When Vint Cerf was invited to join Google in 2005 he was asked what job title he wanted.
That’s the kind of treatment you get from one of the world’s biggest tech companies when you’re one of the ‘fathers of the internet’.
“I thought about that for a while and said, what about Archduke?” Cerf, co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet, remembers.
“So they [Larry Page and Sergey Brin] went away and came back and said ‘you know what, the famous Archduke is Ferdinand, and he was assassinated in 1914 and it started World War I. That sounds like a bad title, how about you be our chief internet evangelist?’” Cerf says. “I said, ok I can do that. So that’s what I am.”
Cerf surely stands out among the hoodie and t-shirt wearing staff at Google’s trendy offices, insisting on wearing the immaculate three piece suits which have become his trademark. His ideas are a little eccentric too, but are being taken super seriously by the search giant.
He shared two of them this week at an event at UNSW in Sydney hosted by AI Professor Toby Walsh. The first involves your embarrassing Facebook photos of that party in 2006, and the other, a 280 pound gorilla.
Digital dark age
“Every one of you has online a gazillion pictures and they’re just seem to be there and they don’t seem to go away so they’ll be there forever right? Wrong,” Cerf, dressed in a deep blue suit and waistcoat, light blue shirt and silver Paisley tie, said.
“Because they are substantiated in physical media, and physical media don’t necessarily last forever.”
While certain formats continue to be widely used (vinyl music sales were up 19 per cent last year) others are not (compact disk sales were virtually non-existent).
“There are people in this room I’m sure who have a five and quarter inch floppy disk gathering dust in their basements and closets and they can’t find a floppy reader anywhere – well, in the Smithsonian or your local museum maybe. Same problem for 3.5 inch floppy disks or CD-ROMs or DVDs, and disk drives whose interfaces you can’t find the plugs to connect in,” Cerf said.
The same is true of files and software. If an application can’t run on the operating systems of a decade from now, files become inaccessible. A software company might go out of business, taking its codebase down with it. Backwards compatibility is not guaranteed.
The result is what Cerf calls a ‘digital dark age’ and we are racing towards it, he said.
A century from now, those looking back to our current era may not be able to access the millions of images we store without thought on Facebook’s cloud servers. Unlike ancient manuscripts and cave paintings that have survived for thousands of years, today’s digital content could be lost forever, Cerf said.
“I’m a big fan of creating a regime in which we can assure ourselves that digital content will be moved from one medium to the other. And that we are able to preserve and run old software to correctly interpret the bits,” he said. “Preserving software is just as important as preserving the bits of data.”
Earlier this year the Internet Society embarked on a project to explore and define digital preservation principles, protocols and practices with Google’s backing.
Google’s Art & Culture group is also partnering with a nonprofit called Rhizome whose small software development team creates tools to emulate legacy browsers. The partnership has led to the emulation of three ‘games for girls’ from the 1990s.
The University of Melbourne has begun its own digital preservation project, and regular ‘Australasia Preserves’ events kicked off in February.
But such efforts are a drop in the ocean of formats and file types headed for eternal incompatibility.
“Open source may help us in some respects but there is a digital dark age looming if we don’t [take action],” Cerf said.
Koko and the aliens
Cerf is an animal lover, and sits on the board of the Gorilla Foundation. The foundation supported the work of Dr Francine Patterson and her female western lowland gorilla called Koko, which died last week. Patterson reported that Koko was able to understand and speak more than a thousand words in a sign language.
“I remember visiting Koko one day and the first thing that Koko wanted me to do was – ‘come inside her enclosure and play chase’. Koko weights 300 hundred pounds. I declined the invitation,” Cerf said.
However, the interaction – during which Koko responded to Cerf blowing grass – deeply moved the internet evangelist.
“Since that time I’ve become very fascinated by the idea of other species that have intelligence that we should be thinking about communicating with. Dolphins for example, elephants,” he said.
So what does an internet pioneer do to better communicate with animals? What an internet pioneer does best: five years ago launching, with the help of musician Peter Gabriel and others, an ‘interspecies internet’.
“It’s still early days but the idea of getting non-human species to communicate with each other is absolutely fascinating,” he said.
Learning to talk with the animals would be an accomplishment in itself, but would also help us with humanity’s next communication problem, Cerf explained.
“It’s important because we can practice talking with non-human things so when we finally encounter alien life we know what to do,” he said.