Chatting with the father of the internet
Vinton G. Cerf is one of the men who created a new world: the Internet. Born in New Haven/Connecticut in 1943, the computer scientist co-wrote the Internet protocol TCP/IP in the 1970s – the basis for the World Wide Web. Through this invention he played his part in ensuring that the way we live together on this planet changed radically within a very short period of time. Google’s senior vice president since September 2005, he shared thoughts and opinions with young researchers in his field at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in the summer of 2015. In our interview, Vinton G. Cerf from the USA explains how important cyber security is for the future of the Internet and talks about the innovations he expects to see in this area from Germany.
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Dr Cerf, you are called the “father of the Internet” because you have played a significant role in driving the medium’s development. Since its inception, the Internet has changed radically. How much of your original concept is still to be found in today's Internet?
The basic architecture of the Internet remains largely what it was when the Internet was launched operationally in 1983. Some things have changed, however. For one thing, we ran out of the original Internet Protocol numerical address space (IP version 4 or IPv4) in February 2011 and there is a growing effort to introduce a new and much larger address space called IPv6 (IP version 6). The new address space exceeds the old one by a factor of 75 thousand trillion. The speed of the network has increased by a factor of over a million, as has the number of devices, while the number of users has grown by nearly one hundred thousand (to three billion today). Mobile access to the network with smartphones and tablets has contributed to the growth in the number of users and the applications they can use. That includes mobile streaming, interactive video and hundreds of thousands of applications. The World Wide Web was added in the early 1990s, creating a vast new infrastructure layer supporting new text, data, audio and video exchange applications. A new "Internet of Things" is emerging that will expand the Internet's scale by additional orders of magnitude. We have added the ability to express domain names in non-Latin characters, expanding the utility of domain names in Internet applications. Additional security features have been added that were anticipated but not implemented in the early Internet (end-to-end cryptography, strong authentication and two-factor authentication). Recently, new "software-defined-networking" methods have been added to the net.
How will the medium change in the future?
In addition to increasing wireless penetration and speed, we will see new access methods arising from the use of drones, balloons and low Earth orbiting satellites. Broadcast and multicast IP will change the way information is distributed. We can already see an increase in the use of Internet-based video conferencing. Sensor networks will become an integral part of the Internet environment, including continuous human vital sign monitoring. Cloud computing will continue to grow in scale, supporting enormous libraries of digital data and software to process it.
The issue of cyber security is becoming increasingly important. Which research approaches from Germany do you regard as particularly promising and exciting?
The use of cryptography to protect confidentiality, to protect integrity of information (digitally-signed hash codes) and to strongly authenticate users will become part of the normal Internet fabric. Improved programming languages and methods for confirming bug-free operation will emerge from the German computer science community.
Security is a socially and politically sensitive area in Germany as a whole. Why do you think this makes Germany such an exciting location for cyber security research?
Germany has a long history of manufacturing increasingly sophisticated products. Automobiles are a good example since the high-end brands like Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW are incorporating a rich palette of safety features, including lane keeping, speed control, collision avoidance and the like. There is sure to be more forthcoming in the future. High-end scientific instruments are also part of Germany's heritage, and we will see more and more devices and instruments online, delivering data and accepting control remotely. There is still a lot of research needed to ensure that these systems remain within a range of parameters that guarantee safe operation.
You took part in the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) in 2015. Why is this important to you and what do you hope to achieve? What conclusions do you draw from this event?
The HLF brings together leading computer science and mathematics prize awardees with 200 students for a week. The level of discourse is intense and high; the level of creative debate is extraordinarily dense. The Forum brings students and laureates together and also draws their attention to the rich scientific heritage in and around Heidelberg. It will not surprise me to learn of very productive collaborations arising from this enchanting week together in Heidelberg. We are also seeing the rapid infusion of mathematics and computer science into all areas of research. One new feature of this year's HLF was the inclusion of a lecture by a Nobel Prize winner (on high resolution optical microscopy) and a similar exchange programme is expected at Lindau next year.
Dr Cerf, thank you very much for the interview.