An internet founding father looks to the future
Leonard Kleinrock gravely concerned that funding for innovation may be drying up
Just as with any large project that grew in an organic, accretive way, the internet has no single founder.
The technology on which it was built relied on a large number of researchers based at various academic research institutes, building the internet precursor Arpanet and tackling the fundamental engineering problems posed by building computer networks.
Leonard Kleinrock is one of those early pioneers who made an invaluable contribution in the field, developing the mathematical theory behind data packet transmission during his PhD at MIT and while working at UCLA, where he is still a professor of computer science.
So significant was his input that he was one of the inaugural class inducted into the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee.
And not only is he one of the most important figures in the history of the internet, he is also one of the most entertaining – at the Dublin Web Summit’s Library Stage last week, he delivered a fascinating and entertaining overview of the development of the internet in the 1960s and 1970s, and offered his predictions on how it will continue to develop.
As a young researcher, did he realise the revolutionary importance of what he was working on?
“When I did the research, the answer is no. I recognised it was solving a problem that needed solving. We’re surrounded by computers, and I saw there was no way they had to communicate. So I decided to attack that problem, an interesting problem full of challenges ... But what I missed was that my 99-year-old mother would be on the internet – I missed the social side. I thought it was about computers talking to each other, and people talking to computers. It’s not, it’s about people communicating with people.”
That eureka moment became clear with the development of email and newsgroups in the 1970s, when the computer network he had helped build slowly began to become a new communications medium.
Such a prediction would have been hard to make on the day, just over 44 years ago, when the first message was sent on the Arpanet – Kleinrock was supervising researcher Charley Kline’s attempt to make a connection from UCLA to Stanford with the command LOGIN.
It crashed after the first two characters, leaving the very first message on the internet at “LO”.
Not an auspicious start, and yet since then, those little seeds have grown into the global network and given rise to the technology industry that was being showcased at the Web Summit.
Kleinrock delivers these vignettes in a classic New York accent, despite his decades in California, and despite his 79 years he is not so much sprightly as effervescent.
The future, he feels, will be defined by nomadic computing, embedded tech in our environment, smart software agents and ubiquitous computing. “Dick Tracey will come to life again,” he says, predicting the rise of wearable computing.