Association of Science and Technologies Centers

Q&A with Vinton Cerf

Interviewed by Susan Straight

Vinton Cerf, along with his colleague Robert E. Kahn, won the U.S. National Medal of Technology for “creating and sustaining development of Internet Protocols” and for his continued leadership in this field. They were awarded the Alan M. Turing award (the “Nobel Prize of Computer Science”) for their work on the Internet protocols, the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian award in the United States, and countless other honors. Since 2005, he has served as vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. One of his latest projects is co-founding with Mei Lin Fung the People-Centered Internet (PCI), which is dedicated to “working for an Internet that works for people.”

Vint, you recently recovered from COVID-19. We are so glad you are feeling better. Can you tell us about how that experience and the current global crisis are influencing what you want to work on next?

Thank you. I really am glad to be back to whatever is “normal” these days in the midst of a pandemic. I suspect the new “normal” is not the same as what we are all accustomed to. My COVID-19 symptoms were actually mild and they were textbook. In other words, I had a headache, a fever of 102.4, chills, and then I was just exhausted. It took about three weeks to get back to an energy level that I would consider close to typical. 

The thing which I found most alarming is that you don’t know what your progress is going to be. You’re reading about the more severe cases—those who end up in ICUs and on ventilators and some of them die. You don’t know what path you’re on and whether your symptoms are going to get worse. In some ways, the stress of not knowing the outcome is almost as bad as the symptoms, at least psychologically speaking. By good fortune our younger son flew in from Los Angeles for three weeks, bless his heart, to do cooking, food shopping, and the like, so my wife and I (we both tested positive for COVID-19) did not have to leave the house. 

…our healthcare system is not adequately resilient and not equipped to deal with something like this. And that, frankly, is pretty scary. 

We also discovered that the healthcare system is broken in a number of different ways—unexpectedly so. For example, we had to fight very hard to get tested. It was clear that I had the symptoms, but I was unable to get tested in the state of Virginia. We live in Fairfax county and the nearest test center at the time was in an adjacent county. That center wouldn’t provide the test since we didn’t live in that county. We couldn’t get the local Fairfax County health department to do any testing; they said they didn’t have the adequate protective equipment. So we ended up paying $500 each to go to a facility in Washington, D.C. to be tested.

The second point is that [before I was tested] the doctors we consulted refused to see us in person. They said, “We’ll be happy to do video consults.” And I said, “But you need to take a swab. You can’t tell what I have without actually getting a sample.” And they just adamantly refused.

Those little experiences, plus everything you see in the news, tells you that our healthcare system is not adequately resilient and not equipped to deal with something like this. And that, frankly, is pretty scary. 

Just over a year ago (December 10, 2018), we reached the milestone of roughly half of the world’s population having access to the Internet—nearly thirty years since the Internet was made publicly available. What kind of global progress do you see to connect the other 50%?

This is a topic of great interest to me. We often refer to this as “digital inclusion.” My view is that there are a number of barriers getting in the way of making it possible for everyone to get access to the internet. It’s important to recognize that not everyone wants access to the Internet, and there are a number of reasons for that. But I think no one should be bereft of the choice to have access. And I do believe if you have access, and then it is denied to you by a nation-state or something, that’s a violation of human rights. You should have access to the technology in order to express yourself and to hear what other people have to say. 

So what’s to be done? The first problem is the lack of physical facilities underlying transport, whether they’re radio-based, like Wi-Fi, LTE (Long Term Evolution, a 4G wireless communications standard), mobile phone; or hard-wired, like cable systems or fiber. Or they may be too expensive and therefore not affordable. Or it may be that the equipment’s been installed but a business model hasn’t been established that’s sustainable.

The effort to get the other half of the world online, and to get the half that is online into a safer position, continues on many different fronts. The People-Centered Internet is one of many organizations. The Marconi Society recently started an effort on digital inclusion with similar objectives. There’s a lot of work still to be done.

But even when you do have access, it’s still complicated. Do you have suitable equipment, content in a language that you understand, and is the information that is available to you useful locally? Because if you live in Colombia and are looking for a plumber and your Internet search shows you one in New York City, that doesn’t help you very much. So there are a variety of desiderata that need to be in place to make Internet access useful.

Then there is digital literacy. It’s an unfortunate fact that the online environment is not necessarily safe. There are lots of technical challenges associated with malware—people attacking your servers or attacking your machine—or people trying to mislead you with information that gets you to do something detrimental. Phishing attacks invite you to respond to an email or click on some link that results in identity theft or access to accounts that you would not normally allow a third party to have access to. So there are a variety of risk factors associated with being online. Much as I would like to mitigate those, people need to be aware of them to protect themselves, with, for example, strong authentication of identity to resist other people pretending to be you and taking actions on your behalf. 

The effort to get the other half of the world online, and to get the half that is online into a safer position, continues on many different fronts. The People-Centered Internet is one of many organizations. The Marconi Society recently started an effort on digital inclusion with similar objectives. There’s a lot of work still to be done.

In 1994. ARPAnet was such an unusual idea that team members Jon Postel, Steve Crocker, and Vint Cerf used zucchinis and squash to model the functionality of the technology. ARPAnet would later become known as the Internet. 

With schools and universities closed in response to COVID-19, America’s “digital divide” is all too apparent. What should be done here in the United States to address the inequity in access to the Internet and digital technologies?

Some of the problems that I related earlier are relevant to the United States: cost, sustainability, available physical facilities. We have not done well in terms of policy, when it comes to bringing the rural parts of the country online. It’s often expensive to provide broadband access in areas that have low-population density.  Stringing fiber or digging trenches is expensive. Some of those problems can be dealt with using high-speed radio and even free-space lasers as backbone components because they’re less expensive than trenching for fiber. There is a major initiative, whose outcome is still uncertain, to put thousands of low-earth orbiting satellites in place to provide high bandwidth and low latency access to the Internet—virtually from every square inch of the planet. Some of your listeners will know about the Starlink program that Elon Musk initiated through SpaceX. Whether this will be economically attractive for people who are on the lower end of the economic spectrum remains to be seen. But at least it’s an initiative that should provide more access than there is today, in areas that are not served adequately, or not served at all. 

There is a major initiative, whose outcome is still uncertain, to put thousands of low-earth orbiting satellites in place to provide high bandwidth and low latency access to the Internet—virtually from every square inch of the planet. 

Why does it matter that people have access to the Internet—and is access enough?

Access is not enough. You need digital literacy, information in languages that you understand, and all of the things I mentioned earlier. I think the experience of the pandemic illustrates at least two things: we have been able to adapt our daily lives to a more online environment, which I think is pretty amazing when you think about the load that’s being placed on the Internet. And the success of teleworking might have a more permanent effect on our post-pandemic future as employers think about how they will respond if this happens again—which it probably will. Or more employers may begin to consider working from home perfectly acceptable for the convenience of the employees. 

So I think we’re exploring some pretty interesting territory now, where the Internet plays an even more prominent role in our daily activities than it has in the past. 

In response to public health guidance related to COVID-19, essentially all of our science and technology centers and museums—and museums and cultural institutions generally—are temporarily closed to the public. Many museums have found ingenious and creative ways to provide online science learning and engagement. What are some innovative approaches you’ve seen—or hope to see—using the Internet to engage people in science?

Let me pick arts for just a second because there is a Google Arts and Culture activity which has made a practice of high resolution imaging many museums and galleries. The thing that’s exciting to me is using digital technology to get deeper into a subject, whether it be learning more about a painting, a scientific process, or a discovery. Computers have become increasingly important in scientific research—whether it’s modeling, big data analysis, or planning experiments. In computational biology, computational astrology, or computational physics, for example, super computers or high-capacity computing capabilities are used to help science make progress. Pandemic or not, computing is becoming an increasingly valuable part of the scientific enterprise and, in many cases, scientists can work from virtually anywhere. I’m rather excited about the fact that we’re bringing more and more computing power to bear in aid of scientific research. This extends into the use of machine learning. Some people refer to this as artificial intelligence, but people like me want to make a distinction between general artificial intelligence—human capabilities—and machine learning—pattern matching, pattern recognition, and pattern discovery at a scale beyond humans. This is an important distinction. To give an illustration: one of our engineers at Google was trying to find planets around distant stars by observing the dimming of the light the star emitted. There was a massive amount of data and figuring out if a particular star has a pattern of dimming is a non-trivial exercise. This employee used a machine learning method to detect a pattern, which essentially identified a planet that had not been discovered by other astronomers. This illustrates for me that our tools are increasingly helpful in the act of discovery, in addition to analysis or simulation. I consider that to be pretty exciting. 

Our member museums strive to develop accessible science-engagement opportunities—both hands-on and online. Your own hearing loss, and that of your wife Sigrid, led you to advocate for accessibility in technology development and product design. What reflections do you have on accessible design that our member museums might learn from?

Thank you for asking that. This is a difficult problem. In my case, my hearing began to diminish when I was about 13 years old, at which point I started wearing hearing aids. My hearing has continued decreasing by about 1 decibel per year, but hearing aid technology continues to improve, so I’ve been functional. My wife’s case was somewhat different. She had normal hearing until she was three years old and then dramatically lost all of it, becoming profoundly deaf, due to spinal meningitis. She spent 50 years lip reading. She didn’t learn to sign. She had to face people in order to figure out what they were saying, and I can tell you, that is an exhausting process. 

Then she got a cochlear implant at age 53 at John’s Hopkins in 1996 and it was absolutely life changing. For the first time, she was able to hear, use the phone, watch television, go to the movies, and have parties with more than three people. We even had to get a bigger house—at an age when most people are downsizing—just to have bigger parties! She then got a second cochlear implant, so she’s now binaural as a result. In the most recent years, we’ve seen significant brain plasticity and improvement in the quality and acuity of her hearing. 

She spent 50 years lip reading. She didn’t learn to sign. She had to face people in order to figure out what they were saying, and I can tell you, that is an exhausting process. 

During that 50-year period when she could not hear, I was strongly motivated to encourage her to use computers for communication. I wanted her to use email, for example and to make use of the Internet. As an artist and non-technologist, she was resistant. The Internet was slow in its early days and she was impatient. It was her book club members who managed to get her to use email because they couldn’t call her on the phone. Now with high speed Internet, the elaboration of content on the World Wide Web, and tools like Google search, she’s online all the time and making very heavy use of the Internet’s content as well as its ability to facilitate communication. She’s become very much a part of the Internet world.

What’s your favorite science and technology center or museum?   

That’s really hard because there are so many of them. I’m a little biased at the moment because my wife and I just spent three weeks in London, living across the street from the British Museum. Convenient access to that institution was simply mind-boggling. 

We live in the Washington, D.C. area and so the Smithsonian museums are all remarkable—including the most recent one, the National Museum of African American History. I confess the one that I like the most is the National Museum of Natural History. And then it’s a toss-up between the National Air and Space Museum and the Museum of American History, where I had a small role to help organize some of the exhibitions, such as American Enterprise. So for me, the Smithsonian institutions and the British Museum are very high on my list of favorite places to go.    

To listen to this interview, click here.

For ASTC’s COVID-19 resources, click here.

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