Vint Cerf: COVID-19 highlights how we need better internet access everywhere

Vinton G. Cerf​ is vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google. Widely known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet," Mr. Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the internet. Mr. Cerf shares his views on the future of the internet, the importance of trust and empathy, and the impact of new technologies like IoT and AI on the future of communications.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

To help us better understand the future of the internet, data usage, and privacy, and the impact of new technologies like internet-of-Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) on social networks and the future of communication, Ray Wang, CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research, and I invited Vint Cerf and other distinguished guests to join our weekly show DisrupTV. 

Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google. He contributes to global policy development and the continued spread of the internet. Widely known as one of the "Fathers of the internet," Mr. Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the internet. Mr. Cerf served as chairman of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2000 to 2007 and has been a visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 1998. 

Mr. Cerf served as founding president of the Internet Society (ISOC) from 1992 to 1995.  Mr. Cerf is a recipient of numerous awards and commendations in connection with his work on the internet, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, US National Medal of Technology, The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, and the ACM Turing Award (some refer to this award as the Nobel prize for computing). Mr. Cerf is an officer of the Legion d'Honneur and holds 29 honorary degrees.  


Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google.

Dr. Melissa Flagg is a senior fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University. Previously Dr. Flagg served as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Research, responsible for policy and oversight Defense Department science and technology programs including basic research through advanced technology development and the DoD laboratory enterprise. Dr. Flagg has worked at the State Department, the Office of Naval Research, the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Army Research Laboratory. Dr. Flagg also ran her own consulting business and was the Chief Technology Officer of a consumer start-up. Dr. Flagg has served on numerous boards including the National Academy of Sciences Air Force Studies Board and the Department of Commerce Emerging Technology Research Advisory Committee.


Dr. Melissa Flagg is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University

Dr. David Bray is the inaugural director of GeoTech Center and GeoTech Commission at the Atlantic Council. Dr. Bray accepted a leadership role in December 2019 to incubate a new global Center with the Atlantic Council. Business Insider named him one of the top "24 Americans Who Are Changing the World" under 40. Dr. Bray was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum for 2016-2021. From 2017 to the start of 2020, Dr. Bray served as executive director for the People-Centered Internet coalition. Dr. Bray is a Marshall Memorial Fellow, Eisenhower Fellow, and the recipient of the National Intelligence Exceptional Achievement Medal, Arthur S. Fleming Award, and Roger W. Jones Award for Executive Leadership. Dr. Bray is a former CIO for Federal Communication Commission, where he received the global CIO 100 Award twice. 


Dr. David A. Bray, Atlantic Council 

Here are the key takeaways of our conversation with Vint Cerf, Dr. Flagg, and Dr. Bray: 

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic has identified the need for expanded internet access. Should connectivity be a public utility? Dr. Flagg started our conversation with respect to providing affordable and accessible connectivity to everyone. Today, only 50% of the worldwide population has internet access -- a milestone that was celebrated by the UN in late 2019. According to Cerf, the pandemic has highlighted that we need better internet access everywhere. In some places around the world, school buses are being used to provide wireless internet access to student populations. Libraries are also providing hot spots for broadband access. The recognition that we need to provide remote internet access has been highlighted by the pandemic. 
  2. Duplicating of in-person classroom experience to a purely digital format may not be the optimal approach. The ability to engage in digital is based on your environment -- space and connectivity. The digital format may reduce the need for travel, leading to higher attendance. Investments in online environments should focus on more individualized learning, according to Cerf. In order to do a good job of personalized learning, you need to develop a curriculum that you are supposed to learn, you also need to know what is not understood and to test for comprehension and learning. I believe that the distributed digital educational model will lead to a higher-education framework and operating system that is open (Android-like) versus closed (iOS-like), meaning students will have the option to take courses from multiple institutions of learning and receive accreditation based on a mutually agreed upon multi-university ecosystem framework. 
  3. The future of education is a hybrid model -- in-person and virtual. Dr. Flagg shared her thoughts on how the classroom experience may be limited to a couple of days a week, during and post-pandemic, and the rest of the time the learning process is digital. A mixture of both in-person classroom and virtual collaboration and teaching is an area of research. 
  4. We are alone, together. Cerf referenced the book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turke, that spoke about children using mobile and texting have learned a different social behavior pattern. The children learned that it is OK not to respond to a text. If you do not know what to say, do not say anything at all. This means the children cannot cope with responding to the immediacy of having to respond -- this means they do not use the phone or meet in person. Today, the system we are using can turn the microphone off. There is control over who can be seen or heard. Cerf spoke about the need for socialists and psychologists to research and better understand how technology influences and effects the social environment that we experience. 
  5. The ability to connect immediately reduces our ability to plan and prepare. Dr. Bray talked about the art of planning and preparation which is often overlooked with today's mindset and ability to instantly connect and collaborate. 
  6. In the near future, escape from the internet may be impossible. Cerf talked about Elon Musk and SpaceX distributing 200 satellites in space (project Starlink) to scale high-speed internet connectivity around the globe. Starlink is targeting service in the Northern U.S. and Canada in 2020, rapidly expanding to near-global coverage of the populated world by 2021. Cerf said that the impact will be dramatic where every square inch of the planet will have internet access. On the whole, the project is ambitious and worthwhile. Cerf is an observer but optimistic and supportive of Musk's vision and project. 
  7. Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides opportunities for positive and educational use cases. Dr. Flagg talked about specific proactive and preventative use cases to educate stakeholders regarding personal health and well-being. Dr. Flagg said that the best use of AI will be less about control and more about opt-in learning opportunities. AI is not very close to being able to throw it out into the wild -- AI is brittle, not resilient and breakable. Wang talked about using AI to improve decision making speed and velocity. Allowing algorithms to dictate engagement tactics is a choice. Dr. Flagg talked about being more creative and strategic about the use of AI. 
  8. Poorly designed software can negatively impact our society. Cerf reminded us that the Internet of Things (IoT) is already automated and autonomous. There are already billions of connected devices in operation in an autonomous decision-making mode, making decisions based on software algorithms. Poorly crafted software can be damaging, even simple logic that is used today outside of machine learning and advanced AI logic. Dr. Bray warned us about how we can ensure we are not a surveillance state based on tens of billions of smart connected devices in use today. 
  9. Empathy in a non-digital world means creating experiences where people can walk in other people's shoes. Dr. Bray shared his experiences traveling to other states and countries, where he was able to witness different experiences. Dr. Bray spoke about giving people in rural and urban areas to share different experiences. Bridging the gap in understanding, diversity of thought and empathy requires trust, mutual respect, and humility. Dr. Flagg has traveled to all 50 states. She shared her amazing experience of traveling around the globe. Dr. Flagg loves to explore and discover new and local experiences. Cerf talked about virtual lunches and dinners online and the benefits of simply being curious and interested in learning about others. We had fun talking about virtual reality and personalized avatars to improve the virtual meeting experience. 
  10. Better decisions are achieved through turn-taking (respect), active listening, and gender diversity. Dr. Bray talked about the importance of energy and empathy to improve collaboration. Cerf talked about respect for people's intentions is what leads to healthy turn-taking. Successful collaborations can be very spirited but never personal, said Cerf. He mentioned the importance of being polite and respectful that can lead to healthy collaboration. Dr. Flagg talked about having a common mission and trust as key success factors for a healthy engagement. Dr. Flagg talked about improvisations that build on top of each other - never feeling that people are sharing prepared remarks for the purpose of only being heard. 
  11. A shift in the reward system can minimize polarization and extreme points of view on social networks. Cerf believes that the reward system in social media leads to polarization and extreme behaviors that attract attention. At the moment, the fastest way to attract attention is to share extreme points of view and content. Cerf did not provide solutions but suggested that this is an area that needs research and better understanding. Dr. Bray noted that the fastest method of creating content is to share hateful content. Dr. Bray said that this is about citizen groups, not government or industry, being actively involved to identify a remedy. Dr. Bray also shared research from Pew that spoke to massive tribalism. We often see this type of behavior as it relates to sports and how fans behave against competitors. Dr. Flagg suggested checkmarks, provided by social media platforms, that identify users that have demonstrated a balanced approach to creating and sharing content.
  12. We must begin to tolerate differences and improve our critical thinking. Cerf talked about the 'fear of the other' and the harm that it caused to society. Tolerance for disagreements and differences is key to having a healthy relationship. Critical thinking, not cynicism, is key to better understanding and protecting yourself against misinformation. Cerf reminded us that the best-packaged misinformation usually contains some level of truth that you recognize, leading you to believe the misinformation part of the package because you recognize that little bit of truth that is included. 
  13. To effectively teach and co-create value, we must first learn about others. Dr. Flagg said that we need to apply a bottom-up approach and exercise more humility as we volunteer our time to improve society. The mindset should shift from 'I'm here to help and teach,' to a mindset that is more about 'I'm here to learn from you and together, we can make a difference.'

I highly encourage you to watch our video conversation with Vint Cerf, Dr. Flagg, and Dr. Bray -- three brilliant thought leaders, inventors, and technology pioneers who are guiding us towards a better future, where leadership principles, policies, procedures, partnerships, and technologies can be used for the betterment of society. 

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