The HLF Portraits: Robert Elliot Kahn

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The HLF Portraits: Robert Elliot Kahn
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The Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation presents the HLF Portraits: Robert Elliot Kahn; ACM A.M. Turing Award, 2004 Recipients of the ACM A.M. Turing Award and the Abel Prize in discussion with Marc Pachter, Director Emeritus National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, about their lives, their research, their careers and the circumstances that led to the awards. Video interviews produced for the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation by the Berlin photographer Peter Badge. The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation or any other person or associated institution involved in the making and distribution of the video. Background: The Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation (HLFF) annually organizes the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF), which is a networking event for mathematicians and computer scientists from all over the world. The HLFF was established and is funded by the German foundation the Klaus Tschira Stiftung (KTS), which promotes natural sciences, mathematics and computer science. The HLF is strongly supported by the award-granting institutions, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM: ACM A.M. Turing Award, ACM Prize in Computing), the International Mathematical Union (IMU: Fields Medal, Nevanlinna Prize), and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (DNVA: Abel Prize). The Scientific Partners of the HLFF are the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) and Heidelberg University.

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[Music] professor I'd like to begin relatively at the beginning of your life in with your childhood and I'll just start with a question about the expectations your parents might have had for you what was the culture of your childhood my dad was a high school principal he had gotten that college degree in accounting the business consulting on the side my mother was a homemaker they were both products of the depression my mother was very interested in reading and cultural things my dad was more businesslike I would say and my mother had a heart attack when she was a young woman it was first attack was April 12th 1945 which do you look at the history books you'll recognize that was the day that Franklin Roosevelt died and I think that's what kicked it out addicted in for her and so during much of her childhood my sister and I were just two of us in the family actually played a more serious role in actually running the household we cooked the meals and took care of things because my mother was unable to do that between 1945 and 1952 or three she actually had something like eight heart attacks so that's rapid maturation I yeah we were kind of grown up as little kids I would say too quickly and she ended up going through what was then known as closed heart surgery in 1953 because they concluded that she would probably not survive a ninth heart attacks oh and close to her surgery was pretty draconian stuff you didn't do that you know unless the odds there were better than doing nothing I think the mortality rate the week of the surgery is like 50% and in five years 95 percent of the patients died it was a very complex procedure she actually lives 40 years after that so she was one of the longest life survivor something particularly inquiring about the effect on you what is it is it affecting your schooling are you distracted by this are you all the more intense for it now I think we had other than the fact that we had these responsibilities I think pretty normal childhood my dad was masterful at masking the concerns he might have had about this clearly is RuPt at everything but he made it seem like it was perfectly normal so I don't know how he did that how he got through that but we had a fairly normal childhood with this one exception and I think as a kid growing up I was just happy to find time to go pursue things I found interesting and the things that were most interesting to me were sports it's kind of like the place sorts of all kinds nessus in New York within Brooklyn that rise I'm moved to Flushing Long Island when I was about 13 and so what were sports you know stickball on the streets it's the kind of things that a New Yorker would do growing not are you excited by school I'm I'm searching for women they may not exist which is a book or a course that you took that started you on your way no you know it's not a book not a course if anything I was most strongly influenced by my parents that's for sure I mean they had I think very high expectations for their kids that they certainly go on to college and who knows who knows what after that but you know I was pretty much a kid that was unencumbered growing up I liked mathematics I like to do puzzles I had a chemistry set as a kids play around some music just I would say there was nothing in my upbringing that would have necessarily pointed in the direction of that little kid is going to become a scientist a little kid will become mathematician or anything nobody really knew they couldn't tell and in fact if you fast-forward after I got my PhD degree I think it's fair to say because I actually heard it from my thesis advisor and even when I got out of college they weren't sure what the future held for me oh okay well I'm this is very interesting to the process of understanding how one becomes in the end who what is so what is your major in not high school but but college where are you going what are you expecting for yourself well I don't know that I had great economist on a trip and you're in the car traveling through you don't know that any expectations for the next hour you see what happens what you have to make choices you have to choose a major you have to dance correct so because of illness in the family friendly close-knit family I did apply to college in a number of places some well-known schools that would come out right at the top of your lists and got accepted but I decided to stay in New York with the family and there was a program that the City University of New York I don't know whether they called it City University Haven it may have been just a set of colleges in New York had for an engineering degree so I decided early on that if I went on into into college what I probably want to do is Industrial Engineering okay that was my thought it's the kid was I liked I was almost interested in how things worked you know what was the neckin ISM and industrial engineering seemed to be a logical fit to a young line because you know these are things that if industry is interested they must have the utility somewhere right so how well did you do as a student I was I was good I was maybe even excellent but I was not the best captured so for example it was a program that they had we spent two years at Queens College which was one of the city colleges and then the next two and a half years at City College or maybe three years at City College downtown it was up there just north of Harlem upper New York City and that's when I ended up choosing to do so gentleman for two years to Queens College mainly liberal liberal arts kind of stuff and then the the engineering stuff of City College later on turns out that I would say within weeks of being there it was maybe even was sooner than that but I had to pick the major right Industrial Engineering was not an option they didn't have it so I ended up selecting Chemical Engineering maybe for my chemistry set as a kid and it was why and it turns out I really didn't like the labs all the chemicals in the fumes and so I switched fairly soon on it to electrical engineering which seemed to have more of a mathematical basis right and is proved useful in time well and it's in fact what I did get my degree in so you know the final degree came from City College right yes I graduated from there in January 1960 you must be doing well enough to have somebody encourage you and the idea of going to graduate school because you do oh I didn't need anybody to encourage me I mean that was
it was in the DNA I mean as I was saying before I was a pretty good student I had a sister who was more competitive she's know she passed away unfortunately but last year but you know if I were to go and get a ninety nine and a half course guess what she'd get on her uh-huh I mean she was just she it was a competition of sorts but she was meticulous she spent time studying she's really do her homework and I was more carefree and go out play stickball and oh yeah I forgot to my homework so I'd rush it it in the last effort because it was all too easy for me right and in fact I got my wrist slapped a number of times because I actually didn't hand in homework that I was supposed to do because it was too easy I mean why go my go to the bother of well it wasn't quite like this but two plus three what's that I mean you look at the questions and they're so easy that it it just we were thinking if I'm actually do them so I got a little bit about your character as a scholar but not your ability that's maybe and you go to Princeton for graduate work I want an innocent fellowship when I graduated from City College I made the decision to suspend like a year or so in industry get some practical experience and so I did and I ended up taking a job at Bell Laboratories the time the headquarters of Bell Labs was actually mmm at 463 West Rios in the south of 14th Street down there Greenwich Village and that was again partly a pragmatic choice because it allowed me to stay with family a little longer right but while I was there I actually won a fellowship and decided to go to Princeton which was close enough to New York that I could commute back and forth of I actually needed to I know that you're not yet able to jump into computer studies because they don't exist is it in electrical engineering that you specialize in principal that's right and again just because it's a big life and not very much time to talk about it broadly when did you begin to focus your attention on a particular field of it you have to do a dissertation as a graduate student how does that begin to form as as a goal well I haven't actually step back one year's worth because when I was going to City College we lived in Flushing by then we moved from Brooklyn and much at the time that I was going there I would drive that with one of the members of the faculty name was Egon Brenner I haven't seen him in ages I don't know where he is these days but he kind of sort of became a quasi mentor a very dogmatic kind of personality and I think he later moved on from there to other universities but in the last year I was there he suggested that we have a set of a special seminar for credit and it was just me and him and it was one of these let's go explore a topic that you know is not taught in the classes we'll just pick a random I don't even remember what it was at this point but I remember it picking me for the first time somebody took the time to go pick an area that is not a textbook that you don't normally read about it's not a matter of teaching me it's jointly exploring to see what we could figure out I think that that triggered something in me that that lasted for a very long time but it was not the thing that caused me to go to graduate school that was sort of as I said in the DNA I was gonna be that no matter what but now I was there I was now more more focused on trying to uncover things discover things and so the program at Princeton required either take certain credits or certainly had to pass oral exams at the end of the second year and I spent most of those first two years actually in the Carol's the upstairs part of fine hall which was the home of the math department interestingly enough it's where a lot of the I think the history of computing probably and evolved they had a hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ellen Turing and they celebrated it there I gave one of the talks there were many but he did his thesis work at Princeton I think a thesis titled something like on computable numbers which seemed a strange notion to people at the time but they had other people in the department that were working on related subjects it was a professor named Alonzo Church who was working on the lambda calculus which later I think was part of the basis of the programming language Lisp that John McCarthy came up with so it had a role and there was a girl that was there a number of other people that were working on various aspects of what you couldn't call the theory of computing today who you having conversations with them where were you and you're Carol know these these were visible from watching history from oh yeah ancient history okay are you have like I was in the building where Abraham Lincoln I never no no these were not people I knew directly but what about the people around you your community of graduate students well you know I was pretty much I mean I knew them all we saw them at I saw them at various occasions we came together this was not it was not a social club by any means and when I was in in the library to find Hall the Carroll is up on the top it was I was into the Bucks what's quantum mechanics of APIs what's this theory of algebraic topology I mean I was sort of learning about all kinds of things that really interested me but pretty much on my own and then when it came time to take the RL so I went through them and through them okay in fact they had a fairly strict regimen over there I mean that their standards were high I mean it's a great school and but they weren't so much focused on injecting knowledge into you I'm a city college it was more of a teaching school and it was great at them I mean you really got a very good education there but Princeton was more about sort of developing the social side of individuals which I probably needed at the time because you didn't have a whole lot of social interactions as a kid going right right and but how I I want to get you to write a dissertation what what are you gonna do it on well you know when I started but at the end of the second year I was saying they had these very high standards and I got really like yeah I think there were thirty some-odd people in that class and very few of them if any got through maybe I was the only one I don't know that really I do not know but good the social sighted that was more in the graduate college when I was there as a graduate college it was off campus the university was mainly an undergraduate enterprise the graduate students were often not you know in right next to the golf course and there was a social gathering there and in fact one of the challenges that I took for myself was to become the social organizer of the Graduate School I'm the wide but maybe it was because I didn't do much of that before so I would call all of the mixers with the girls schools we'd arrange them the archive but your intellectual challenges they're the ones that are gonna probably change your life of the background I arranged
the seminars so for example 1960 or 61 that year the Metropolitan Opera had gone on strike the musicians I think and I was very interested in Opera as a kid can't tell you why exactly I just found it a very invigorating enterprise and so I used to show up at the old opera house in New York this is on 39th Street 7th Avenue but it was sold out in perpetuity I mean tickets handed down from generation the only way you could get in was to show up at like 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning Monday and get the handful of tickets in the upper reaches of Family Circle or whatever they called it I mean you could barely see anything but least you could hear it and so he's to do that so one of the things I did was when I got there I called up Rudolph Bing who was the managing director of the New York of the Metropolitan Opera and I asked if he would come down and give a seminar and to my surprise he said yes I'd be delighted so we hosted him and very interesting sessions that we have there that didn't ice follow on because I actually got tickets to the oppressor following because he was persuading people that you know opera wasn't he really want to go to him and I said to him with all due respect mr. Bing I mean nobody likes opera here more than I do and you can't get tickets he says well that is a problem isn't it and so he gave me the name of a person in the Opera who was about to issue tickets for a subscription b-series some eight or twelve operas in the year he said once you write to him let's see what happens I wrote the Doster being suggested I do that and I got two tickets from a Center in the mezzanine so it was a wonderful experience there but having said that I'm now gonna tell you about how I went for the first part of my tenure at Princeton the second part okay at the end of second year I wasn't sure what I was gonna write about at all didn't know what what part I was even interested in so I wanted to just take time and let my mind kind of relax I had been fortunate to play varsity golf in high school in college I knew golf was not my long-term feature even though I was not a bad golfer at those guns and so I decided to take the summer off and do nothing but play golf see if I could get really good I'd like to challenge myself in those ways so I played with another fellow who was in the graduated school at that time that was Sue Smith he came from being Vancouver's some place out in British Columbia and we did nothing that summer but plagued off seven days a week four rounds a day carrying our clubs this is almost unheard of we get up at 7:00 in the morning 9:30 we were finished grab one pack on the first tee noon would finish brown to give a tuna fish sandwich and that cook on the sloping front lawn at the clubhouse 12:30 we were back on the first tee three o'clock we're done with round three we lived within walking distance almost a golf course we go and go to sleep for two hours five o'clock work back on the first tee again done by 7:30 or 8:00 and we did that every day I'm like getting got really good during that period and then it was over and I had to go figure out what what to do so I started working on my thesis the advisor I had at Princeton time John Thomas was a very interesting person in many many ways I believe he could have advised anybody in any field it didn't matter what the field was because he he would basically ask generic questions like you know you'd beat with him in he said well what did you accomplish this past week what are you plans for the following week how do you plan to approach this I mean they could have applied to anything and but he pretty much left it up to me to do what what I was doing my PhD work I didn't learn about it until later but at some point he asked me if I would work with another faculty member who had just arrived there NBD Lu was a young graduate admitted Bell Labs in Brooklyn poly and he and I started to work in so I had done one piece of work when John was my adviser and then we did another piece of work with Beatty showed up and when I wrote my PhD thesis Horta took this piece the a piece and the one with being a little of the BP so put him together so I think this was sort of an a-plus beat thesis well sticks together and I never thought much about that until his retirement party and he invited all of his graduate students to come in he had quite a number of them I was number six I think it when they came time to introduce me to the gathering crowd which he did and recite some things about it he said Bob Kahn probably doesn't know this but he is the only graduate here who actually wrote to PhD thesis I said really how come I don't know that I am sort of see what he was probably hinting at when he said was you know we didn't tell you at the time but we all felt that you had done enough work to the PhD degree in the first four six months well but yen spent enough time in the program so we asked you to work with we have just so you get the experience now the reason that's important is when I got this honorary degree from Princeton they the President had to dinner the night before and they asked to say certain things about your history and background and so I told him the story about how I got three really good eGolf and I said you know it's hard to really explain that we could play these that many rounds of golf or they for that many months but the only one who can validate it is the sauce to Smith and I haven't seen him in I have 34 years well back of the audience his hand goes up hi Bob turns out Stu's been chairman of the physics department at present so theory was later became head of research for the University and the other story I told them at the time just again relating interesting stories is when you know I heard I had gotten an artery honorary degree D I called up the the officer and said I think you made a mistake I already have a really they said no no we intend to give you the honorary degree and but you have to show up which of course I it was a very lovely ceremony but after dinner what I said was you know after thinking about what my advisor said that my graduation they had really written to PhD thesis I thought it was only justifiable that think I get a second so pick picking the subject though just sort of it came partly naturally partly with with kind of prompts from the adviser he'd say well things like you know what about this or what about that like kind of listen to him because the direction of your thesis work affect your future direction how how important was the subject of the dissertation to your development as a thinker well I I think they were interesting topics I think they're still relevant today and it was not like we solved the little sidebar problem of something I mean one result was to show that she wanted to sort of squeeze an analog signal into the minimum bandwidth the the parameters he had to work with were parameters that would be solved from the Schrodinger wave equation from quantum mechanics why
that correlation was there you know and I did a lot of work on sampling theory to show a general basis for it isn't like the B part of the thesis but I think what that established was that you know I have ability to do some you know conceptual work not necessarily to show the relationship between that and real practical utility later on although I could see if my mind's eye but when I graduated from Princeton I was offered a job on the MIT faculty and while I was there I guess I I was probably the youngest one on the faculty at the time really and I was told by the the fellow who ran the group was a fella named Jack Wilson Kraft do a lot of really good people on the faculty many of whom are known far and wide Claude Shannon was in that group or when Jacobs who had started a number companies on the west coast became a good friend of mine was in that group there were five or six really extremely good people I remember Jack Wilson Kraft said you know doors always open anytime you have an issue come talk to me and and it was always open he was very pragmatic kind of guy but also very good conceptually and I would say four out of five times that I'd walk into his office he'd keep working it what he was doing in his desk sit in the chair next to him and talking he'd hear me and he caressed Bob and he not look up and sometimes he'd get up and we'd be on the board having at it and one day I just kind of casually said to him how come sometimes you get very invigorated and we're having ended on the board and most of the time I feel like I'm really interrupting whatever it is you're doing he said no not at all he said but you know for what it's worth he said when you come to all the problems you bring her all very interesting problems take this equation and solve for the eigenvalues of something because you know we formulated the problem he said I can't figure out what to do with the answer to the problem he says I'm not very motivated to work on it so he said okay you bring me this problem so I was like okay the answer was two point four and seven point six what would you do with the answer what's your next step and the answer is you don't know you can see why I wouldn't be motivated to go work on it uh-uh course to me it was just intellectually interesting so I think my early days kind of had honed this the side of my my capabilities but what was in craft it was make it very clear to me if you wanted to be successful at a place like MIT being smart wasn't sufficient everybody here is smart he said and so you got to distinguish yourself in some way and the thing we value the most is making a difference in society sorry I thought that was pretty interesting made a mental note of it and he said at that time he says you know this was purely gratuitous he says but if I were you he says I would think about take and I don't think he was thinking about this as here's the way to get Bob got out of it but if I were you I'd take a leave of absence for a year or two apprentice herself to somebody who knows how to make things happen and then come on back and I took that seriously thought about it and then decided to do exactly what he recommended and I decided to take a job at a local I guess I can call it a consulting firm there's a small company called bolt Beranek and Newman I think they might have had ten or twenty million dollars or revenue at the time it was not a big company and they started out mostly in the architectural acoustics business doing things like designing Symphony halls these were people out of Harvard and MIT who were in the architectural acoustics field psycho acoustics the design of the acoustic attributes of Symphony Hall students and I was the first one there who was in the communications field I mean had started at Bell Labs after college went back to school right so Communications was my field that's what I taught at MIT at that and systems but Here I am in a firm where I'm the only one with that kind of background they have just started getting into the computing field and I just as as you came in well within that layer within that year and they were supported by a relatively new part of the Department of Defense called ARPA the Advanced Research Projects Agency this was an agency that Eisenhower and decided to establish in the late 1980s as a direct result of the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the question was well how come they did at first when we had all the capability to do it and the answer was it was nobody's responsibility so I mean the Air Force went up this high and the Navy was on water and the army was on land but who was dealing with space nobody at that time so that's what Karpin was set up to do to maintain a technological vigil you know look at interesting technological options and so they had funded the Beebe then to work on some advanced computer related stuff and they had gotten very interested in computer networking unbeknownst to me really but when I got to be me and then I got interested in computer networking without knowing about carpet so I started to work on this subject and I was writing reports of various kinds until the gentleman who was running the group that had hired me in I think they I think their notion was that maybe I just stay there they won't they were anxious to go back to MIT but he said you know once you take those reports and send it to this fellow Larry Roberts who had just gotten hired at ARPA because I think he might be interested about things with documents about error control and buffer control and routing I mean all the topics that he'd have to deal with conceptually and for me that was getting ones fingers dirty because I'm not working on a practical problem right it never occurred to me at that time that I'm actually getting involved in building anything I never built anything I thought in the name of my erector set as a kid or my chemistry right right so here are these documents and they show up at Dartmouth they invite me to come down and chat with them which I do to clean up so that's how I first learned about who they were and they felt me there playing through this net and I thought great you know good luck and then there's a it's called an RFQ request for quotations on a four node net and as you read through it I'm he looked at I said this looks very familiar I mean it was it was stuff that was I almost I could have written that it had diagrams from things I had no idea yeah I was not involved in formulating that at all other than Jerry thought this was a good thing to send Terry okay so then one day a gentleman that Phoebe Ann Ann who they had then just hired from Lincoln labs mrs. guy who was he builds things and he had a team of people with and he shows up he says I understand that that you have a document from DARPA about a network and I said who are you well it turns out he and I ended up working together on the actual building of the net I mean I was sort of I king the kind of the system designer and his team actually did the implementation and that's what became the very first packet switched Network the ARPANET the moment that will lead to so much how much are
you and they you know I get a sense of how practical you are as you progress in your interest and so forth but are there moments when you're anticipating a larger world or wishing this for the network or you just going one step at a time and not necessarily being a visionary about it oh it's always hard to introspect about yourself I would I would say I always had a vision of what this could look like whether that makes me a visionary or not I don't know but but the fact that you have the notion that this could could leak as something doesn't mean you necessarily believe that's in the cards you know any more than ya say well gee if I can really give a good speech here that could be a stepping stone to becoming president of the United States well that's a very different statement than deciding that this is something that you could actually make happen so you didn't necessarily think you knew what would happen would you do what I was I was writing it to the time to just sort of describe on paper what it would be but when this proposal shows up this gentleman comes into my office once know about it and it turns out they're really good at building things but I don't think they were nearly in in my league in terms of being able to conceptualize at all see the issues see the problems I mean as a-- there's a total conceptual system right and so we ended up working together and i think you know was really good because we ended up together creating the very first pack in there it wasn't smooth it wasn't you know like start here and just smoothly created it had fits and starts right things were tried that didn't work things that was suggested that were an adoptive until but finally in the end it worked out really well and when it was all done the fellow for whom we had done it Larry Roberts invited me to come and join him at dart but I ended up Prudential II running the office so I mean I think they recognized the contribution that I had made but you know I I sort of got into it just because I thought without even knowing about their existence it was an interesting problem that computers talking to computers sounded interesting to me of any programs to work with programs but more importantly since I came out of the communication side of the world how would you actually build an efficient network to enable that you have to remember that most people were of the opinion that the telephone system was what you would use for communications in the early days but it took a long time to set up a call I mean a computer wants to send a burst of information have it be immediately accessible somewhere else you don't want to wait 10 or 20 seconds for something to dial up the speeds were slow few hundred bits a second maybe in those days certainly not kilobits initially and then megabits and today what were there in Giga bits and beyond so the speeds were low the set-up time was large a lot of errors on a computer can tolerate even one bit error in some cases and it was a very inefficient use of the network just imagine if you had a drive from you know Washington DC to Los Angeles in your 18 or 20 foot car by first reserving the whole road and then that road can't be is by anybody else until your car gets to the final destination then they release the road for somebody else to use it it's very inefficient use of that infrastructure how maybe oddly put but how negative was the broader scientific culture about the possibility of connecting computers was this the sort of thing that people said is it necessary isn't going to happen
are you finding any implicitly plenty
and the negative expectations well many of the people I would say most of the people I talk to in my field thought I was throwing my career away to work on this problem that's that's what I was with her because at the time you know these computers were fairly large I mean most of the community would batch processors the they weren't interactive at all and this was an interactive computer network so that you could interact with a computer somewhere and get a response instantaneously no matter where the machine was let's say at least in the US so we're talking that intergalactic stuff although some people were but you know the idea that you would want this kind of a network was questioned by a lot of people there were very few time sharing systems around which were the interactive ones that was fairly new idea DARPA had supported many organizations actually house and I think many of the universities had them in SF I think it bought some the National Science Foundation for the universities and and a few of the big industry big companies had them I know we did at Bell Labs that's right guys I cut my eye teeth and programming had Bell Labs on a IV in 704 which was before they had solid state machines and then eventually became seven or nine 70-90 and so forth but it didn't seem like this was a really worthwhile area because there was no business space for it if you only had the AT&T was a dominant carrier and I'd say if they were they were used to dealing with like hundreds of millions of customers not ten or a hundred that wasn't a business so I think people you know often misjudged them because they said all they don't understand what I think they understood probably better than most people give him credit for it and it was just a business decision not to get into it but I was pretty self driven at the time and my B was you know seems like a good idea to me and that's what I want to work on well that's what I did and I I wasn't so much worried about the collateral damage didn't plead occurred we wasn't worried about my career so much house I found this an interesting problem so let me go work on it I mean there's any message that you know you would want to give to a young person that that I derived through my experience is you know don't do foolhardy things I mean if somebody tells you jump off a hundred storey building I would recommend against very strongly but if you really think that that you have an idea that's worthwhile you know and and you don't see any obvious things that that will be so negative is to really be I didn't hear trust your instincts which is what I did and you know years later people said oh good good choice but it wasn't that obvious early on there was a moment I think epic actually moment when you're demonstrating in the Amazon in the early 70s that any a conference the the result of this
ability to have computers communicate with us actually 1972 it was in October at the Washington Hilton you know we even though the communication part of the net part that week was based on something called packet switching what's a packet some bits with an address on it as to where to send it maybe a return address or somebody address acknowledgement you know they were we were working on the competing part of it that was not my background at the time I'm later not only learned an awful lot of that computing in computer science but ended up renting the office that was responsible for all of that research so I got a hands-on scene of the pants training in that field and I've I've been pursuing it ever since in many different ways but you know back in those days this was the communications piece that I was focused on so at that time the best you could say was okay if I put a packet in here it came out here but you couldn't do anything with it mmm other than say ok it came out here and in fact you know that's one of the the challenges that led me to think about how would we make this net really useful mice I mean on the day that the first computers were starting to be attached they couldn't do anything give it a packet say I got the packet that's about it but it's actually connected into all the applications so that people could make use of it more things needed to be done this was not my area of expertise at the time there were group of people led by Steve Crocker at UCLA worked in plant clerics group then surplice involves a car a number of others they came out with I think was one of the important contributions in the field computer protocols that allowed computers to talk to each other and so now the question was how do we take this net and take the definition of protocols and get it to actually be built and work and you know we tried for a while but it wasn't happening with enough you know panache I mean nobody was making it seriously enough so I had proposed to Larry Roberts that we we organized a demonstration of this and that would be kind of a forcing function to get people to get their stuff up and working and I think Larry like the idea enough but the suggestion I made is to when to do it wasn't to his liking and he suggested another time which was his late October time frame he made the arrangements for it to occur there was called the international computer communications conference I think it was the very first one that they had ever run through in in Washington at the Hilton and we had everybody who with anybody at that demonstration so holding well most of the workers on it were us it might have been a few from you know from Europe but it was mainly the US community that was supported by DARPA so I came back and you know said yeah let's go let's go do that there and so I spent from roughly I would say June of 1971 through October of 1972 just planning and organizing I would go to different groups around the country and figure out what what they had to do to get their machines up and running how to get things connected I I was in contact with most of the key people it was a fella named Bob Metcalfe who probably today best known for his work on Ethernet found me a company called that was years later but he wrote all the scenarios and he had this beautiful scripted type so I mean you could look at his stuff and you could probably read it from 20 feet away and he came up with all the scenarios I worked with the colony now Elsa who was a deputy head of lab for computer science at MIT at the time I think and I'll work with me on or maybe he got that job later but he was he was working with JCR Licklider at MIT he ended up helping me actually do the installations there BBN supplied a note on the ARPANET we connected it to the rest of the net we got 40 terminals supplied and people could actually see in operations race for the path through it like a maze you could try this one try this one it was an amazing demonstration although I must admit not everybody thought that this was a good idea still still because you know if you took somebody who was in the business of providing information services 1972 remember we're not in a networked environment yeah so they probably had a machine somewhere or a set of machines and they probably had a way for their customers to dial into those machines and they would say look I'll give you all 40 terminals but you have to use my machine but they wanted to showcase of their service and if I said no I want to be able to show you can get to any service and freedom of choice among competing alternatives didn't want that you know it wasn't that was not in their business interest to support it so there are always these concerns anytime you put a piece of infrastructure out for people to use it's going to affect everything that neighbors that infrastructure and sometimes in unpredictable ways so we saw that all throughout and we still are seeing it today because there's a big life again very little time I want to ask you just targeted questions about the nature of collaboration in in your work I made of course you and that surf are so associated with the the Internet as we now know it I'm wondering and that I don't happen did UCLA thank know how did you come together with the vint cerf was it his invitation to you was it your invitation no it was actually I first heard his name from Steve Crocker who is I think Ben's best friend back then and he says the kind of thing you ought to meet sometime I just made a mental note of it but when we actually built the very first for no net of the ARPANET they were no they were three of them in California UCLA was the first SSRI in Menlo Park the second University Utah Santa Barbara third and then the university of utah for the-- those nodes went in one a month September October November December during 1969 and I went out to do the testing of that to make sure it worked okay that's like I think I went out multiple times but the first time it was probably just a one-note test to see if that first node survived the journey and so UCLA had had been funded by DARPA to work on us at a measurement lab of some sort did they hook their computer which was I think a sigma 7 at the time and it was the person designated to work with us on them I went out with a fellow from BBN named Dave Walden but then was doing the software for the Sigma 7 and we'd run the tests Bikila do the host part of
it a lot of them won a lot of those tests we can do without the computers because we could it was a teletype connected to the episode we can do teletype tutela 5 tests but we wanted to use the actual external computer that's where he came in so he and I had many occasions to work together at that time and certainly on the four-note test so that's how we first met but so is all about ARPANET the notion of Internet had really yet surfaced because we had only one network and it's like you know a telephone system with one telephone doesn't require it much of that you know an extra capability right affects nobody to talk to so but on the ARPANET we had all these different computers to talk to and but it'll single that so in the early 1970s we got into developing more nets I was actually pretty much the designer of something called a packet radio net kind of a forerunner of today's CDMA networks a direct sequence spread spectrum network if that means anything to use a network that that different in its operation then a network that divided frequency into channels or one that took a single channel and divided into time slices this this was a network that said you like gear like your audio system in a human you can use the whole bandwidth all the time and people can share it so again you know a room where yet ten people and two of them were talking Chinese and two we're talking Russian to talk in French and two we're talking English and you focused enough he could probably understand the English one even he had all this background interference because you weren't understanding any of it right like background noise that was the idea here and so we built this Radeon that we built a net on Intelsat for to connect to our European researchers an interesting that her when Jacobs is from what was then linked a bit and who later became the founder of Qualcomm another big company now and the wireless business was a principal designer of the protocols we used on that and don't some of the equipment along along with others so we have these three different nets and that was really the genesis of the internet how do we make the three nets work together that didn't show up until you know 1972 three timeframe but you know it certainly wasn't the air in 1968 69 70 we didn't even have a 1970 implementations of the ARPANET protocols right much less the internet ones and if you think about the way your protocol on the ARPANET might work you know he sent we weren't calling him packets messages taking send in a message say we're supposed to go it would be broken into packets and then they get reassembled at the other end and delivered well where would be deliberate you'd address a wire on the net so send it to what's ever connected to that wire in the ARPANET case it was a computer so you know exactly where it was going in the internet world you suddenly had a wire from the ARPANET went to another network which might have lots of computers and in fact that network might send it to another network and so how do you identify who this is supposed to go to that's why we introduced the notion of an IP address this was something midnight worked on together and that way you know once it left one network to go to the next one the next network would know how to route it how would it do that we put a little device between the Neph networks calling gateways today you call them routers others but those gateways basically looked at what was showing up and said oh I know where this let's go this IP address I'm gonna send it to that wire on this next network and so it would be routing network through never until it cut to the final place so that was one reason why the old protocols needed to be updated but a more interesting reason was that with the introduction of both packet radio and packet satellite both wireless systems you introduced a whole other series of challenges one is you know in a radio net you can have static you could have interference you could be driving behind a mountain the signal is blocked you be in a tunnel you can't get the signal no there are ways to work around it you can bounce signals of different paths you can put repeaters in tunnels but in the early days we just dealt with that as a fundamental challenge that said we need a way to deal with reliability and in transmission the ARPANET just assumed that if you sent a message it would get to the destination I mean unless some something cataclysmic that happened like the machines that failed totally in which case you press the reset button and start over again but this was the challenge for us and so MIT and I did that but that was not until 93 that 73 that we wrote the paper was published by a Tripoli in 74 May of 74 but we actually presented it at a meeting as a neato workshop in the University of Sussex in September of 1973 and I think it got people's attention at that time again as one of the big contexts the federal government's interest in in this getting the potential importance of it broadly let's go from that earlier negativity or wondering about all of this for the part where people are now understanding the potential value of this we're is support coming from for the next development well you have to understand in the early days it was some people who were absolutely behind this young when I said I was hearing from many people it was throwing a career with the people that were supporting it or absolutely sure that this was a good thing to do and they had their reasons it wasn't necessarily industrial it wasn't necessarily your GDP related although it later turned out to be very GDP related but and of course all the researchers who had committed to working on it were intensely interested right sorry I don't want to leave the impression that nobody was interested there there were a set of convinced believers but it was a small set the world had not yet discovered this and of course I think if it were only the ARPANET it probably never would have had the global reach you know even though we tried I mean there was a link to Norway having to do with some seismic research work that we were doing with their own it was only back to Britain but it became increasingly hard to make these links go global because of various regulations that require too many people to have to agree to everything after a while that became potentially not in their business interest to keep agreeing but more importantly I think was the concern as empowering other people around the world to be part of it that was I think one of the most important attributes of the internet architecture that that I say we
developed all of the the ideas really came from some some work that was pretty much documented in a paper that Barry line I wrote called a brief history of the internet so the some idea isn't attributable to me some to bend some to the two of us to other people but for the most part you know making the internet being open kind of activity where people could plug-and-play meant that you didn't have to go to any one place for permission the architecture was sort of open to anybody to play with that you had to worry about your own implementations getting access to the you know if you wanted a router maybe an ax buy it from somebody but if you could figure out how so you can build your own plug it in so it's in a very important part because they're now empowered everybody around the globe to be in charge of what happened in their country right the end of this because we've spent most of the time in the beginnings and that's the most important to know for for this this interview but I wonder if you get them now in addressing younger people interested in sciences technology if you were starting out now what sort of direction or field do you think is the next the next big thing well you know it's a little like saying well what would the field of electronics would look like if we bypass the vacuum - it's completely and that semiconductors back and you know 1910 or 1890 or something like that it's really not possible to rerun history you know what would what would society look like if people really had ESP one of my favorite series is something called the lensman series an author named dr. Smith and it's all about conflict between good and evil in the universe and you're a set of capabilities that have been developed whereby selected people have the ability to communicate instantaneously mind to mind with other like-minded people around the globe well you know if you postulate that existed in the Garden of Eden what would society be I mean you can't go back and rerun history like that still when you're at a certain point in a career at the beginning there are various directions one can go are there fields of inquiry that interests you for example that as a sense of where one might invest the courrier i I think it was all latent in me to some extent and just took something else to bring it out either opportunity I tend not to get much involved in things where I can't make a difference we're gonna rather spend my time on doing things that will make a difference furthermore you know when you take something as pervasive as the Internet it didn't happen because of the efforts of one person alone and this is not like you know even Columbus sailing the ocean I mean a bunch of ships and a bunch of people and it was all support team there and who knows how many captains were in that active activity but you know to think about what it takes to make something like the Internet happen they were hundreds of leadership positions that have to be played there's a father of the internet or some similar kind of thing in virtually every country I can not feel like the term father because it sort of sounds like it came from one person when in fact you know lots of people have claimed turn 80 different things so we actually see what it takes to make something like that happen you realize that it's hard to plan it I mean take the history of the United States I mean it's what happens step by step by step as we went along I mean could could the founding fathers of this country foresee what would be happening two or three or five hundred years in the future no way they set out a set of principles you know hoped it would stay they stand us in good stead if they had the right people you know in charge of things and I think that's true of technology toes it was certainly true of the internet when we started I would date it back to 1973 as an internet activity you know there were only these very big computers in the span of 40 some-odd years since then I mean technology has scaled by factors at least a million maybe 10 million computers are that much faster now than they were back then the speed of communication lines is that much faster than now than it was back then and that would have been unimaginable at that time you could have imagined it but how practical was it to expect it would show up in I mean I can imagine teleportation how realistic is to assume it's going to happen in the next year or two or ten or 100 and would you even want to try it I mean who knows what could possibly happen in between here and there and furthermore you can buy probably a million or ten million times as much memory for the same price I remember buying a mega bit of memory when I got the DARPA in 1973 and it occupied a room bigger than this room we're sitting in here now cost about a million dollars for a megabyte though today you can probably buy a terabyte in a little memory stick through two hundred bucks or less so things have changed dramatically and I think in the next decade you're gonna see these protocols continue to work over a scaling up of now a billion since the start and maybe a trillion and very little in the history I can't name anything in the history of technology that has essentially not say he hasn't changed in detail but in conceptual conception and with the initial specifications not you know maintained itself over scale ups of that order of magnitude so lots of people are involved in inventing everything along the way and it gives some a context and a framework in which they're new and inventions and capabilities can be created I mean we didn't have the World Wide Web I am fact the world wide web is probably the first major statement on information management I doubt it's going to be the last any more than the ARPANET was the last word on computer networking because the internet just opened up all kinds of other possibilities it's one of the areas that I've been thinking about ever since leaving DARPA in 1986 was what what is the equivalent of for what we did for moving bits to managing information as a logical extension of the internet and so we've been developing something called the digital object architecture which I think has those primitives because it's independent of the underlying technology and should be able to scale indefinitely in every dimension that I now know of still got problems namely if even if you could in a hundred years or a thousand years say here's the information that I want I said well it's in this digital
object and you can go get that digital object there's no guarantee you're going to unlock the information that's in it it may be encrypted you don't have the keys or you can't get the keys it may be in a proprietary format that you don't understand or for which you'd have to get a program that was written four hundred years ago that only runs on a particular piece of software that no longer exists that only runs on a picture the machine that you can't get anymore and so you mean actually manifesting the information that's been packaged properly is going to be a challenge going forward I think there are ways that we can work around that but we we still need to understand what things are right so if I give you a view a preferred of the program called visicalc the very first spreadsheet program written by some guys up in Boston I think for the IBM PC maybe for one of the other machines as well um today if you got a program written in this a calc your sister to say well which I used open it with right that's if you had tried the file unencrypted because it's kind of proprietary format in there so Sony said oh I know you can go to that machine over there and get a copy then it says well okay but you need it only runs on dos 1.0 well where do I go for that and and so you know even in recent years it's been difficult to maintain all of the things you need for proprietary data formats but if you took a spreadsheet and said well okay let's just make sure you understand that what's in this digital object is a spreadsheet and whatever call it a matrix whatever terminology like and you're able to click on something and find out okay here's what a matrix is it rows columns if it's got entries in every row and column and somebody stored that in the form of okay 17 rows 42 columns and here all the IJ entries if you assuming you could do that then thousand years in the future you could take that feed it into something that knows how to manipulate maybe it's a quantum something in the future or beyond quantum whatever that is and now you can put it into the proprietary form of that moment knows how to deal with the displays and and the printer is whatever it else is when he is maybe their mind implants that we got who knows but you don't have to worry about extract the information because you've described it or instead of preserved in a certain form that you may not be able to get out so the kind of things I'm today and this has been a thirty-year challenge it really started back in the 80s right after let's start that with some work on mobile programs which people found offensive because right after we did it was a lovely idea I worked on it with vent called them knowledge robots or know what so they could you can actually instruct as to what you want to do should these things around that the problem was people were just becoming aware of viruses and worms and all of these negative things that could happen in the time of security region and they said we do not want to have a system that somebody else's programs show up on our machines now there were ways to deal with it but it was too high hurdle to have to leave so we sort of said ok let's take the mobility piece out of the equation and as a kid growing up we used to have ice cream trucks that came by our neighborhoods ring their bells what's called a good-humoured truck I don't know if you've ever encountered that but there's no reason that had to be that way you couldn't walk to the neighboring sore the ice cream could be fixed and you go there so that's what became the digital object architecture it was the this mobility thing - the mobility if you can imagine like it's like an a digital version of cash we take a dollar bill and get rid of the paper but maintain the value in the bits so it was that kind of thing that happened to them and of course well you may not consider yourself a visionary but you helped us have a vision of where maybe the next step is and lots of people are gonna be involved in almost everything that's transformative in society I mean you asked me earlier you know word of this award come from you know the real momentum to create the internet came from multiple sources so initially it came from the DARPA research bird room in 1983 I set up a program called strategic computing which was the first big computer program to leverage the research results and we put in enough money to help build out in structure for the research community that's what made it possible for the internet to start to take hold people needed local area net needed workstations or whenever actually build up their local capabilities eventually it took industry to make a big push in the 90s when things open took the US government to come in and say yeah we'll let will let you use these facilities that the government has created for societal purposes writ large but and the voucher bill in 1993 enabled that the web made it more interesting for people of course there were some things from the early days that that stayed on I mean email is still around whether it will have a long-term future or not remains to be seen because a lot of the kids today prefer sex texting here are the kinds of ways of dealing with things but I think there's always a need for being able to send messages that are addressed and so it'll probably still still stay around for a long time but you know we didn't have the equivalent of Facebook's and the instagrams and a lot of the social networks and who could have predicted what the effect of all of that will be and we were seeing ramifications of that all over the globe so I can't predict what the next world will be about what new developments will take place but you know I'm sure voice will play a more important role I'm sure cooperation and collaboration will play a bigger role and I'm sure new kinds of technologies will be invented along the way that have properties that we just didn't understand I mean like when the laser came along kind of opened up a whole new set of possibilities when the transistor came along opened up a whole new set of possibilities with the plan and process for fabricating a new set of possibilities you know and even if you go back into the 1800s who knew that what the potential of electricity was or electromagnetism or radio for that matter so I I think there's going to be a feature that that is wide open to the younger generation exercise your imagination you know try to have the confidence that things that you can imagine can be made to happen seek out ways of making them happen and trust your instincts thank you very much thank you
you you