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November 05
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Speaking out

Dr Vinton G. Cerf on electronic communication

The former MCI chief technology strategist, IBM researcher and Stanford prof is now chief Internet evangelist at Google


Dr Vinton G. Cerf

Dr Vinton G. Cerf says the Oz books and science fiction helped launch his forty-year career in technology. It's been quite a ride. Cerf, who is hearing impaired, helped develop the TCP/IP protocol and has chaired the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) for the last five years. He was also involved in the development of e-mail, including MCI Mail, an early commercial system.

He's worked in academic, commercial and nonprofit fields and for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), always in pursuit of better networking and communications technologies.

When Dr Vinton G. Cerf spoke to Diversity/Careers editor in chief Kate Colborn this past summer, he was senior VP and chief technology strategist at MCI (Washington, DC), his second stint there. Now he's moved to Internet powerhouse Google as chief Internet evangelist. He's looking forward to "contributing to the growing utility and accessibility of Google online services."

Kate Colborn: Do you think Internet technology is helping the inclusion of diverse people in the technical world?
Dr Vinton G. Cerf: There's a famous New Yorker cartoon showing a dog sitting in a chair, typing away at a computer. He says to another dog sitting on the floor, "On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog."

I think this technology eliminates awareness of all kinds of differentiators: gender, skin color, height and weight, maybe even species. Being able to interact through the Net theoretically provides a purer kind of intellectual exchange. No matter who you are, if you have something you want to say and it's an open exchange you'll get heard.

I just had an experience at a large meeting in Luxemburg where we were trying to get strategic planning ideas out onto the table. Instead of getting up and talking, everybody had a keyboard to write what they had to say. We got enormous numbers of responses on a console up front.

You didn't know who said what so people were more free with their opinions.

Another factor is that work can be done online and delivered digitally. So you're seeing a lot of outsourcing and teleworking, which means you're spreading opportunity around without having the talent actually leave the country or the house. That has a very interesting effect on economies that are still in development, and on workers who may be housebound for a variety of reasons.

COLBORN: What do you think about the digital divide?
CERF: I think several things are working to improve the situation. First of all the infrastructure is improving; mobile phones, for example, have spread like wildfire. The new communications technology has different economics than wireline, and wireline capabilities are also improving, with DSL and cable and optical fibers.

There are municipal initiatives like Wi-Fi and Wi-Max as ways of distributing broadband, maybe even to people in rural farmhouses. And I'm seeing initiatives like Intel's Digital Communities. It's even becoming affordable for a group of people to put in the infrastructure as a co-op.

COLBORN: Has your hearing loss, fifty to sixty dB in each ear, influenced the way your career developed?
CERF: No question. When I was working on the ARPANet project at UCLA, the development of electronic mail really transformed my working life. Now I was on an equal footing with my colleagues. I didn't have to rely on telephone calls any more; e-mail made me as facile as anyone else with communications.

I actually had, and still have, enough residual hearing to use a hearing aid with a phone. But I was drawn very strongly to jobs in which e-mail would be a normal utility. I've been a strong user of e-mail since 1971 and I like to think that I contributed to the technology that supports it.

COLBORN: You've spent years working in both industry and academia. Do you find them very different?
CERF: It's not a straight line from one to the other. I've oscillated back and forth among government, non-profits, the private sector and academia. It was all a function of things I had in mind to get done.

I worked at IBM a couple of years as a systems engineer because I had taken CS courses at Stanford and was fascinated by computers. Then I went to UCLA for a PhD and joined the faculty at Stanford where I pursued some ideas that helped develop the Internet.

I was at DARPA for six years, then went to work for MCI. I left them for a non-profit where I spent eight years researching information infrastructure. Then I went back to MCI to put them in the Internet business.

I still visit university campuses where I lecture and meet with the professors and students. It's always invigorating to be on a campus where you have inquiring minds who ask tough questions. They don't know "you can't do that," so they go off and do it anyway. My new stint at Google will have some of that characteristic. It is a young company and full of new energy.


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