J.G. Crawford Oration - the future of the internet

27 June 2018

Vinton Cerf lives by the 900 mile an hour theory: once you get up to that speed don't slow down, and certainly don't stop or you will fall over.

It is a fitting metaphor for the man who co-pioneered the internet, created the first commercial email system, has been working on an interplanetary communications systems since 2002 and currently is trying to figure out how to send and receive data from Alpha Centauri, the closest stellar system to the sun.

Professor Cerf is also Google's chief internet evangelist, a role which includes trying to convince governments and organisations in countries that don't have the internet to get on board.

"Only about half the world is online and another 3.8 billion people need to be persuaded," Professor Cerf told Genevieve Bell, Director of the 3A Institute at ANU, during the 2018 J.G. Crawford Oration.

His mission is not just about building infrastructure, but ensuring governments understand the role of the internet in improving healthcare, education and living standards.

When he's not evangelising to internet-resistant communities, Professor Cerf is thinking hard about some very challenging problems, including how to inhibit criminal and anti-social activity on the internet and the fact that artificial intelligence is throwing up moral and ethical dilemmas of a type never encountered before in human history. 

After helping to design ARPNet, a precursor to the internet, while a postgraduate student at UCLA in the late 1960s, Professor Cerf moved to Google in 2005 as chief engineer. He later became chief evangelist and recently moved into its policy directorate where he was involved in the creation of the tech giant's first-ever guidelines for the use and development of AI. The guidelines were published in early June. Among the seven guiding principles are that AI should be socially beneficial and accountable to people, should incorporate privacy design principles and work to limit potentially harmful or abusive applications.

While not originally a fan of AI - he used to call it "artificial idiocy" - Professor Cerf now recognises the powerful contribution it can make to improve the human condition, but says we have to remain alert. 

Asked what he believes would make the digital world better for the future, Professor Cerf answered: be serious about digital literacy - and by that he means finding ways of not losing information as technologies cease to exist and actively encourage critical thinking.

"A digitally literate person would understand, for example, the fragility of digital information. Even though bits seem ethereal, as if they will never wear out, the fact is the medium is not guaranteed to last for very long."

Professor Cerf used iPhone photos to illustrate his point, advising people to print their favourites on high quality photographic paper, so they will last for around 150 years.

 "The digital world is physical," he said. "People think it's metaphysical but it's realised in physical devices, it's manifested in physical ways and we literally need to rejuvenate the content in different media as time goes on and technology changes."

Professor Cerf is also troubled by the daily tidal wave of misinformation on the internet.

"We are not strangers to critical thinking or even to information overload. Historically, we have always relied on trusted sources to tell us what to pay attention to."

"We need to revive this willingness to look for trusted sources that help us decide what should accept, what we should reject, what we should value. (That) will help blunt the negative side-effects of the abuse of social networks."