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The Internet's unfinished business

last updated 09 June 2017

One of the Internet's founding fathers, Dr Vint Cerf, gives his take on what the future holds for the global network.

20170608 vint cerf

Dr Vint Cerf talked about the future of the Internet, including some key issues to tackle ahead.

By Francis Kan

It's not often that one gets to meet a true pioneer of technology, but on 18 May, close to 300 professionals, students and members of the public were treated to an address by Dr Vint Cerf, known as one of the founding fathers of the internet.

Dr Cerf, ¬≠who helped develop the internet protocol suite, known as TCP/IP – which underpins the workings of the global network – was in Singapore as a speaker at the Infocomm Media Development Authority's (IMDA) inaugural Distinguished Speaker Series, held in partnership with Google Inc. 

The 73-year-old started out at the United States' Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1970s, where he worked to develop TCP/IP technology. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organisation responsible for overseeing the namespaces of the internet, and ensuring the network's stable and secure operation.

Now the Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, Dr Cerf spoke about what he described as "unfinished business of the internet". One aspect of this was to make the internet better at serving the people it was designed for.

"My concern is that we are so heavily invested in technology that we forget that technology is supposed to be beneficial to the people," he said.

20170608 vint cerf 2Easy access to the Internet

Among other things, he said that the internet should be affordable and accessible to everyone, including those with hearing or mobility impairments. "Computers have not adapted very well for people with disabilities," he noted.

He also touched on the potential to use the internet for education and deliver healthcare, as well as allow people to work remotely. As it was not clear whether people who lost their jobs due to technology would be able to take on the new ones created, he added that education becomes very important in the digital age.

With the rise of security threats, such as the recent Wannacry virus, Dr Cerf also said that countries needed to cooperate to "deal with the negative side effects of the openness of the internet".

Staying on top of technology

As new internet-based technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), develop, Dr Cerf said new problems would emerge. For instance, how would IoT devices receiving software updates determine whether they were legitimate or from a hacker?

"It needs to be able to determine the origins and authenticity of updates. We have to provide people with the tools to do such authentication," he said.

Another issue was preserving digital information as technology evolves, and old formats storing information are no longer usable on new devices. "We can't read floppy disks anymore, and 20 years from now, today's software would not run on new computers. We need business models that can preserve digital information for a long time," he said.

Dr Cerf also talked about the misinformation and disinformation that is prevalent over the internet, an issue that has come to the fore due to the debate over "fake news". He noted that this is one problem which technology may not be able to solve, but would require humans to think critically instead.

"It is hard to develop algorithms to say this is true or this is false. The best filter in the world is critical thinking. We have to teach children to distinguish good from bad information."

He ended his talk with a look into the future, painting a picture where the internet would extend into outer space. He has worked with NASA to develop an "interplanetary internet", which involves creating a set of protocols that can be used in space, where planet rotation and other factors make traditional networking difficult. “The internet is no longer confined to planet Earth," he said.

IMDA's Distinguished Speaker Series is an outreach initiative to bring together the industry, academia, students, government and the public to gain insights from global thought leaders, exchange ideas and create new opportunities. 

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