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This article originally appeared

in the May 2008 issue of

The journal of
high-performance business

Interview

Catching the next wave


of innovation
Vint Cerf, chief Internet evangelist, Google

The Internet’s ability to enable collaboration will be the key to


breakthrough innovation, says this industry pioneer, from business
to education to scientific research.

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf still remembers Classical music’s loss would prove to be
standing at that “terrible fork in the road.” society’s gain. In 1969, while a graduate
student at UCLA, Cerf wrote the software to
It was summer, 1958. Cerf was 15 and a connect a computer to the US Defense
passionate student of the cello. While working Department’s Advanced Research Projects
at System Development Corporation in Santa Agency network—ARPANET—which was a
Monica, he had been introduced to a new precursor of the Internet. Then in 1973, while
instrument—a tube-based computer that was at Stanford, he and DARPA colleague Bob
part of the US Distant Early Warning system Kahn designed the TCP/IP protocols and
against Soviet bombers. “I was just completely architecture that enable computers to talk
mesmerized by the fact that you could actually to each other—on what was then called an
do stuff like that,” he recalls. “internetwork.”

Realizing he couldn’t put in the time required Thirty-five years later, the ongoing development
to master both instruments, Cerf reluctantly and expansion of the Internet remains the
put the cello aside. Thus began a lifelong focus of Cerf’s work. In 2005, he joined
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love affair with the computer and, ultimately, Google, where, as befits the company’s official
Number 2 the Internet. chief Internet evangelist, his mission is to
Vint Cerf ensure that the Internet remains a gotten faster, which means that
Vice president, free and open environment that will you can do things on the highway
chief Internet evangelist, Google continue to be a hothouse for inno- that you couldn’t do [before], like
vation. Cerf is also an earnest and deliver something overnight. It’s
Born: eloquent advocate for the more the difference between driving
New Haven, Connecticut, 1943 than 5 billion people who do not across the country in a car on the
Education: yet have access to the Internet. interstate highway system or in
Stanford University, B.S. in Math and a Conestoga wagon.
Computer Science, 1965 Earlier this year, Cerf sat down
University of California at Los Angeles, with Outlook Editor-in-Chief David So applications have evolved because
Computer Science, M.S., 1970; Ph.D., Cudaback and Managing Editor Tish the system has evolved to allow
1972 Burton one morning at the Google them to happen.
Professional highlights: offices in Washington, D.C. Although
Assistant professor of electrical he had a plane to Geneva to catch What will the new applications
engineering and computer science, later that day (he was going there to look like?
Stanford University, 1972–76
participate in an Open Standards I’m expecting to see literally billions
Program manager, principal scientist, conference), Cerf was relaxed and of devices going on the Internet,
US Defense Advanced Research charming and gave his visitors the things that heretofore have not been
Projects Agency (DARPA), 1976–82
impression that he had all the time part of the Internet class—like auto-
Vice president, MCI Digital and in the world for them. mobiles, household appliances, office
Information Services Co., 1982–86 equipment. You’ll find heating and
Senior vice president, MCI And why not? It was simply one ventilation units, refrigerators, all
Telecommunications Corp./WorldCom more opportunity for the chief these other things.
Corp., 1994–2005 Internet evangelist to preach his
Distinguished visiting scientist, NASA's favorite gospel. Have you had any personal experi-
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 1998–present ences with devices like these?
Chairman, Internet Corporation for Outlook: You have said that 97 percent I have picture frames around the
Assigned Names and Numbers, of the applications for the Internet are house that are Internet enabled, and
2000–2007 still to be invented. they pull data off the websites that
Vice president, chief Internet evangelist, Cerf: Let me first make a couple of they log into, and the information
Google Inc., 2005–present simple observations about innovation they get is from people who have
on the Internet. uploaded digital imagery onto those
websites. So I upload my digital
The metaphor for the Internet might pictures onto the website, and the
be roads: They all connect together; picture frame downloads them.
you can start anywhere and end up
anyplace. But you didn’t say any- I also have a wine cellar. I care a lot
thing about the vehicles that are on about the humidity and temperatures
the road, you didn’t say anything in the wine cellar, and I can track
about what buildings are adjacent to that. The compressor failed a couple
the road. You basically said, “Here’s of weeks ago, and the only reason
the road system, and here are the we detected it is my wife happened
rules: Please drive on the right, and to be home and went down and
please signal when you’re making noticed the temperature was 66
turns,” and so on. But that’s it. degrees. But if I’d instrumented that,
The Internet was designed to be I would have gotten an e-mail or a
application agnostic. page or something.

But the roads and vehicles have What else are you expecting?
changed over time. I think our ability to work together
People misunderstand the evolution in a collaborative way will improve
of the Internet. In fact, it isn’t even over time.
half evolved. Its basic design is as
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it was 35 years ago. But what has Think about large colliders. They’re
Number 2 happened is that the roads have really powerful machines, and they
produce just huge amounts of infor- when you’re not using it, somebody
mation per second. And in order to else can. [For more information on
examine the data and then present “cloud computing,” see “Computing
it, you need computing power. What in the clouds,” Outlook, May 2008.]
you would like is if you could take
that data and, even though you’re This is the theory behind the law of
physically apart from a research large numbers, which says that if
colleague, together explore a three- you have lots of variation in demand,
dimensional presentation. you can service that by lumping
together all the capacity, and service
And if multiple parties are able to the average demand over all the
see the same rendering, and talk people that use the system, rather
“If multiple parties are to each other about it in that 3D than having to service the sum of the
presentation, you could take advan- peak demands of all users.
able to see and talk tage of human beings’ ability to
about the same 3D recognize patterns that machines are Exactly what the applications are,
not very good at. I have no idea. That’s what gets
presentation, you could invented by people who have the
Is anyone working in this area? freedom to try things out.
take advantage of I watched some researchers at the
human beings’ ability National Institute of Standards and You’ve expressed your disappointment
Technology last summer doing at the way in which the Internet has
to recognize patterns something very much like that. been used in education. How should
that machines are not the Internet be used in this sphere?
There were two people working I’m a big fan of trying to use comput-
very good at.” together, one where NIST headquar- ers as tools for exploring knowledge.
ters is located, and the other one I honestly believe that we have barely
was in Boulder, Colorado. And I scratched the surface of what we can
watched them discussing this 3D do with network-based services in the
object, and making measurements, educational environment.
and the system would capture and
measure data, and simulate it, and But today I see the Internet being used
then analyze it for you. as kind of a television replacement,
a captive presentation of content, as
So all this interaction was taking opposed to something we can interact
place, mediated by computing power. with and experiment with.
The technology allows you to liter-
ally walk around in this three- The guy who is most expressive about
dimensional space. this is Alan Kay, who actually visual-
ized the first notebook computer in
I expect to see a lot more of this col- 1968, when he was at the University of
laborative stuff, and also expect to Utah. Alan has worked on interactive,
see the harnessing of large quantities object-oriented programming lan-
of computer power. guages for years, and his view of edu-
cation is that it should be something
Harnessing computer you explore. He loves the idea of peo-
power to what end? ple using computers to try things out.
For doing what we call “computing
in the cloud.” You’d use computer For example?
power that’s shared in a network. When Alan was at Disney as an
And when you need it, if you have imagineer, he wrote a program they
it assigned properly, you’ll be able call Squeak.
to expand the amount of computer
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power that you need in order to do This program knows about the
Number 2 a particular computation. And then Internet, or networking in general,
and it has such a simple interface it out; it was more the teacher got
that kids can use it to write programs. access to content and then used it
And because the programming to teach. And now he has thousands
language of Squeak has built into it of these PowerPoint presentations
contents that relate to networking, that are available to anyone who
one kid can build an interactive game, wants to make use of them to teach
and then put it up on the Net, and classes in various subjects.
then everybody else can use it, and
they can play with each other. So You mentioned the Internet and
they explore what you can do, and collaboration. Do you see educational
they invent different kinds of games. potential there?
There are going to be a lot of instru-
Is this just about games? ments that are on the Net: telescopes,
No. For science, Squeak also has spectroscopes and things like that.
this amazing capability. At one And people will be able to share
point, a class went outside of the access to them. And so you can imag-
building, and one of the teachers ine creating independent virtual envi-
“In education, we need went up to the top of the building ronments, like Second Life, for doing
and dropped a ball. The kids video- science. Kids go into this virtual labo-
to facilitate more taped this and digitized it. The ratory and they do experiments, but
content production computer now has this digital the actions they’re taking in this vir-
videotape, and you can show the tual world are actually having an
that takes advantage image and stop it whenever you effect on a real instrument some-
of the interactive want to. where. And so they’re getting real
data from an electron microscope,
nature of the network.” So they measured how far the ball for example. It kind of looks like it’s
went in the first second, and they in this little virtual lab.
measured how far the ball went in
the second. And then they derived You can imagine kids meeting each
the formula for gravitational pull other in this virtual laboratory from
by calculating these differences. different schools and comparing their
results, or getting a measurement
What else could be done to use the and working together.
Internet to improve education?
I’m of the opinion that we need to What attracted you to Google?
facilitate more content production Part of my attraction to Google is
that takes advantage of this interac- that I use it a lot. I thought it was
tive nature of the network. a great tool, and I was excited about
working with the company. Also,
A good friend of mine has developed almost all of the employees were
something he calls The Supercourse. too young to know that “You can’t
He started accumulating PowerPoint do that.”
presentations from people who were
really smart and experts in their field. What has most surprised you
He began focusing on epidemiology, about the Internet?
because that’s his specialty. He If you look at the economics of digital
accumulated a lot of these Power- information, it is mind-blowing,
Point presentations, he put them stunning. Small example: I bought
up on the Net, and made them two terabytes of disk storage a few
available to anybody who wanted months ago for about $600. And
to use them to teach. then I remembered in 1979, I had
paid $1,000 for ten megabytes—and
So it wasn’t so much that the student it was the size of a shoebox. So then
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Outlook 2008
went and looked at the PowerPoint I thought, “Oh, what if I tried to buy
Number 2 and then somehow tried to figure a terabyte of this memory in 1979?
What would it have cost?” It would Outlook is published by Accenture.
have been $100 million. And I didn’t © 2008 Accenture.
have $100 million back then. And if All rights reserved.
I had, I’m sure my wife would rather
I spent it on something other than The views and opinions in this article should
not be viewed as professional advice with
disc storage! respect to your business.

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so dramatically different.

Do you regret giving up the cello?


When I was 15, I loved the instru-
ment—beautiful, beautiful. The sound
is . . .

I sort of regret that now, but I don’t


think I have the flexibility or muscle
memory to take it up again. But I
love classical music. Big Brahms fan,
Wagner and Beethoven.