Page last updated at 07:48 GMT, Friday, 24 August 2007 08:48 UK

The Tech Lab: Vint Cerf

Vint Cerf is known as one of the founder fathers of the internet and played a key role in the development of the protocols which underpin the global net. He was a founding member of the Internet Society and is Google's Chief Internet Evangelist.

Vint Cerf
Vint Cerf is one of the leading figures in the internet's development

As intellectual phenomena go, the internet is still very young.

If we look at other innovative technologies that fundamentally transformed human communications - the printing press, the telephone and television, to name a few - we are confronted with the fact that it takes generations for their full effects to be understood.

The internet, by comparison, has only existed for three decades, and the World Wide Web is younger still.

The internet, however, stands poised to become the greatest communications platform humanity has ever known. It has profoundly increased access to information around the world, and it has likewise provided a platform for free expression on a scale unimaginable a generation ago.

For a variety of reasons - cultural, political, technological - the internet has grown rapidly.

The benefits it offers and the degree to which we rely on it (for everything from personal communications to global financial transactions), far outstrip its relatively short existence.

As access to the internet spreads to more and more places around the world, more people will come online; they'll access the net through a wider variety of devices, and they'll produce and consume new types of content.

The continued expansion of the internet poses very real challenges to those of us responsible for its health.

Key infrastructure

The robustness and security of the internet will climb in importance as we rely increasingly on it and its services.

Improving the resilience and resistance to attack of key infrastructure such as the Domain Name System (the phone book of the internet) and the routing system will be major focal points for near-term internet development.

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Introducing DNSSEC (security for the Domain Name System) and the digital signing of address space by the Regional Internet Registries will assume much higher priority.

Internet-based software and digital goods have historically been vulnerable to various kinds of failures and subject to a variety of attacks. The computer science community is challenged to devise solutions to these problems.

Capacity poses a further challenge to the future of the web. As more devices become part of the internet (think of the three billion mobile phones already in operation), we will need to move to a new internet address space, called IPv6.

With its 128 bits of address space (about 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses), there will be ample address space for the foreseeable future.

It will be a non-trivial exercise to bring IPv6 online in parallel with the present IPv4 system and it is not too early to get started. Efforts in Japan and China have begun blazing trails towards this important new goal.

Stunningly valuable

Going forward, we must also remain aware of limitations of the data we access through the internet. Information on the web varies in quality from completely useless or even damaging to stunningly valuable.

Today's search engines draw the most relevant information to our attention, and as more data become available online, the importance of search engines will only increase. In the future, people around the world will likely look for new ways to identify the authenticity of online information sources.

The idea that all the world's knowledge could be discoverable not just by humans but by programs acting on their behalf at speeds well beyond the superhuman, is one of this century's most exciting opportunities

We will also be confronted with a kind of "information decay" in which digital objects become less and less accessible owing to the age of the software that created it.

As an example: it is already a challenge to watch videos posted on the BBC website in 1997.

Imagine trying to watch the same video in 100 years. Or in one thousand years.

It's not only file formats that change, though. Changes in computer programs, operating systems and even the hardware that we use to build computers will accentuate the challenge of keeping digital information meaningful.

This raises a host of intellectual property questions that will almost certainly need to be considered.

Prosaic opportunities

From a strictly technological standpoint, then, the future of the internet poses a number of challenges to computer scientists. The future of the net also poses opportunities for society as a whole.

Some of these opportunities are prosaic. With home, car and office appliances all online and rich sensor networks as part of the landscape of the internet, it is easy to predict that people will be looking for online services to manage these devices and systems, regardless of where they happen to be.

We have barely begun what will no doubt be a long journey, but already the openness of the web is fostering free expression in parts of the world that need it most

It is clear that programmable mobiles have the potential to become general purpose "controllers" that allow us to interact, possibly indirectly through online services, with the many devices that service us from moment to moment.

The internet is a medium for communicating information, and by democratising access to information the internet is changing people's lives for the better.

We have barely begun what will no doubt be a long journey, but already the openness of the web is fostering free expression in parts of the world that need it most.

There are challenges and setbacks along the way, but the trend is clear and inexorable. At the same time, access to information is expanding rapidly.

Usage spike

When Google News for mobile devices became available in French, the biggest spike in usage outside France was in Côte d'Ivoire.

In the developing world especially, the proliferation of mobile devices and improvements in the ability of those devices to access the web will accelerate access to information.

Every year, humanity produces more data, and we must decide how that data will be found, shared, remembered, and interpreted. As we become better able to cope with huge quantities of information, scientific and otherwise, our appetites for organising and mining it will increase.

We have already witnessed the salient benefits of shared scientific databases such as the online human genome archives.

The idea that all the world's knowledge could be discoverable not just by humans but by programs acting on their behalf at speeds well beyond the superhuman, is one of this century's most exciting opportunities, especially as much of this information may lead to medical understanding and breakthroughs.

As we deepen our understanding of our biology - the move from genetics to epigenetics and the proteome - our understanding of ourselves and the universe around us will deepen.

What a gift to be a part of this period in the evolution of our civilisation.



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