Father of the internet, Vint Cerf: ‘AI will make a lifetime of learning critical’

15 Jun 2017533 Shares

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Google internet evangelist Vint Cerf. Image: Luke Maxwell

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Vint Cerf believes that to survive the next industrial revolution prompted by artificial intelligence and automation, people will need to become lifelong learners.

“I spend 80pc of my time travelling because, you know what, being an internet evangelist really means going where there is no internet,” said Vint Cerf, explaining why he is always supercharged about his mission.

The legendary engineer and internet evangelist at Google is in Dublin this week for the Irish Government’s international Data Summit.

‘By the end of this decade, we might see internet access in one form or another available to perhaps even 70pc of the world’s population’
– VINT CERF

Known as one of the ‘fathers of the internet’, Cerf, along with Bob Kahn, co-designed TCP/IP – the infrastructure on which the entire internet depends to send and receive data. In the 1980s, he developed the first commercial email service: MCI Mail.

Cerf also founded the Internet Society and he was instrumental in creating the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Meeting the dot father

In an interview with Siliconrepublic.com, Cerf said that when he, Kahn and others were building TCP/IP for the first time, privacy wasn’t something they had factored in.

‘It’s the reason we still read Shakespeare. 400 years later, human motivations haven’t changed a bit’
– VINT CERF

“Remember, we were a bunch of academics, mostly engineers, and our interest at the time between 1973 and 1978 was to get it to work at all. And we were all about sharing information anyway. It wasn’t a personal network, it was a network that was helping the Defence Department, in particular, to support computer science and then later came the National Science Foundation, which was supporting research in all sciences.

“[Privacy] wasn’t really a major factor in our thinking in the early stages, but now that has changed now that the general public has access to the network.”

Prior to our interview, Cerf joked that Alphabet chair Eric Schmidt told him that despite his contribution and age – Cerf is 73 – he cannot retire because he still has another 3.5bn people to connect to the internet.

“From my point of view, the internet has taken 40 years. It wasn’t turned on until 1989, so to be fair about this, in terms of access for the general public, we should measure it by that period.

“I think the telecoms industry trends are actually in our favour. The arrival of higher-speed radio – and certainly the iPhone was introduced in 2007, literally 10 years ago, which is hard to believe considering how dependent we are on smartphones – these trends plus the reduction of cost of equipment and services [are] making the internet more affordable to a broader range of consumers, and that allows for more penetration over time.

“I think perhaps, by the end of this decade, we might see internet access in one form or another available to perhaps even 70pc of the world’s population. So I’m very happy about that.”

On the topic of privacy and, of course, the looming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) directive in Europe, which has hefty fines and the potential for litigation, Cerf was philosophical.

He said that for all the good the internet does, it is also being used for malware and phishing attacks, misinformation and other bad deeds.

“That’s the general population at work and that’s the reason we still read Shakespeare. 400 years later, human motivations haven’t changed a bit. Shakespeare got it all.

“So we have work to do, to preserve this incredibly rich, powerful and innovative environment, this vast treasure of knowledge, and defend against some of the abuses because this medium is so open and its benefit is that it is so open; the challenge is that it is so open.”

Cerf’s up on AI

This prompts my next question around artificial intelligence (AI), which is transforming technology, and the implication that automation and robotics threatens people’s ability to make a livelihood.

‘This notion of education over a period of a lifetime will certainly have to become a part of our normal society’
– VINT CERF

Cerf said that the current revolution is just like other previous industrial revolutions (such as that of the 19th century) where yes, jobs were destroyed, but jobs were also created.

He believes that to survive in a world where people are living longer and therefore working longer, a habit of lifelong learning will need to be embraced to navigate change.

Cerf pointed out that the internet has a huge role to play and cited the example of teenagers today who, when they need to learn how to do something, they don’t just Google it, they go onto YouTube to find out how to do it.

This industrial revolution will be similar to the others, but the difference will be cultural, not just material.

“So we’ve had experience with industrial revolutions, several of them, however you count. Some people think this is the fourth industrial revolution and all of these jobs will get destroyed because things got automated or there was a different way of making something.

“But new jobs came along, either making the equipment or servicing the equipment or selling the services.

“I don’t think it will be different in this case. However, it is very important to recognise that people whose jobs evaporated, because of AI or automation in general, may not be prepared to do the new jobs unless they get retraining.

“We really need to build this notion of learning over the course of a career into our thinking and that is going to happen mainly because people are living longer anyway, which means they have longer working careers and which means technology will be changing over a longer period of time, forcing all of us to learn something new in order to be relevant.

“So this notion of education over a period of a lifetime will certainly have to become a part of our normal society.”

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com