By Steve Kovsky
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
June 11, 2000, 4 a.m. PT
Vint Cerf, known as the father of the Internet, has got his eyes on the stars.
The senior vice president for Internet architecture and technology at telecommunications company WorldCom is working on a proposal to create a network of Internets to facilitate communication between planets, satellites, asteroids, robotic spacecraft and crewed vehicles.
While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, Cerf's participation lends a certain gravity to plans for the stellar Net system. As one of the co-creators of the TCP/IP protocol and basic architecture of what we now know as the Internet, Cerf has been at the forefront of the Net revolution. In 1997, both he and scientific partner Robert E. Kahn were recognized for their work when President Clinton presented them with the U.S. National Medal of Technology.
In an interview with CNET Radio Executive Editor Steve Kovsky, Cerf talked about plans for an interplanetary Internet, the dot-com malaise, and whether Web-surfing refrigerators are really something we need.
Q: Can you tell me about your project to extend the Internet into outer space or rebuild the Net so that it can support the demands of planetary exploration?
The only issue that really comes up is when you go interplanetary--when you have to carry information from one planet to another. And there you get into significant delays because of the astronomical distances involved. You may run into serious variations in error rates. You may run into differences in data rates when you send or receive data.
All of those variations caused us to design a new set of protocols, in addition to the ones that are normally part of the Internet, to work on an interplanetary basis. So that's what I've been spending the last two and a half or so...almost three years now with the Jet Propulsion Lab engineers to develop.
So why do we need the Internet not only to work well on other planets, but to work between planets? Is there demand?
So our focus of attention is on interplanetary for purposes of communicating with robotic devices, sensors and analyzing. In the longer term...2018 and out, there is a reasonable possibility that we will see some manned missions that might take us beyond the orbit of the moon. But that hasn't been the primary motivation. It's been primarily in support of space exploration using small vehicles.
When you created TCP/IP, essentially giving life to what we know now as the Internet, I would guess you never saw the concept being applied to space exploration. What else has surprised you about recent innovations?
Or worse, you have bathroom scales that are Internet-enabled. Then you get on the scale and it sends your weight to the doctor, and that becomes part of your medical record. And then one day you come home and you discover diet recipes on the refrigerator because it has got the same information that was sent to the doctor and decides you need to go on a diet.
In fact, the most recent nightmare is the nano-engine guys who go off and build these tiny little Internet-enabled radio transceivers, and they get embedded in your clothes. So you interrogate your sock drawer and you get back a message saying, "Sock drawer contains 17 matched pairs of socks and there are three unmatched socks. Sock #114327L is missing." And so you send out a broadcast around the house and sure enough, sock #114327L responds, "I'm in the house at this latitude and longitude behind the sofa." So now you have a way of solving the lost sock problem. I thought that was cool.
How about this: Can it tell me if the socks I'm wearing don't match, before
I go out of the house?
Now, there is a downside to this. If your clothes can be located, you can imagine calling home and saying, "Hi, I'm going to work late in the office tonight." You get this puzzled response saying, "Well gee, that's really interesting because your shirt is down on 15th Street at the bar!"
That could pose some problems...
We've seen so many of these applications being launched in the last year or two, and so many of them have fallen flat, particularly in the pure-play dot-com business.
What's your perspective on that? I've always perceived you as much more of a scientist than a businessman.
They were also funded at a much higher, more visible level than the average mom-and-pop store.
And that may be what's happening to us in the Internet world, where a lot of these essentially dead business ideas are burning up and blowing away, but they're leaving behind some room for capital growth or capital investment in companies whose business plans actually make sense.
So in a way this whole thing is painful as hell; many people got hurt. But it's probably very healthy to finally get people focused on much more care analyzing business models and developing them and making sure they have credibility before you're going to get any money.
Did you lose any money personally?
So even though this recovery has been painful, and it's not over by any stretch, this too will pass, as have many of the other crises in the market. And so I'm not discouraged at all. We've had a good, solid dose of reality.