Feature Story

Network Trailblazers: A Conversation With Robert E. Kahn

by Steve Wildstrom


The Internet as we know it today was the work of a large number of people. But the single most important step in the process may well have been the collaboration between Robert E. Kahn and Vinton G. Cerf that produced the TCP/IP protocols, the language for moving information among disparate networks.

Kahn worked at Bolt Berenek and Newman, where he was responsible for the system design of early packet-switched networks and the Interface Message Processor, a device that may have been the first router. In 1972 Kahn joined the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he was present at the creation of the ARPAnet, the direct predecessor of the modern Internet.

In 1986, Kahn left ARPA to found the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, a nonprofit where he continues to serve as president and CEO.  In recent years, his work has focused on the development of technologies that can classify and register digital objects on the Internet and aid the interoperability of heterogeneous information systems.

I think the most exciting thing is not what I know today but what we would experience if we could just live through all the innovation that is likely to happen in the future.

—Robert E. Kahn

I recently sat down with Kahn at the Reston,Va ,office of CNRI to discuss the past, present, and future of the Internet. Here are some highlights of that talk..

Wildstrom:  As you look back on the last 40 years, what has surprised you the most about the way things have turned out?

Kahn: I don't normally keep a list of surprises, but I think the thing that most surprising to me is how much reaction there has been to the Internet around the globe and how much uptake there has been on the technology in general. When we started this, it was fundamentally a research experiment. We were trying to figure out how to take different kinds of packet nets and make them work together…. So for a research experiment, we really didn't have a lot of expectation about what would happen, other than to say we were having a very exciting time trying to figure out how to make the technology work.  

Little by little over time, because we had the budget and the resources to continue, we began to see little bits of uptake here or there. In the middle 1980s, when the National Science Foundation got involved … it became very clear that there was much broader potential. I still remember the first time I saw the Internet reported on the NBC Nightly News program, which was pretty interesting for me. I thought "Holy smokes, the media is actually paying attention to this."  But that was 20 years after we started.

Wildstrom: If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

Kahn: It depends on what assumptions you make.

Wildstrom: Well, we have to assume the world was as it was.

Kahn: Somebody once asked me, "How do you think the world of radio and television would have evolved differently if we had only known what we now know about semiconductor technology back in 1910?" I don't know how you run that cognitive experiment. It's hard to replay the universe. What I would say right now is … I would have figured out how to take some of the notions that are now becoming prevalent, such as mobile programs and digital object architecture, and apply them in much earlier fashion so that the network we built would not only be able to move information around the globe but would also be able to manage information within the net in a more structured way.

But I think technology will continue to evolve over time. Very few people are able to say what it is going to be like in 50 or 100 years, including myself.  We know what seems more likely than other things. Clearly people see things that are a linear projection of where we are today.

We know that higher bandwidth is part of our future. Not everybody has it today, but it is increasingly available and affordable, not only in the United States but around the world. It has been reported that half the world's population is involved in wireless communications of one sort or another. That may be just simple cellphone technology for voice, but ultimately that technology is getting more and more powerful. We might find in the not-too-distant future that virtually everybody on the planet has the ability to have some limited communications through wireless.

I think the work that people have done on trying to digitize knowledge in ways that make it useful goes on at a very low level, but at some point or another, we're going to have enough of it accumulated and made available that people are going to build applications that are going to rely on it in in ways that are very hard to fully comprehend today. If your toaster knew what it meant to burn bread, then maybe it could automatically turn itself off because it could look up the reference books and figure out how that worked. The chemistry of certain things could be understood by virtue of some of these knowledge banks, and so forth. I think it is still a very exciting future we have ahead of ourselves. I just wish I could come back in 100 or 200 years or maybe longer and see what has transpied.

Wildstrom: What do you see as most exciting trends?

Kahn: We have still not fully understood the implications of being connected to the net anytime, anywhere, 7x24, by wireless. Innovation is still rampant in that field. That's pretty exciting to me.

We've been struggling for years with how to deal with street crime. If everybody's got a wireless device that's able to record and store somewhere else what they are experiencing, nobody's going to be able to commit a crime in a private setting anymore.

I think the potential for networking writ large for engaging the older parts of our society is really something that hasn't been attacked very well. The most knowledge in our society is generally in the heads of the people who have been practicing in the field for the longest time, or the faculty members who have had a lifetime of experience. Any of them could probably contribute that knowledge back to society in ways that we don't know. Everybody who has had a medical problem could probably benefit from interacting with other people who have had similar medical problems. What was the surgery really like, what did you experience afterwards?

I think the most exciting thing is not what I know today but what we would experience if we could just live through all the innovation that is likely to happen in the future. At various points in history, people have said that we had learned just about everything we could learn about that field. I think they said it about physics in the early part of the 20th Century, and the last three-quarters of that century were pretty amazing.

If people knew what these real innovations were, they'd be inventing them today, jumping ahead of the curve. Some of them will probably be energy solutions, some of them probably will be display solutions, some of them may be more intimate solutions, where you have an implant subcutaneously that will keep all your medical information so you have it right there and handy.

Some of it might be information about what's going on around the world in a more timely way than we do now, even though we now get information in a more timely way than we ever did.

I don't know whether that is a 1 percent step toward how fast we could learn about it or a 99% step, but I think we are going to see changes there as well. It is a little hard to know what the effect of all these changes and more powerful computing and communications capability will lead to.

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