Digital revolutionaries discuss past, future of technology

Rod Searcey Hennessy and panel

President John Hennessy, far right, moderated the Feb. 28 panel, which featured, from left, Butler Lampson, Irwin Jacobs and Vinton Cerf. The discussion took place in Mountain View at Google’s headquarters.

A surfboard with Internet capability, cars that drive themselves, gadgets that recognize forgotten acquaintances, the extinction of humans by supercomputers. All are possible, according to Silicon Valley innovators Butler Lampson of Microsoft, Irwin Jacobs of Qualcomm and Vinton Cerf of Google, who spoke recently at a symposium sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Stanford President John Hennessy, himself a key player in the computer technology revolution, moderated the discussion, which took place on Feb. 28 at Google's Mountain View headquarters. The event was one of several held as part of a monthly academy meeting, "The Public Good: The Impact of Information Technology on Society."

"What are the things that have really transformed our digital future?" asked Hennessy. "It really was the personal computer, cellular wireless communication and, of course, the Internet."

The three panelists, who had gathered to discuss the past, present and future of digital technology, have been key players in those three fields.

Lampson, one of the founding members of the Xerox PARC lab, where he led development of the pioneering Alto computer, is now a technical fellow at Microsoft. He "did work that changed the whole landscape of computing," according to Hennessy.

acobs, chairman of Qualcomm, founded the wireless telecommunications company and other firms that developed technologies that enabled cell phones to become ubiquitous.

And Cerf, who earned his bachelor's degree at Stanford and currently serves as vice president and chief Internet evangelist of Google Inc., may rightly be called the father of the Internet, said Hennessy.

The three innovators discussed surprises they had encountered during their careers. Cerf and Hennessy agreed that the public's response to the Internet had come as a shock.

"Their willingness to share information … the speed with which people decided to learn how to use it and to put information into the Net astonished me," said Cerf.

"Of course this avalanche created the need for companies like AltaVista and Yahoo! and Google and others to find what was useful inside," he added.

Hennessy recalled discovering that a local pizza parlor had started taking orders online. "When I saw that, and then I went over and saw Dave [Filo] and Jerry [Yang] building the first prototype of Yahoo!, I said, 'This is going to change the world because ordinary people are going to use this.'"

Today, the Internet has become so deeply entrenched in all aspects of our world, it's hard to imagine life without it. Jacobs, who cited the explosive growth of and advances made in cell phone technology as one of the biggest surprises of his career, suggested that soon we will be constantly connected to the Internet through our mobile phones.

"[The cell phone] is going to be the main means of access to the Internet for people worldwide as we go forward," said Jacobs. Already, there are 4 billion cell phone users among the world's 6.8 billion people. (Although, as Jacobs noted, some people have more than one cell phone or more than one SIM card.)

Security, privacy and 'bit rot'

The explosive growth in digital technology over the last few decades has raised several challenges as well. The speakers cited privacy as one of the main concerns of the digital age.

"This issue of privacy, authentication, the possibility of a phone being … attacked in various ways as well as the network being attacked," said Jacobs. "I think that game is just going to go on, the attack, the defense, forever and ever."

Although cell phones have software to prevent the cell network from obtaining precise location information, "this software can be corrupted," warned Jacobs.

"There is no more [privacy]. Get over it," Cerf quipped.

The also panelists also cited scaling—the ability to accommodate the vast and increasing demand for information storage space on the Internet—as another challenge that will have to be overcome.

And Cerf raised what he has nicknamed the "bit rot" problem, which has to do with the longevity of information on the Internet.

"It's the year 3000. You've just done a Google search and you turned up a 1997 PowerPoint file. You're running Windows 3000," he theorized. "The question is: Does it know how to interpret a thousand-year-old PowerPoint file? And the answer is probably no."

If all of our generation's technology is digital, and 1,000 years from now the current digital information is "rotten," all of the information about our time period will be lost, he warned.

"By the year 2100 everyone will wonder about all of you and the beginnings of the 21st century because all the bits about you will be rotten and no one will be able to interpret them," Cerf said.

Lampson and audience members emphatically disagreed with Cerf's assertion, claiming that this problem could easily be overcome with some clever engineering.

The next new thing

Finally, at Hennessy's urging, the panelists speculated on the nature of the world's next big tech revolution.

Lampson proposed the creation of a device consisting of a tiny camera with face recognition capabilities and a tiny earpiece that could immediately identify and provide information about people as its wearer encounters them.

"When I walk up to someone, if I don't say, 'Hi, John,' right away, it's going to whisper in my ear, 'That's John Hennessy, president of Stanford,'" mused Lampson, adding, "I think it's almost feasible."

Cerf, who said his wife has two cochlear implants to improve her hearing, expressed a desire for a "direct brain-Internet connection."

"She can ask a question, it goes to Google, the answer comes back and it goes into her brain, directly into her auditory nerve, with no other interface anywhere," he said.

And all of the panelists seemed to agree that automated cars would be no great engineering challenge. "In less than 20 years, I think we're definitely going to have … cars that drive themselves. I mean for real," said Lampson. "This means you can read the paper while commuting."

"What paper?" shouted a member of the audience, highlighting the speed with which the world is changing as a result of the digital revolution.

Other Stanford participants

Earlier that day, Microsoft's Mountain View office had hosted the academy's other events, including panels on information technology and democracy; alternative futures of the Internet; and creative arts. A panel held the following morning at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View dealt with the digitalization of books and the future of libraries.

Stanford Professors Jonathan Berger, music; Joshua Cohen, political science, philosophy and law; Edward Feigenbaum, computer science; and Pat Hanrahan, computer science and electrical engineering; and Michael A. Keller, the university librarian, were involved.

Founded during the Revolutionary War by John Adams, John Hancock and others, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an independent policy research center and learned society that has inducted 11,000 members, including 243 current Stanford scholars. Its headquarters are in Cambridge, Mass., and its members hail from around the world.

Chelsea Anne Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.