Lehigh University logo
Lehigh University logo
Lehigh University logo

STILL INVENTING THE FUTURE

Robert Kahn played a key role at ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency) in helping invent the communication protocols that make possible the Internet. He is President and CEO of Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), which he founded in 1986 to foster research and development of the national information infrastructure. CNRI has developed an advanced architecture for information management (the Digital Object Architecture) and established the MEMS Exchange, which supports a national community of designers of micromechanical and nanotechnology devices and systems. Kahn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. This year, he and four others were awarded the first Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for “groundbreaking work that led to the Internet…and initiated a communications revolution which has changed the world.”

Q: Talk about the team of scientists you worked with to invent the protocols that led to the Internet.

A: The Internet is about the protocols and procedures that allow different components—networks and computers—to be connected and to work together as part of a global information system. A lot of work was done on networking and computer technology long before the Internet came around.

I had worked on ARPANET (sponsored by ARPA, later renamed DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was the world’s first computer network and which used a novel switching technique called “packet switching”. By the early 1970s, DARPA had sponsored the development of a number of different networks, and the question was how to interconnect them and the computers connected to them.

I wanted to better understand how computers could communicate, especially if some networks to which they were connected were unreliable. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the operating system side of the world, so I invited Vint Cerf, with whom I had worked with on testing the ARPANET, to collaborate with me on the Internet aspects. Together, we made the architecture stronger and better. A lot of people worked on other aspects; Vint and I developed the Transmission Control and Internet Protocols (TCP/IP) that are still used today. They are now the glue that holds the Internet together.

Q: Did you ever expect the Internet to become a place where people shop, gather socially, and search for news and entertainment?

A: I could imagine that, but it wasn’t the purpose of our work at the time. Rather, it was to enable interconnection of networks and computers for the purpose of sharing resources such as programs, open access? The biggest challenge is in some developing countries. Most individuals there have access to cell phone technology, but not necessarily to the Internet. There’s a lot more work to do to get more people online.

Q: How has the Digital Object Architecture that you invented made it possible to manage information better?

A: I could imagine that, but it wasn’t the purpose of our work at the time. Rather, it was to enable interconnection of networks and computers for the purpose of sharing resources such as programs, storage and processing. DARPA’s motivation for supporting this effort was computer network resource sharing. Computers were then quite expensive. Sharing resources among research groups would be more cost effective than providing each group with its own dedicated resource. Today, I’m concerned with how information is created and managed in the Internet such that users have reliable access to it and, potentially, that it provides dependable intergenerational access for years to come. This is basically a question of the interoperability of different information systems and their ability to share information, and for information access to persist over technological change well into the future.

Q: Is the Internet fulfilling its potential for granting greater numbers of people access to information?

A: Perhaps a third of the world’s people have Internet access of some kind today. The questions are: Will information be accessible in the Internet, can people afford it, what kind of information do they need, can they assimilate it, will there be open access? The biggest challenge is in some developing countries. Most individuals there have access to cell phone technology, but not necessarily to the Internet. There’s a lot more work to do to get more people online.

Q: How has the Digital Object Architecture that you invented made it possible to manage information better?

A: Instead of moving undifferentiated information from one place to another, DOArchitecture enables the movement of structured information in the form of a digital object with an associated unique persistent identifier. If you access material on the digital bookshelf 100 years in the future, and if the information has been managed during that period of time to ensure its continued availability, you can find it using its identifier, even if the technology is radically different. That’s one piece of it, persistence of identification for indefinite access.

The second piece is the ability to store and access these digital objects with repository technology that uses state-of-the-art storage technology. If the repository interface is based on identifiers, it is sufficient to access the information, provided, of course, you are authorized to access it. You need interoperability for information to flow seamlessly. Finally, security is important for everybody. Every resource in the Internet has an identity that can be used to validate resources and access digital information.

Q: How can CNRI’s Handle System technology improve something like the online storage of medical records?

A: The Handle System technology is a component of DOArchitecture that resolves identifiers. It provides state information about digital objects, such as IP addresses, authentication information and public keys. For example, to retrieve your medical records, you would first provide the identifier of the digital object that contains your records. You would confirm that you’re talking to the right place, and then ask for the information you want by providing its identifier; and they would likely ask you to verify who you are. This can all be done using identifiers. Overall, this approach can have a positive impact on online access to medical records.

Q: Has the explosive growth of the Internet surprised you?

A: Not really. A lot of what can be done on the Web today could have been done on the ARPANET in the early 1970s, such as email or file transfers. You have to differentiate between a surprising innovation that had no previous counterpart and a logical extrapolation of what previously was available although perhaps in a somewhat different form. While the widespread use of the Internet doesn’t surprise me, what does surprise me is when something appears that you had no reason to anticipate. I don’t mean to trivialize any of the recent Internet work. A lot of it is quite brilliant and is much better than what we did in the early days; however, much of it is also a logical extrapolation of what existed years ago.

Q: The Internet is one of the hallmark advances of the 20th century. Do you have a sense of pride in that achievement?

A: Yes, at some fundamental level, but I’m still pretty active in trying to evolve and extend Internet capabilities. Every now and then, though, there comes a visible reminder like the Queen Elizabeth Prize. When we started with the ARPANET we were treating it as a scientific problem. I suppose some people start out thinking they’re going to change the world, but that’s not what we set out to do.

I once was asked how we managed to get permission from all the governments of the world to build the Internet. The answer is: we didn’t have to ask their permission because most people didn’t think our work was going to amount to anything. So we had pretty much free running room.

Q: Is there an inevitable tradeoff between people’s desire for greater access and speed and their desire for security?

A: The tradeoff is not between access speed and security, but between the private sector’s desire for security and the more global needs of the public sector for law enforcement and national security. If those security issues could first be resolved, they could be dealt with technically at speed and with the right infrastructure support.

Q: Is it realistic for Internet users to expect privacy in an age when huge amounts of information are stored on public sites and accessible to government and private industry?

A: The real issues are what role government should play to protect citizens, and what expectations of privacy individual users should have. A lot of young kids today put their whole life story out on the Internet for everybody to see—what they did last night, what they’re thinking about this morning. Maybe future generations will go the other route and say, “Gee, our parents wanted everything to hang out, but we don’t think that’s such a good idea.” So I would say, stick around and let’s see what actually happens. Ultimately, that’s the best predictor of the future.

Interview by William Tavani
Photo by Matthew Rakola