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NET VISIONARIES SEEK NEW VISTAS
By Mark K. Anderson
Monday, August 12, 2002
In some fields, getting a blank stare means you're on the right track.
When they invented the Internet, blank stares were commonplace. And now
Vinton Cerf (co-designer of the TCP/IP protocol upon which the Internet is
built) and Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the Worldwide Web) are each
generating the now-familiar quizzical expressions as they promote their
latest vision of tomorrow's computer networks.
One is currently mapping out plans for an Interplanetary Internet; the other
is drawing upon the Web's potential as a worldwide data bank for intelligent
Both men were honorees at this year's Telluride Tech Festival in Colorado,
which ended Sunday. Both are innovators whose contributions to society will
be greater still if their current vision pans out.
Given their track record, it probably will. Telluride, home to the world's
first commercial alternating current (AC) power plant in 1891, has a
tradition of hearing out such visionaries as Berners-Lee and Cerf -- a
tradition the festival's organizers proudly proclaim.
Cerf, who spelled out the latest developments in a new-generation Internet
that would stretch deep into the Solar System, said that an interplanetary
network would not be relevant just for space exploration.
Consider the time lag problem, for instance. Transmissions from Mars can
take as much as 20 minutes to reach Earth. And if the antenna is on the far
side of Mars, it can take hours or days before the planet -- or the orbiter
-- brings the antenna around into a line-of-sight with the Earth.
In such an environment, the Internet as it's now conceived would shut down.
Servers would time out long before any packets of data could be exchanged.
"The system has to be capable of dealing with delay and frequent
disconnection," Cerf said. "As a result, we've now concluded that the
interplanetary network is an example of a much more general concept we call
"Some of the ideas we're pursuing will have utility on Earth in the mobile
environment, where connectivity is often episodic and the data rates are
often low and sometimes asymmetric."
Trent Hein, CEO of the network consulting company Applied Trust, said he's
confident that Cerf's vision will once again become universally implemented
"It's evolving a lot like the way that the early Internet did," he said. "In
the '70s, the Internet existed -- but not a lot of people used it or knew
about it. They were using extremely slow hardware and only had a few nodes.
But you just have to start with ideas and tweak them and then grow it into
Cerf said that the Interplanetary Protocols -- "very much like e-mail, a
store-and-forward design" -- just completed their third iteration last
month. (The current Internet protocols had four iterations before they were
standardized in 1978.)
The design team is now angling to use next year's launch of two Mars rovers
as a testbed for the Interplanetary Internet. And somewhere between 2005 and
2007, a Mars observing satellite is scheduled to launch -- which Cerf hopes
will also be a new node in what they call the "InterPlaNet."
John Perry Barlow, vice chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said
the conceptual boundaries the Interplanetary Internet breaks are important
"Probably the best thing is it makes you think big," Barlow said. "I think
it's pretty unlikely that we're going to be getting e-mail from Mars in the
Back on Earth, Berners-Lee has no less ambitious designs for the future of
the Worldwide -- and someday, Solar System-wide -- Web.
His vision of what he calls the Semantic Web is of an Internet full of data
meaningful to computers as well as to humans.
So instead of Vinny's Florists having a Web page that simply lists the
store's hours, its contact info and the floral arrangements it sells --
comprehensible only to the humans who visit it -- Vinny's Semantic website
would also contain metadata that search engines could understand specifying
that the business is a florist and its hours are X, its location is Y and
the products it sells are Z.
This way precise searches fulfilling precise needs could be done that are
"You'll tell a search engine, 'Find me someplace where the weather is
currently rainy and it's within a hundred miles of such and such a city,'"
Berners-Lee told the Boston Globe in June.
"Today a search engine can go and find you pages with those words on them,
but with the Semantic Web, it will come back and say, 'Look, I found this
place and I can prove to you why I know that it's raining and why I know
it's within a hundred miles of this place.' So you'll be dealing with much
Barlow said Berners-Lee's Semantic Web makes an appealing next-generation
"Part of what Tim is trying to do is open the Internet up to different forms
of human communication that are much less constrained," he said.
Barlow also lauded both Cerf and Berners-Lee for developing an Internet
whose social value endures, even as its commercial value ebbs and flows.
"We're really lucky that the folks that happened to be in that highly
pivotal position were also socially very aware and men of good conscience,"
Barlow said. "Tim, for instance, is one of the sweetest human beings I've
ever met. His essential good-heartedness has been embedded in the culture of
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