Internet pioneer Vint Cerf offers optimistic view of the evolution of technology at Elon Q&A

Google's chief Internet evangelist, known as one of the "fathers of the Internet," talked with Elon students, faculty and staff about the impact of technology on modern life. 

Some view the increasing automation of the world as an absolute threat to jobs, and advances in artificial intelligence as a pathway to doomsday, but technology pioneer Vint Cerf sought to temper those fears during a question-and-answer session with students on Sept. 30 at Elon University. 

Higher education is adapting to create workers positioned for a lifetime of learning, access to the internet is expanding, though slowly, and new technologies are being developed to amplify our abilities and become more integrated into our lives, Cerf said to the crowd at Whitley Auditorium. Considered one of the “fathers of the internet,” Cerf is vice president at Google serving as its “chief Internet evangelist.” 

“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 facilitated by Lee Rainie P’03, 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.”

An engineer by training, the 73-year-old Cerf is credited as the co-creator of the Internet’s key networking technology (TCP/IP) protocols and the architecture of the Internet. He 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.”

Regarding artificial intelligence, Cerf noted that some visionaries, including Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, have expressed concerns about advances overstepping the ability of humans to retain control. But Cerf is less worried about their concerns. 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. 

“The thing you should appreciate is these (computers) 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’.”