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Inaugural Areté Medallion honoree:
Vint Cerf, Google vice president and 'father of the Internet'

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf was honored Sept. 30, 2016, for nearly 50 years of Internet leadership by the Imagining the Internet Center, an initiative of the Elon University School of Communications 

Vint CerfAreté is a word used to describe people who live up to their fullest potential in a life embodying goodness and excellence. The Imagining the Internet Center's Areté Medallion was established to recognize innovators, change agents and thought leaders who have dedicated their lives to initiating and sustaining significant contributions for global good.

This page has a full written account and video highlights of the 2016 celebration of honoree Vint Cerf.

Click here for full video of Question-and-Answer session with Vint Cerf hosted by Lee Rainie of Pew Research: https://youtu.be/izzGM5Kqqxw

Click here for full video of Cerf's talk on the Internet and AI during the Areté Medallion event: https://youtu.be/6hZV3Mr4l_0

Vint Cerf is a distinguished humanist innovator. He has dedicated his life to positively impacting the global future. He is co-designer of the revolutionary TCP/IP protocol suite and the architecture of the Internet, developed between 1973 and 1983 by he and co-author Bob Kahn and others in the Cerf-chaired International Network Working Group. In the decades that followed he has worked tirelessly to help develop the human organizations that keep driving Internet evolution to be positive, global and open to all. Among the groups he has helped found and lead are the Internet Society, the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Since 2005 Cerf has served as vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google. He is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Engineering Consortium, the Computer History Museum, the British Computer Society and the National Academy of Engineering.

Cerf is the recipient of dozens of honors and more than 30 honorary degrees. Highlights include the U.S. Medal of Technology, presented to him in 1997 by President Bill Clinton; the 1998 Marconi Prize; the 2004 Association of Computing Machinery Alan Turing Award – known as the Nobel Prize of computer science; the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented in 2005 by President George Bush; the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering; the Japan Prize; and his induction into the inaugural class of the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012. He is past president of ACM, chair of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, has completed a term as chair of the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology for the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, and was appointed to the National Science Board by President Barack Obama in 2012.

An account of the Sept. 30 Areté Medallion events at Elon University

Vint Cerf participated in two events: a question-and-answer session with Elon University students and a featured lecture he delivered during the ceremony at which he received the medallion. The theme that carried across both sessions was his good-humored and optimistic expectation of a postive future for humanity thanks to continuing technological advances and global collaboration for the good of all.

The Google vice president also offered insights into the evolution of Internet technologies and a glimpse of what lies ahead. He talked about the efforts to increase Internet access globally, the work of ICANN, IGF, IETF, the Internet Society and others to continue to support global governance of the Internet to benefit everyone everywhere and discussed advances in machine learning.

Cerf, 73, worked with Bob Kahn and other engineers in the 1970s and '80s to create the revolutionary TCP/IP protocol suite that led to the operational launch of the Internet in 1983, followed by an explosion of innovation that led to systems for email, file-sharing, the World Wide Web, WiFi, mobile networks and millions of online and mobile applications. In the years since he has helped co-create organizations established to promote better global access to the Internet and innovation in connectivity, including the Internet Society, Internet Engineering Task Force and Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Networked intelligence and robotics

In his Areté Medallion lecture, Cerf focused specifically on the evolution of artificial intelligence and the potential it presents, mentioning IBM's Watson but focusing largely on the work of researchers under the Google umbrella. Cerf explained how online search has evolved to contextualize the massive amounts of content and data so that responses to search queries are more targeted and useful.

He explained that Google's Knowledge Graph is taking that concept further by gathering massive amounts of data and inferring more-focused results from it. He added that despite many advances a significant portion of the Internet exists within the "Deep Web," which has none of the metadata that search engines rely upon to glean information.

"This is kind of like dark matter in the universe — we know it exists, but we can't see it," Cerf said. "We have a long way to go to make our artificial intelligence mechanisms capable of seeing all of what's in the World Wide Web."

Advances in creating processors, software and computers that can digest information the way the human mind can have produced some milestones, most notable in the ability for supercomputers to win complex games like chess and Go in competition against humans.

Google, IBM and others are developing systems aimed at creating neural nets that simulate the way the human mind processes stimuli and data, but there are still many unknowns in how the process works, Cerf said.

"It's a little unnerving to think we're building machines we don't understand," he said. "On the other hand, it's fair to say that the Internet is at a scale now that we don't understand it, either."

He enthusiastically described a future with great potential, saying the world is wide open to innovation as everything is becoming software-defined. "There is no limit, there is no boundary on software. Whatever you may be able to imagine, you may in fact be able to program."

He said he sees the main limitation to all of this and the potential danger is in the fallibility of programming, mostly due to exploitable flaws, errors and too few safeguards against failure.

"We need to remember that we don't know how to write perfect software, and we don't know how to write bug-free software," Cerf said. "The more we rely on them, the more surprised we may be when they don't work as expected."

During his talk he showed several YouTube clips, giving everyone in the audience the chance to hang out with an Internet co-inventor while watching viral videos of the engineering kind. As a robot in a video stumbled and recovered while walking through a snow- and ice-covered terrain in a heavily wooded area, Cerf couldn't help but marvel at its capabilities, while also finding the humor in its uneven gait.

"Must be the 90-proof oil it was consuming," Cerf said with a smile, adding, "You notice the kind of affinity you form because it's largely a humaniform thing."

The robot, created by Boston Dynamics, is evidence of the miraculous advances in technology during recent years, with software and computing chips now able to better mimic how the human mind processes massive amounts of data nearly instantaneously.

Artificial intelligence has a bright, optimistic future, said Cerf, who, as one of the "fathers of the Internet" and the chief Internet evangelist at Google, knows how a new technology can progress and become an integral part of everyday life.

"This is early days for all of these technologies," Cerf said after sharing videos of self-driving cars and untippable, adaptable robots. "We won't see the end of this — presumably our great-grandchildren will. In the long run, I think they will do us a lot of good."

Earlier in the day, a Q&A hosted by Lee Rainie of Pew Internet

In the Q&A session earlier in the day Cerf said he doesn't see AI and robotics as a major threat to jobs or a doomsday threat. He said higher education is gradually adapting to create workers positioned for a lifetime of learning, access to the Internet is expanding and new technologies are being developed to amplify people's abilities as they become more integrated into their lives.

"I think universities like this one and others are going to need to learn to package their products up to deliver it when people need it at different points of their lives," Cerf said during a discussion led by Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at Pew Research Center. "At Google, I am surrounded by people a lot younger than I am. I have to learn new things all the time. In some cases, I have to rethink what I thought I knew."

He briefly recounted his work during the late 1970s, then at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, when he and his fellow researchers were laying the groundwork for interconnected networks of computers and devices sharing data.

In his introduction of Cerf, Rainie described him as "the only inventor of a major technology who for the rest of his lifetime has been concerned about the impact of that technology, and tried to design and redesign it to make it better for humanity."

Cerf has been a steadfast advocate of expanding access to that technology around the globe, saying that ensuring everyone has access to the Internet falls to both the private and the public sectors. Responding to a question from an Elon student about whose responsibility global access to the Internet is, Cerf said, "The honest answer is that this is an opportunity for all kinds of different parties to engage."

Cerf noted that some visionaries, including Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, have expressed concerns about machine learning and artificial intelligence advances overstepping the ability of humans to retain control. But he said he does not see it as a threat.

He brought up the popular examples of milestones in artificial intelligence development, such as the chess matches between IBM's "Deep Blue" supercomputer and world chess champion Garry Kasparov in the 1990s, or more recent triumph by a Google computer over a champion in the game of Go. He said that thus far the gradual evolution of these technologies is allowing innovators the necessary opportunities to build in safety and ethics.

"The thing you should appreciate is these (software applications) have been very, very narrowly programmed," Cerf said. "This is not the same kind of intelligence you have. Most computers don't have anything close to that, except in very narrow cases."

What does concern Cerf is the continued imperfection in the process of coding software that despite decades of advances still produces bugs that can derail the technology. As software and applications become more interwoven with our lives, those concerns are even greater, though there does not seem to be a high level of accountability that software work reliably, he said.

"For the last 70 years, we've been trying to write software without bugs and nobody's been able to do that," Cerf said. "I am very concerned about the software side of things. Eventually, there will come a time when programmers will not be able to get away with saying, 'It's just a bug.'"

Two days before Cerf's talk, Google joined with IBM, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft to form the Partnership on AI, an organization aimed at bringing anyone interested together to promote best practices in advancing artificial intelligence http://www.partnershiponai.org/

Click here to return to Areté Medallion home page.

Click here to see a set of photos on Flickr from the Vint Cerf Q&A: 
https://www.flickr.com/photos/elonuniversity/sets/72157671182711064

Click here to see a set of photos on Flickr from the Vint Cerf lecture: 
https://www.flickr.com/photos/elonuniversity/sets/72157673398940901/with/29928485332/

Click here for full VIDEO of Question-and-Answer session with Vint Cerf: 
https://youtu.be/izzGM5Kqqxw

Click here for full VIDEO of Cerf's talk on the Internet and AI during the Areté Medallion event: 
https://youtu.be/6hZV3Mr4l_0

About Imagining the Internet

The mission of Elon University's  Imagining the Internet Center  is to explore and provide insights into emerging network innovations, global development, dynamics, diffusion and governance. Its research holds a mirror to humanity's use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record. It works to illuminate issues in order to serve the greater good, making its work public, free and open. [More...]