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January 19, 2004

Internet pioneer ponders: What's next?

From: Seattle Times, WA - Jan 19, 2004

By Monica Soto Ouchi Seattle Times technology reporter

Vinton Cerf wears three hats these days, but he may be best known as one of the "fathers of the Internet."

Cerf, 60, co-designed the TCP/IP protocol and the architecture of the Internet during his tenure at the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) about 30 years ago.

Today, he is senior vice president of technology strategy at MCI, the company that has emerged out of the bankruptcy (and scandals) of WorldCom; board chairman of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which manages and coordinates the domain-name system; and a distinguished visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he is working on the design of an interplanetary Internet.

Cerf spoke last week at the "Technology, Values and the Justice System Symposium" held at the University of Washington's William H. Gates Hall, the law school's new home.

We caught up with him after his lecture at the symposium. Here is an edited transcript.

Q: Do you get any sleep?

A: I try to avoid it. When I was 10 years old, I recognized that sleeping was a waste of time, so I try to avoid it as much as possible.

Q: Are you being facetious?

A: No, I'm serious. When I was 10, I really believed sleeping was a terrible waste of time, and I was annoyed by the fact that I had to, so I did the best I could not to.

Q: How much sleep do you get a night?

A: Oh, it varies from a low of 4 hours. Sometimes, I stay up all night. But maybe every couple of weeks I'll do that. But usually it's between 4 and 6 hours.

Q: These last few years, MCI has gone through some tumultuous changes.

A: True. Those changes haven't had a great deal of direct impact on me. Basically, I've been moving around in the technology and operations groups, taking responsibility for various aspects of architecture and engineering. More recently, (MCI Chief Executive) Michael Capellas moved me into the strategic planning group.

I'm trying to make sure (that) whatever long-term plans we have, there's a sensible technology that will go with it, so we have a business to build.

Q: What do you consider the most important burgeoning technologies right now?

A: Probably the most visible thing happening is VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). I don't want to overemphasize that because it's only one of a thousand things the Internet can do. But it's probably the most disruptive because it challenges a 125-year-old telephone system and says basically, "You know what? Phone calls are just an adjunct to being on the Net. There's nothing special about it."

The same sort of thing happened with electronic mail. When we introduced MCI mail in 1983, we charged $1 a message for that service. I challenge you to find anybody who'd pay a dollar an e-mail (now), let alone pay you anything for e-mail.

Q: I just wrote about a company in another industry that's trying to adapt quickly to technological changes.

A: Technology has a way of sneaking up on you, especially as costs drop. There's a term for this in physics: phase change. When water goes from liquid to ice, it's called a phase change. When prices drop below a certain number or capital costs drop below a certain number, suddenly the technology can be acquired by a sufficiently larger number of people (so) that the previous service that is associated with it goes away.

Q: What other industries do you think are affected by this change?

A: Most immediately, obviously, is the conventional telephone service. All of the value-added stuff is still going to be there: conferencing capabilities and things like that. They'll just get more rich because now it's not just talking, it's also video and shared documents.

Education will probably find itself impacted (both) positively and negatively. Distance education has not been a huge success, but it's becoming increasingly used.

Q: What sort of advice do you have for industries in the midst of this great change?

A: First of all, on the business side, we'll see an increasing dependence on the Internet for business-to-business exchanges. There was a huge run-up in (information technology) investment up to Y2K. Then there was an immediate trough. Everybody said: I spent all I could afford to spend on IT.

But there was a good deal of (challenge) to put those IT resources to work within the enterprises, to make the enterprise more efficient. Now the question is what else can I do with all that investment?

One answer is to make the inter-enterprise exchanges more efficient. ... Wal-Mart, Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Chrysler are all requiring that their vendors meet certain technological standards in order to (conduct business) with them.

Q: I know you tend to look 10 years out, but if you could focus on 2004, what do you see as the most interesting technologies?

A: I think Internet-enabled appliances are going to be interesting. You start to see the resurgence of interest in household management with the security system, the heating and air-conditioning system and the entertainment systems.

You could be anywhere in the house and control any device in the house, whether you're in the same room or not, which is an improvement over having to walk over and find something and change it with a remote control. Which, by the way, means you can change it when you're outside the house. ...

I'm also expecting to see some significant increase in the use of speech understanding as an alternative way of interacting with the Net. It's been a prospect for some time. Even when I was at the Defense Department, we were doing research in speech understanding in the mid-1970s with some fairly good results.

But we couldn't do it in real time, with continually spoken speech. Now we have enough computer power to make it possible to literally recognize connected speech in real time.

Q: What have you not done yet?

A: There are a lot of things I haven't done. (Laughs.)

Q: What do you want to do? What do you need to do, in this lifetime at least?

A: Two things: One, I have four books that I really want to write, and I never seem to find time to do it. I've got to do that.

Second, I've been on all sides. I've been in the government. I've done nonprofits. I've taught in institutions. I've been in the commercial sector. I've never actually ever done a startup. I've been involved in them through venture capital and things like that. And I've sat on a few boards of startups, either pre- or post-IPO, but I've never actually done my own.

I'm not suggesting that I'm planning to do that. That's one of the things I haven't done.

Q: What part of the technology industry would you go into if you were to do a startup?

A: I think the answer is: If I knew that, I probably would've tried it by now. To say nothing of the fact that I'd probably be the world's worst CEO. So maybe having not inflicted myself on the venture-capital community in that fashion is a big benefit for them.

Q: Any parting thoughts?

A: To go away from Internet for just a minute, one of the things that is very apparent is our interest in biotechnology and how diagnostic tools are improving in dramatic ways. Reconstructive surgery processes are becoming increasingly intelligent because we can put computers on board.

The things that Dean Kamen did, for example, with his Segway are the kinds of techniques you can think about using for artificial legs, where balance becomes an important element in locomotion. But I think even more dramatically, neuro-electronics is going to be a fabulous area for continuing development.

My wife had a cochlear implant in 1996. She was deaf for 50 years. The side effect of being able to hear normally: She uses the phone, watches the television, listens to the radio, listens to recorded books, listens to movies on the airplane by jacking into the seat and plugging it into her speech processor, which is a computer doing the work that her inner ear would've done if it worked, except her inner ear doesn't work.

So this thing is ferreting out what the sounds are, knows what the amplitudes are and various frequencies. And then it directly stimulates the auditory nerve, just like the inner ear would've done.

It's a computer that's electrically stimulating the brain and getting sounds to be understood to be sounds. And sounds that can be put together as speech or music. This is unbelievable. After 50 years of silence she suddenly hears. ...

You can extrapolate this to ocular implants, for people who are blind. They're starting to experiment with this. ... And then what about spinal-cord injuries, where we start working not just with sensory systems but with sensory motor systems?

Q: Sounds like your next startup.

A: (Laughs.) Well, that's a long-term project. And there are smarter people than I who have already started working on that area. But I'm a big enthusiast of what's possible there.

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or

Copyright @ 2004 The Seattle Times Company