Expert view

Vinton G. Cerf

Vinton is Google’s Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist. As one of the ‘Fathers of the Internet’, Cerf is the co-designer of the Internet’s TCP/IP protocols and architecture. Cerf holds a B.S. degree in Mathematics from Stanford University and MS. and Ph.D degrees in Computer Science from UCLA.

Looking towards the future of the Internet 

When we got the opportunity for Vinton G. Cerf to provide a glimpse into our digital future, we were very excited. As a highly respected computer scientist and Internet evangelist, Mr Cerf offers some fascinating insights into technology. So, if you’re interested in learning more about the often complex technicalities of the Internet as well as hearing about the pioneering work of scientific experts and space agencies, read on...

Q: How far back does the concept of the Internet go?

A:We might go as far back as 1934 and the Belgian entrepreneur Paul Otlet’s remarkable effort to use the technologies of the time to assemble a sort of prehistoric World Wide Web. The notion that interconnecting computers could be beneficial came a while later, in the 1960s, when a computer scientist called J.C.R. Licklider wrote to his colleagues about an idea for an ‘intergalactic’ network. The inventor Douglas Engelbart then developed an oNLine System (NLS) that made these ideas concrete.

All of these ideas were made realisable as computer and communication technology grew more powerful and more affordable until, today, we have access to a vast quantity of information from our smart mobile phones. In the early days of ARPANET (the network that preceded the global Internet), only researchers sponsored by the US Government had access to the kinds of tools that we now take for granted all around the world.

Indeed, the general trend in technology is to go from extremely expensive and available to only a few to dramatically less expensive and available to the general public. The personalisation of information technology has changed our daily lives, no matter what we may be doing.

Q: What makes computer networking and the Web so powerful?

A: I think it can be strongly argued that communication is one of the key attributes of human societies. It is clear that other species make use of communication but humans have invented complex language and, perhaps even more important, have invented writing that allows information to be preserved over long periods of time and facilitate communication among parties who are not (ever) in direct contact.

What makes computer networking so powerful is that the ‘writing’ is in digital form and can be exchanged among and between computers as well as humans. Information in digital form can be searched, processed, organised, replicated, distributed and transformed through software.

Because software runs on computers, it is possible to amplify its power by putting it on millions of computers (well, billions by now) using the aggregate power to speed up processing. For example, Google’s search engine takes advantage of a very large number of computers to ‘crawl’ through the World Wide Web’s pages, create a comprehensive index and respond in real time to search requests from users.

We are entering a period in history in which it is conceivable that all the knowledge we possess as a society and as a species may be accessible to literally everyone. What is particularly interesting about the Internet and the World Wide Web is its ability to facilitate collaboration, sharing and discovery of information of interest.

It is a medium for social engagement, citizen interaction with government, financial transactions, art, imagery, films/videos, books, magazines and all manner of real-time and near-real-time communication. From tweets and instant messages to blogs and email, the Internet has become a medium for all manner of communication.

Q: What risks does the Internet bring?

A: The ubiquitous nature of the Internet raises concerns for the protection of society against harmful behaviours that can be perpetrated online. Alongside an overwhelmingly positive and constructive collection of uses and applications, fraud, stalking, spam, malware, denial of service attacks, identity theft, libel, piracy and many other harmful behaviours can be found on the Internet.

A common question is what to do about these harmful behaviours, which are by no means unique to the Internet (many of these behaviours are facilitated by other infrastructure including postal services, telephone services and so on).

While it is tempting to try to respond to these problems with laws and technology, it must be appreciated that only some abuses can be inhibited through technical means and that laws do not, of themselves, stop bad behaviour. Laws can spell out the consequences of bad behaviour if the miscreant can be caught, but many bad deeds go unpunished for lack of evidence of the perpetrator. Differences in legal frameworks across jurisdictional boundaries also exacerbate these deficiencies.

Did you know?
Only about 2.5 billion people on the planet, out of seven billion, are thought to have access to the internet so far.


Q: Where is the Internet going?

A: It is plainly spreading rapidly across the globe and it is also undergoing significant technical change:

A new address format (called IPv6) was introduced in June 2012 that will allow the Internet to continue to expand well beyond its present boundaries. IPv6 has 340 trillion trillion addresses (think of them like telephone numbers) compared to the 4.3 billion that the older IPv4 format (e.g. allowed.

This means that more devices, such as smartphones and tablets, can be connected to the Internet. The IPv6 128-bit format is much longer than IPv4 but it should be of little specific interest to users since they use domain names (e.g. rather than numerical addresses to reference destinations on the Internet.

The domain names are translated by the Domain Name System into numeric addresses for use by the lower layer Internet protocols.

Domain names are now expressible in non-Latin characters, such as Greek or Cyrillic characters (which means that website addresses can be written in languages spoken in countries such as Greece and Russia).

The top level domain space (, .net and .org) is being expanded by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to add as many as 2,000 new top level domains. This means that even more addresses can be registered and also that new top level domains like .kids, .shop and .sports can help to identify special content and top level domains like .cat for Catalan or .sco for Scotland can mark cultural or linguistic areas.

New security mechanisms are being put in place to protect the Domain Name System and new cryptographic techniques are available to improve confidentiality and authentication of users. Cryptographic methods make it difficult for a hacker to fool the network into accepting as valid data that is attempting to misdirect a user to a false destination, for example.

Despite its roots in the early 1970s, the Internet is still evolving to meet new needs and support new applications. Perhaps the most interesting expansion, however, is not even on planet Earth. Since 1998, an effort to define and deploy an interplanetary Internet has been underway at NASA and other space agencies.

Q: Can you tell us more about the interplanetary Internet?

A: The basic idea is to bring to space exploration the same remarkable benefits that the Internet has brought to terrestrial communication. Rich networking capabilities will allow for much more elaborate, multi-spacecraft missions as well as allowing spacecraft that have completed their primary missions to be repurposed to be nodes of an interplanetary backbone.

Generally, spacecraft have communications, processing and storage capacity to carry out their scientific missions (gathering data and sending it back to Earth) but these same spacecraft can also be used as information and communication relays. By enriching the networking capability of our spacecraft in this way, we can support more elaborate, multi-spacecraft missions and gain additional value.

Distances in space are vast and even at the speed of light, radio signals take minutes to hours to cross the solar system. The fundamental protocols of the terrestrial Internet are not well suited to the long delays and potentially disrupted communication encountered at interplanetary distances so new protocols are now being tested on the International Space Station and prototype software is on board the European Messenger spacecraft, the NASA/JPL Mars Science Laboratory, the Rovers on Mars and two of the orbiters.

The development team is also working with the Consultative Committee on Space Data Systems to standardise these protocols for use by all spacefaring nations. The expectation is that these protocols, once adopted, can form the basis for a growing interplanetary communication backbone in aid of manned and robotic exploration of our solar system.

More recently, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the award of a grant to study the design of a spacecraft that could reach a nearby star, such as Alpha Centauri in the southern constellation of Centaurus, in 100 years. The ‘one hundred year spaceship’ (100YSS) project faces challenges such as propulsion, communication and navigation.

With today’s technology, it would take 65,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, only 4.4.light years away (even more than ten trillion miles). Generating a signal that is detectable from that distance is also a major hurdle and lasers, synthetic aperture receivers and perhaps even gravity lenses may be needed. Assuming Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is correct, the speed of light cannot be exceeded so it would take 8.8 years for a signal to be sent and a response received.

Did you know?
The Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) are not the same thing. The Internet is an underlying communication infrastructure and the WWW is an application. Other applications on the Internet include voice communication and electronic mail (email) but the WWW is surely the most widely used and powerful application on the Internet today.


Despite these challenges, the problems are largely engineering. No new physics needs to be discovered or invented.

I cannot imagine a more interesting time to be associated with the Internet and working on the problem of extending our ability to communicate into our galactic home. J.C.R. Licklider may have been joking back in the 1960s, but we’re taking it seriously.


Alpha Centauri
According to Wikipedia, “Alpha Centauri is the name given to what appears as a single star to the naked eye and the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus.”

The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was “the world’s first operational packet switching network and the core network of a set that came to compose the global Internet.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Intergalactic Computer Network
According to Wikipedia, J.C.R. Licklider “formulated the earliest ideas of a global computer network in August 1962… in a series of memos discussing the ‘Intergalactic Computer Network’ concept.” This concept can be considered the basis of the Internet as we know it today.

“Each device on the Internet, such as a computer or mobile telephone, must be assigned an IP address in order to communicate with other devices. With the ever-increasing number of new devices being connected to the Internet, there is a need for more addresses than IPv4 can accommodate… IPv6 addresses… consist of eight groups of four hexadecimal digits separated by colons – for example 2001:0db8:85a3:0042:0000:8a 2e:0370:7334.” (Source: Wikipedia)