Vinton Cerf On The Challenges Of Today’s Digital Society

Rebecca Hambsch

Today, it’s difficult to imagine life without the Internet. Have you ever wondered how it was developed?

Thanks to the Laureate Forum and the SAP Knowledge and Education organization, led by Bernd Welz, Vinton Cerf, chief internet evangelist at Google and one of the fathers of the internet, spoke recently at SAP headquarters in Walldorf about his invention, its past, and its future.

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum brings together the world’s leading mathematicians and computer scientists and talented young scientists. The laureates, many of whom are winners of the most prestigious awards such as the Fields Medal and the Turing Award, and scientists exchange ideas during workshops, lectures, and discussions. The Forum was founded by the Klaus Tschira Foundation (KTS) and the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies.

From ARPANET to internet

It all started in 1969, when the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) connected four computer network nodes—The University of California, Los Angeles; the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California; UC Santa Barbara; and the University of Utah—launching the ARPANET.

Four years later, Vinton Cerf and his colleague Bob Kahn began experimenting with ways to connect the packet-switching based ARPANET to the radio and satellite networks, using their co-developed the TCP/IP protocol. In 1977, they finally succeeded. Cerf remembers jumping around his office screaming, “It worked!”

Addressing audience of SAP employees in the Walldorf canteen, he said, “It’s a miracle when software works. We not only believe in miracles; we depend on them.”

Although the forerunner of the Internet was born, it was still not possible for different companies to interact with each other until January 1, 1983. That was when TCP/IP was adopted as the universal protocol and backbone of the Internet, setting the stage for the commercialization of the Internet in the ’90s.

Five key findings and their importance

During his lecture at SAP, Cerf discussed “unfinished business” associated with the challenges of today’s digital society. Here are his most important messages:

1. Connectivity is not enough.

Today, half of the world’s population has access to the Internet, but this is not enough. The Internet was born out of the idea of sharing information, and it needs to be affordable and sustainable for everyone, everywhere.

2. If you don’t learn something new every day, you are no longer relevant.

Technology changes constantly and dramatically, and with it, so does the way we work. If you don’t learn something new every day, you are no longer relevant. Imagine you’re born today and live a hundred years, spending at least 70 years working. That’s seven decades of new and evolving technologies. Lifelong learning is no longer an option; it is a fundamental survival tactic.

3. We have the responsibility to protect users from what they don’t know.

According to Cerf, we haven’t improved our ability to write software over the past 70 years. There are bugs that can cause real trouble and we, as software experts, have the responsibility to protect users from what they don’t know.

Today especially, data privacy, reliability, and safety are priorities for customers and end users.  You don’t want information to escape from systems without going through a strongly authenticated and approved system. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is a very powerful tool, so we shouldn’t give it too much autonomy. The reason? We don’t know about the mistakes that developers may have built into AI systems.

4. We are heading for a digital dark age.

Cerf is worried about the lifetime of our data because our entire lives – including photographs, videos, and other data – are stored as digital bits of information. “How long will our devices last? 500 years? Probably not. Today’s digital media might last 10 years. But what happens to it once the hardware stops working? We definitely need to find a way to maintain our data safely.”

5. The Internet is still evolving. Keep it simple.

The design of the Internet is 45 years old, but it is still evolving. Its layered structure offers plenty of flexibility. The packets of the Internet Protocol layer don’t know how they are carried or what they are carrying, and as Cerf points out: “We did that on purpose. A certain amount of ignorance leads to a very powerful and flexible design.”

Cerf ended his presentation with a call to action: “The future isn’t written yet. It’s in your hands.”

This article first appeared on SAP News Center.

About Rebecca Hambsch

Rebecca Hambsch joined SAP in 2011 as a vocational trainee, continuing on in 2013 to pursue her Bachelor of Arts for English and Spanish Translation, Linguistic and Cultural Studies in 2016. She has worked in several communication roles within SAP, including intern and external communications, as well as media relations and social media. In Rebecca's current role as Integrated Communications Specialist, she supports the Chief Knowledge Officer and the SAP Knowledge and Education team in their mission to spread the word about #SkillsforSuccess and #LearningforLife.