camp…”

PCI’s role within these global organizations is more on the advisory side. It will assist in evaluating internet-related projects submitted by countries and will leverage its resources and contacts to bring the internet to more people.

“Our thought is to is that we want to be a facilitator of progress and we may have different roles depending on what the projects are. We certainly want to install the meme in thinking of large-scale infrastructure funders to think internet when thinking big infrastructure,” Cerf opined.

Projects PCI could work on include existing efforts led by IEEE, Google, and other groups in developing countries.

Parachuting in for the long haul

 World leaders may have heard this promise before and could dismiss what PCI is doing. There’s a theory put together by the NSRC where companies would parachute in, build something, and leave, offering no connection or long-term relationship intact.

Cerf thinks it should be “parachuting in, train people on the ground to design, build, and implement pieces of the internet, help them devise business models which can vary anywhere from having the government sponsor the whole thing, sponsor the backbone, [or] private sector sponsors backbone at wholesale prices.”

“The idea here is to get people prepared to sustain the operation of a portion of the internet,” he went on. “We believe at PCI that we can begin to put the pieces together in a coherent way, draw parties together with a desire and interest in doing this.

[Efforts like Project Loon] are things that can contribute to this growing infrastructure. The layer we put on top of this, however, is not just the physical facilities, but what people do once the internet is there. We want to make it locally useful, want it to contribute to people’s well-being…”

Nearing 50 years of the internet

As society approaches a significant milestone in the internet’s history, we asked Cerf whether anything caught his eye about its transformation. He admitted that a lot of things were “anticipated”, but not was astonished about the quantity of tools and services there are today.

What blew him in the nearly 50 years of the internet was the launch of the mosaic browser that transformed the network from a command line UNIX interface to a magazine format with images and formatted text. Cerf also expressed amazement at the explosion of content that flowed onto the internet and how willing people were at sharing what they knew. “They were not looking for compensation,” he said. “They were looking for the satisfaction that what they knew was useful to somebody else.” This resulted in the rise of the search engine, one of the biggest surprises he had in the 1990s.

An iPhone.

Above: An iPhone.

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Dedi Grigoroiu

The smartphone also was something Cerf highlighted as being amazing, especially based on its timing, describing that besides “Nokia and some smart-functional phones, the iPhone really made a statement” and moving from a phone to a camera was a “transforming element.”

“The thing that was the most interesting for me was in 1973, when Bob Khan and I were doing the first designs [of the internet], [Motorola’s] Marty Cooper, who was doing the design of the handheld phone, nobody knew anything about it…Ironically he turns on his mobile phone the same year we turned on the internet, in 1983. It took us all 10 years to get there,” he said. “[The internet and the handheld cellular mobile phone] go in parallel, having nothing to do with each other until 2007 (24 years later), and suddenly the smartphone and the internet come together and do so in a way that’s mutually reinforcing. The smartphone gets access to the internet’s resources and makes the smartphone more useful, and of course the smartphone makes the internet more useful because it makes it more accessible.”

Cerf describes the internet and smartphone as being incredibly powerful together, calling the emerging properties “quite remarkable.”

He did express concern about what’s going to happen to everything stored online, highlighting that while we might think since it’s stored in the cloud or on a hard drive, it’ll be impervious to the ravages of time, but that’s not true. And while files could become corrupted, another worry we should be thinking about are around software and the inability to read the document, spreadsheet, photo, video, or file. “What if the software doesn’t exist anymore 50 years from now, or 10 years from now? What are we going to do about that,” Cerf questioned.

To him, the internet is a “reflection of the society we live in.” He didn’t explicitly say it, but it’s likely with the fake news and hatred that’s permeated the web and the dissatisfaction people get out of it. In order to change what’s on the internet, Cert suggests that we view it like looking in a mirror and seeing a bad image of yourself — changing it doesn’t do anything, you have to change the reflection. “To the extent of what we’re seeing in the internet is a reflection of our society and ourselves, so to the extent that if we don’t like that, we have to change ourselves in order to change the reflection,” he remarked.

Privacy and security

There’s no question that the internet has become more weaponized in recent history, either for being a place for displaying confidential or private information openly, or being used to launch attacks on companies or countries.

Cerf believes that personal privacy should be preserved and that tools are needed to protect people’s privacy, but he also appreciates the work done by intelligence agencies and law enforcement. “There are bad people out there that want to do harmful things and we have to discover them before they do that.” He cautions that efforts have to be taken in order to “preserve the things that are fundamental to this country’s democracy” and called safety and security “an important part of the social contract.”

Redefining jobs and the rise of AI

Uber ships its self-driving cars to Arizona after being blocked by California's Department of Motor Vehicles.

Above: Uber ships its self-driving cars to Arizona after being blocked by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Image Credit: Uber

More than once during our interview, Cerf mentioned internet of things (IoT) and so I asked him about the impact these connected devices and automation would have on jobs. He said that it’s been an issue he’s been working on through his Innovation for Jobs organization to discuss how technology is changing work and retraining those displaced. Cerf stated we should be thinking about “how do you craft jobs for people, not the other way around?”

“We’re living longer on the average, so our careers will be longer. That means you can’t learn enough to prepare yourself for 80 years of work, which means you have to keep learning.,” he remarked. “You can go to school, work, learn some more…the internet can be helpful in not solving all problems, but help people learn more.”

“We have to literally reformulate our thinking of how we match people to work.”

When asked about whether the continued proliferation of connected devices will negatively impact the internet, resulting in a need for sub-networks dedicated to those in agriculture, the home, and other specialties, he was adamant in saying no and that there needed to be “one internet, fully connected.”

A collection of Amazon devices powered by Alexa. From left to right: Echo Dot, Amazon Tap, and Amazon Echo.

Above: A collection of Amazon devices powered by Alexa. From left to right: Echo Dot, Amazon Tap, and Amazon Echo.

Image Credit: Ken Yeung/VentureBeat

“If we allow it to break apart into a fragmented thing, then you lose one of the most important features of the internet, that if you plug in directly, in theory then you can get to anyplace else. It’s one of the most important connectivity aspects of the internet because you don’t know ahead of time which things might need to talk to other things and you need that freedom to make that decision,” Cerf said.

Does he worry about the impact of artificial intelligence, similar to what other industry professionals have warned us about? “No, they’re overblowing the autonomy of the AI systems. I’m much more worried about bad code, not about AI going berserk, just bad code with mistakes and bugs that either get exploited or make mistakes. That can cause more trouble than just rogue AI,” Cerf explained.

The future of the internet is “Star Trek”

So what’s next for the internet? Cerf hopes it’ll be a way for him to integrate a lot of the functions on the internet that we’re already getting to independently and separately, an area where AI could be helpful. “I want to be able to talk to the internet like an assistant, asking it to do things, find information, perform tasks, and conduct analysis,” he opined.

In an ideal scenario, he’s rather much like to have the computer from the science-fiction series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” which was voiced by Cerf’s dear friend, the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry.

“I think we’re on the edge of being able to do a lot of these things, especially at Google anyways.”


This article was written by Ken Yeung from VentureBeat and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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