Crypto? AI? Internet co-creator Robert Kahn already did… decades ago | TechCrunch

Robert Kahn has had a constant presence on the Internet since its inception, obviously, since he was its co-creator. But like many technological pioneers, his resume is longer than that, and in fact his work foreshadowed such seemingly modern ideas as AI agents and the blockchain. TechCrunch chatted with Kahn about how, really, nothing has changed since the 70s.

The interview was conducted on the occasion of the awarding of the IEEE Medal of Honor to Kahn (who goes by Bob colloquially) this week, you can watch the ceremony and speeches here.

Sound familiar? Last year the IEEE gave the medal to Vint Cerf, Kahn’s partner in creating the protocols that underpin the Internet and the Web. They have taken different paths, but share a tempered optimism about the world of technology and a sense that everything old is new again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Many of the problems, technical and otherwise, that we now face in computing and the Internet are problems that we have seen and perhaps even solved before. I’m curious if you find anything particularly familiar about the challenges we face today.

Kahn: Well, I don’t think anything really surprises me. I mean, I was concerned from the start that the internet could be misused. But in the early days it was a very willing set of collaborators in the research community who mostly knew each other, or at least knew each other. And so there wasn’t much that went wrong. If you only have 100 people who don’t know each other, maybe it’s viable, but if you have a billion people, you know, you have a little bit of everything in society.

[CERN leadership] in fact, I was approached about the possibility of starting a consortium, which they then created at MIT… and I had too many, probably unpleasant questions, like what about misinformation or disinformation? How will you control what happens in this? I thought there were approaches; in fact, we were working on some. And so, in a way, I’m not terribly surprised that I’m disappointed that approaches that could have made a difference weren’t taken.

I was reading about your “knowbots”, this is something very similar to an AI agent, that has the power to go and interact in a less structured way than an API call or a simple crawl.

The whole idea was launched in the form of a mobile program [i.e. the program is mobile, not for mobiles]; we called them knowledge bots, which was short for knowledge bots. You told it what you wanted to do and you launched it, you know, make plane reservations, check your email, watch the news, tell you about things that might affect you, just set you free; would be to make your offer on the Internet.

We basically made it available at the time, it couldn’t have been more unfortunate, right around the time the first cyber security threat came out: the Morris worm, in the late 1980s. It was accidentally made by some guy, but already you know, people looked and said, hey, when these bad things happen to you, we don’t want other people’s programs showing up on our machines. As a formality, we just put it on the back burner.

But something came out of it that I think was very helpful. We have called it the architecture of digital objects. You probably follow some of the cryptocurrency work. Well, cryptocurrency is like taking a $1 bill and getting rid of the paper, right, then being able to work with the value of the money on the network. The architecture of digital objects was like taking mobile software and getting rid of mobility. The same information is there, except you get to it in different ways.

Robert Kahn accepting the IEEE Medal of Honor.

It’s interesting that you bring up digital object architecture and cryptography in the same kind of sentence. We have the DOI system, I see it mostly in the scientific literature, of course, it’s tremendously useful there. But as a general system, I saw a lot of similarities with the idea of ​​cryptographically signed ledgers and sort of canonical locations for digital objects.

You know, it’s a shame that people think that these digital objects only have to be copyrighted material. I wrote an article called representing values ​​in digital objects… I think we called them digital entities, just for technical reasons. I think it was the first article that talked about the cryptocurrency equivalent.

But we’ve been talking about linking blogs for the last… going back to the space age, when you wanted to communicate with the far reaches of outer space, you didn’t want to have to go back and wait minutes or minutes. hours via transmission delays to Earth to correct something. You want to have blocks in transit connected to each other. So you know, when the next block that might come a millisecond later, you can figure out what went wrong with the block before it was released. And that’s what blockchains are all about.

In digital object architecture, we are talking about digital objects being able to communicate with other digital objects. This is not people sitting at keyboards. You know, you can send a digital object or a mobile program to a machine and ask it to interact with another digital object that might be representative of a book, go into that book, do work, and interact with that system . Or, like an airplane, people think that airplanes have to interact with other airplanes to avoid collisions and such, and cars have to talk to cars because they don’t want to crash into each other. But what if cars need to talk to planes? Since these objects can be anything you can represent in digital form, you potentially have everything interacting with everything. This is a different notion of the Internet than, you know, a high-speed telecommunications circuit.

Okay, it’s about whether objects should talk to objects and enabling that as a protocol, whether it’s an airplane in a car. In the so-called Internet of Things, you have a connected doorbell, a connected oven, a connected refrigerator, but they are all connected via private APIs to private servers. It’s not about protocol, it’s just about having a really bad software service living on your fridge.

I really think that most of the entities that would have had a natural interest in the Internet were hoping that their own approach would be what took over. [rather than TCP/IP]. Whether it was Bell Systems or IBM or Xerox, Hewlett Packard, everyone had their approach. But what happened was that they hit rock bottom. You had to be able to show interoperability; you couldn’t come in and ask everyone to get rid of all their old stuff and take yours. So they couldn’t choose a company’s approach, so they were stuck with the things we did at DARPA. It’s an interesting story in itself, but I don’t think you should write about it (laughs).

If every house you entered had a different plug, you have a major problem. But the real problem is that you can’t see it until you implement it.

I don’t think the government can be trusted to take the initiative. I don’t think I can trust the industry to take the lead. Because you can have 5 or 10 different industries competing with each other. They cannot agree on whether there should be a standard until they have exhausted all other options. And who will take the initiative? It needs to be reconsidered at the national level. And I think universities have a role to play here. But they may not necessarily know that yet.

We are seeing huge reinvestment in the US chip industry. I know you were very involved in the late ’70s, early ’80s with some of the nuts and bolts, and working with people who helped define the computer architecture of the time, which has informed, of course, the architectures future I’m curious what you think about the evolution of the hardware industry.

I think the big problem right now, which the administration has clearly pointed out, is that we don’t have, we haven’t maintained a leadership role in semiconductor manufacturing here. It comes from Taiwan, South Korea, China. We are trying to fix it, and I applaud that. But the biggest problem will probably be the staff. Who will take care of these places? I mean, you build manufacturing capacity, but you need to import people from Korea and Taiwan? Ok let’s teach it in schools…who knows enough to teach it in schools, will you import people to teach in schools? Workforce development will be a big part of the problem. But I think we were there before, we can go back.

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