Vint Cerf, recipient of the World Leader in AIWS Award, reflects on creating the Internet with his colleagues

Jun 2, 2024News

This article was originally published in CBS News.

In an era where the answers to the most random questions — like the indoor land speed record or the Earth’s weight — are just a few clicks away, we often take for granted the colossal network that makes it all possible: the internet. At the heart of this technological marvel are pioneers such as Vint Cerf, Steve Crocker and Bob Kahn, whose groundbreaking work has woven the fabric of the digital world we live in today.

Despite their monumental achievements, these innovators remain modest about their contributions. “One of the big issues about the internet is that most people don’t really have a good idea of what it is,” Kahn said.

Their journey began with a simple, yet revolutionary, idea: developing the technologies and software necessary to send data from one computer to another, eventually reaching across the globe.

“I don’t think the internet is a physical thing. I think it’s the implementation of the internet protocols that’s physical,” Kahn said.

“Bob is taking an interesting philosophical view of this,” said Cerf. “There are descriptions of how the thing is supposed to work and you have to implement those descriptions in things called computers and routers and things like that.”

“It’s the description of how it’s supposed to work that’s important. So you can keep building new things to work in new ways to make the internet even more interesting,” said Cerf.

That’s what allowed their early networks to blossom into a whole universe of interconnected laptops and smartphones and speakers and headsets. All of which changed the way we — and they — get things done.

The astonishment never fades for Cerf, who finds incredible “all the stuff that had to work” for a simple Google search to return results.

The internet’s origins trace back to a military tool — the ARPANET — developed in collaboration with figures like Joseph Haughney, a retired major in the U.S. Air Force who died last month. A precursor to the internet, ARPANET was developed to help the military, sharply different from from the internet’s current role as a platform for socializing, entertainment and community building.

“We always had this technology that my dad would kind of wheel it in and then show it to my mom, and no one really knew what it was,” recalled Haughney’s daughter, Christine Haughney Dare-Bryan.

As her father got older, Dare-Bryan, an editor at Inc. magazine, decided to record his stories, building a podcast all about the founders of the internet. She selected a term her father had previously used to label some of these innovators for the podcast’s name.

“He called them these ‘computer freaks.’ He didn’t want these computer freaks coming on and kind of hurting or harming his beloved ARPANET. And instead, we had something that was being used for, you know, socializing and finding communities,” said Dare-Bryan.

But for all the ways their work has improved our lives — and there are a lot of them — it’s also introduced some challenges for privacy and personal connections.

The ease of spreading misinformation and disinformation has become a significant concern. Cerf said he has no regrets and sees the internet’s misuse as a human issue, not a technological flaw. “It’s their responsibility,” Cerf said.

“I just hope that something like the internet will continue to be part of the society that we live in and that maybe some, you know, in some distant time, somebody will remember I had a tiny role to play in it,” Cerf said.