Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Web Summit Vol. 2: Leonard Kleinrock

The legendary computer scientist brought a dizzying level of energy and information about the history of the internet and his involvement in it.

Thu, Oct 31, 2013, 09:55


I mentioned Leonard Kleinrock‘s great talk on the Library Stage at the Web Summit in my previous post, so I thought I’d expand on what he said, based on the notes I took, even though they kind of run all over the place.

Pioneers rock
The internet hates ‘legacy’, but it’s growing its own. For all the talk of disruption, the internet is the establishment and with that comes a history and a legacy. We rarely talk about this, but Kleinrock is part of that legacy which is one of the reasons it was so fun to hear him talk. Practically every sentence out of his mouth would be some try-hards punchline at a TED talk. Boom, boom boom. He reached conclusions and painted massively broad brushstrokes with the energy of a renegade. We need to hear more from pioneers and stop treating people who have come up with a new app about monsters or birds or candy as if they’re geniuses.

1969 was the year
Kleinrock was a whirlwind. He discussed how in the 70s he envisaged how we would be existing with technology, and illustrated this with a photo of a person sitting at a type of workstation unit in Central Park with no wires surrounding them. The internet was created in 1969, “and no one noticed,” he said, “we didn’t even notice it when it was happening.” And here – in super paraphrasing mode from my notes – was how that happened.

Leaving aside 1969 for a second, although Kleinrock emphasised what a hugely important year that was, and let’s skip back to 1958, the year ARPA was created in response to the Russians and their dastardly Sputnik. In 1964, Ivan Sutherland suggested to Kleinrock that they connect three identical IBM computers. It didn’t happen because of department in-fighting at their university. Kleinrock began thinking “if we’re gonna move data between machines, we better develop appropriate technology.” At the same time, ARPA realised that they’d like a network. In 1966, Charles Hezfeld provided funding for this to happen. So ARPA was growing, and simultaneously, the research community was generating the underpinning of internet technology. Before that, in 1962 at MIT, Kleinrock was thinking about a technology to chop pieces of information – along with other researchers in the area, this approach would come to be known as “packets” – in order to transport them between computers. In his PhD, he created the mathematical theory of packet networks, “what could a data network look like?” he wondered, “and how could it be built?”

Kleinrock said leaders in the field approached AT&T and told them they should be thinking about building a data network, but they had no interest in it. Meanwhile, ARPA was encouraging researchers to come up with new meaty ideas and technologies, but the researchers wanted a lot of resources. ARPA would suggest they collaborate with other similar researches across the US and collaborate and pool information, technology and expertise, thus joining a network.

ARPANET was delivered within eight months. “This was an amazing feat of engineering,” Kleinrock said, “that could never happen today.” Kleinrock said that was the first backbone of the internet. UCLA put out a press release about it, and in the press release, Kleinrock predicted “computer utilities” would be invisible and accessible in homes and business around the country.

The net diary
Kleinrock started his talk by asking people what the first message communicated between two computers was. No one answered. We know all these monumental first messages said on the moon, or via morse code (“what had God wrought”), or over the phone¬†(“Mr. Watson – come here- I want to see you.”) but not on what would become the internet.

The programmers and computer scientists started to keep a log of what they were doing. On October 29, 1969, nearly 44 years ago to the day, a note was written in the log, “talked to SRI – host to host.” UCLA’s machine spoke to the machine in SRI. That’s the only record of the first message on the internet, “a little scribble in a notebook by a computer programmer,” as Kleinrock put it. The first message? It was going to be LOGIN, as you would type ‘LOG’ and the ‘IN’ would follow almost. While sending the message, the two programmers were on a phone line making sure the message was being received. One sent the L “did you get the L?” “Yep, I got the L”. Then the O, “get the O?” “Yeah, got the O.” Then the G. And SRI’s computer crashed. So the first message on the internet was “LO”, at 10.30pm that night. “Everyone in this room and downstairs and in this city owes a debt of gratitude to that room,” he says of the room in LA, which has been kept as it was. Kleinrock is particularly enamoured by the smell of the machine.

It’s about people talking
In 1972, email was introduced, “we realised it was not about computers talking to each other, or people talking to computers. We realised it was about people talking to people, which anticipated the social networks of today,” Kleinrock recounted. In 1988 Robert Morris unleashed his worm. They didn’t think much of it, “and that was a big mistake. We said ‘uh oh’, we thought it an aberration, but really it was the beginning of the dark side of the internet.” On April 12th, 1994, the first deliberate mass posting of a spam email happened, and Kleinrock and co were outraged. They were so outraged that they send so much email back to the perpetrators (Canter & Siegel lawyers) that C&S’s servers crashed. So as a direct result of the first spam email, they accidentally created the first, DoS attack! That got a lot of laughs in the room.

The internet is in our genes
Moving to the future now, “You can’t turn the clock back. Most of you can’t even remember a time when there was no internet,” Kleinrock said, “it’s in your genes.” He looked at the next phases; in the first section that’s nomadic computing, smart spaces, software agents and ubiquitous computing. That’s the easy stuff to predict, he said, because that all relates to infrastructure. The second section? Applications and services. These are the hard things to predict because “they’ve constantly surprised us.”

“Our environment will be alive with technology all around us,” Kleinrock said of embedded technology. “We humans were overtaken last year. Mobile connected devices? There’s more of them than us. Things are going on that we’re not really in control of. They’re in a world of their own.” Wearable computing, electronic skin, nanotechnology and so on might gang up on you, he said jokingly “you have to watch out for these devices.”

As for ubiquitous computing? “The first thing that gave the internet ubiquity was the dial-up modem.” Suddenly nearly every telephone line had the potential to connect you to the internet. “You can be everywhere without being there – and that’s what mobility is about.”

Kleinrock said we’re constantly being hit in the head with suprising applications and it’s hard to predict them. “Mass personalisation – that’s not an oxymoron” he said of another trend. “The internet will essentially be a pervasive global nervous system.”

Privacy? Ha!
Sure, they made mistakes – they didn’t predict “the dark side” – but as Kleinrock says, it’s hard to control 44 years of legacy technology when there are billions of users around the world. “Regarding privacy? Forget about it. You gave that up a long time ago when you put your number in the phone book and got a credit card… It’s gone. The only way to get some privacy these days is walk to the edge of the North Sea, strip, jump in, and hope there’s no sonar down there.”

Empathy and human connections
I asked Kleinrock how he feels the erosion of empathy due to technology, how human connections may be lost if we’re pretending we’re making them with technology instead. Does he have a dystopian vision about this? “History teaches us an awful lot,” he said, “you have to look back as well as forward.” Kleinrock said that we may be in the middle of upheaval, but his parents’ generation went through monumental change; electricity, automobiles, radio, telephone, “ours are minor.” He told a parable of a senior citizen sitting in the bleachers next to a young techie at a baseball game and the young techie looks at the old guy and says he can’t relate to them, because, the young techie says, when you were young there was no technology there was no internet, there were no cell phones or computers, “yeah, that’s why we invented them,” the old guy says, “what are you going to do?”

And finally, “the internet is in it’s juvenile years and it’s behaving badly,” Kleinrock said, hopefully it will mature, but we can’t be certain about anything.