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November 15, 2002

`Father of the Internet' ponders Mars

From: Toronto Star, Canada
Nov. 15, 2002

Vinton Cerf takes on new challenges Network link to red planet studied


Vinton Cerf, the man who co-created the Internet nearly 30 years ago, wants to expand his world-changing invention into two uncharted territories — the solar system and his wife's brain.

The first involves an ambitious project with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is working toward an interplanetary "network of networks," beginning with a link between Mother Earth and Mars. It would function similar to the way our terrestrial Internet operates today.

The second is what 58-year-old Cerf calls his "pet project," sparked by a discussion with his wife, Sigrid, over ways to wirelessly connect her electronic inner ear to the Internet, allowing her to query the World Wide Web and have answers planted directly in her head.

"My wife suggested it, and I'm very intrigued," said Cerf, who has been married 35 years. "I think it's absolutely within the state of the art."

Sigrid was left almost entirely deaf after getting meningitis at the age of three. In the mid-1990s, she learned over the Internet — ironically — about a device called a cochlear implant. The implant can turn sounds into electronic pulses that stimulate the brain. A speech box, basically a tiny computer attached to the hip, helps the brain process words, music and other noises so a deaf person can literally hear.

"It takes sounds in, does an analysis to figure out what frequencies are present, and then it figures out which electrodes it's going to stimulate in the electronic implant to simulate the inner ear," Cerf explained to the Star during a visit to Toronto yesterday.

After using the Net to gain more information about the device, Sigrid went ahead with the $80,000 procedure in 1996. Shortly after the operation, she had her first phone conversation in more than three decades with her husband, himself dependent on a hearing aid since the age of 13.

Recently, Sigrid asked her husband why her speech box couldn't be rigged to process her own vocal commands and send those commands through a local wireless network to a home computer connected to the Internet. Conversely, the answer to those commands could be sent back wirelessly from the Internet to the speech box and her inner ear.

"Technically, you could query the Internet, have the response come back and the answer put in your head," Cerf said. "There's no sound, it's coming up through this wire and directly stimulating the electrodes of the implant, which is essentially stimulating her auditory nerves."

Cerf said the biggest challenge would be to get enough computing power out of the speech-processing box. The pieces of the puzzle, he added, already exist; they just need assembly and reprogramming.

It's amazing that a man as busy as Cerf has time to tinker around. His resumé is 10 pages long, and many of the jobs on that c.v. are still active today.

Cerf is senior vice-president of architecture and technology at WorldCom Inc. at a time when the long-distance giant is going through the largest bankruptcy filing in North American history.

As if that's not time-consuming enough, he's also chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which overseas the Web address system for the Net, and is honorary chairman of the Ipv6 Forum, which is dedicated to speeding up the introduction of a new Internet protocol that can accommodate the billions of Web devices expected to populate the Web in the future.

Cerf's big claim to fame goes back three decades, when he and colleague Robert Kahn co-developed a computer protocol called TCP/IP that allows personal computers and other devices to find and communicate with each other over a network of connected networks. It laid the foundation for the modern-day Internet, which has radically changed the way we conduct business, learn, entertain and communicate with each other.

Soft-spoken Cerf is modest about his accomplishments and generally shies away from the title "father of the Internet" that's often applied to him. He's careful to point out the work he and Kahn did contributed to a body of knowledge that had begun much earlier.

"There's plenty of credit to go around. I don't feel a need to claim more than my share."

At the same time, Cerf is unique in that he continues after so long to dedicate his life to improving and pushing forward the capabilities of the Internet, and speaking out on issues such as privacy, security, spam, Net taxation, censorship and the need for ubiquitous broadband access as a strategy for unleashing innovation.

In a speech yesterday to the Empire Club, he called the Internet a "mirror of mankind" that can't be erased or altered. Instead, the reflection can only change if mankind itself changes.

"This is so fascinating," he said in an interview prior to his speech, referring to why he stays involved with the Net's development. "It's like an Agatha Christie novel. I keep wondering how it's all going to turn out. The only way you can find out is to hang in there and keep pressing ahead."

His work with NASA is a case in point. The idea is to use standard TCP/IP protocol — the language of the Internet — to build other Internet-like networks across the solar system, starting with satellite and spacecraft being sent to Mars. The first incarnation will be launched next year when a satellite accompanies a rover mission to the red planet.

"It's actually a network of Internets," said Cerf, explaining that as each planetary Internet is put in space, they will be able to communicate with each other using a new set of long-haul protocols that overcome issues such as signal delays and changing positions of the planets.

"It looks a lot like store-and-forward e-mail. ... By the end of the decade, I think we should have at least a two-planet Internet in operation."

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