Vint Cerf: Next Stop, Mars

The Internet pioneer is working on interplanetary communication

Thirty-two years ago, computer scientists Vinton G. Cerf and Robert E. Kahn sat together at a hotel in Palo Alto, Calif., and scribbled out on a yellow legal pad the software code that gave rise to the Internet. Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) gave computers standard addresses by which they can exchange packets of data -- putting the "e" into email, ebiz, and everything that followed. Since then the two of them, often called the Fathers of the Internet, have been showered with accolades. Most recently, on June 8, they won the A.M. Turing Award, the closest thing to a Nobel Prize in computer science.

Cerf, a dapper 62-year-old, is senior vice-president for technology strategy at MCI Inc. (MCIP ), and he is still striving to open new frontiers on the Net. Among his latest projects is expanding the world's stock of Web addresses to accommodate the proliferation of connected devices. Today that means TiVos (TIVO ), cell phones, iPods, and games, but Cerf says the list of connectibles will someday include nano devices such as tiny microprocessors assembled from individual molecules. "We want to make it seem like everyone who's on the network is on one big computer," he says.

And it's not just about earthlings. Over the past seven years, working with engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cerf has been preparing something called InterPlaNet protocol, which may first be used on a Mars orbiter in 2009. Today, NASA spacecraft carry their own telecom equipment to communicate with earth. But the devices on each new mission can't interact with those on other spacecraft. Just as the Internet laces terrestrial computers into one big network, InterPlaNet would provide a common language to link all communications among space probes and planetary stations.

Chatting across the empty reaches of space presents some challenges. An electronic signal making a round-trip to the moon, about 240,000 miles away, takes 2.5 seconds. A round-trip to Mars takes as much as 40 minutes, depending on how far apart the two planets are -- and that's not factoring in severe storms on the Red Planet. "It would be very hard to have an interactive conversation," says Cerf. There's no way to eliminate delays, but the smart system Cerf and JPL are devising should be able to assure delivery of signals despite transmission delays and interruptions.

Back on earth, Cerf devotes himself to solving the ongoing real estate crunch in cyberspace. The world is quickly tearing through the 4.3 billion possible Internet addresses that the current version of Internet Protocol provides for. The solution is called IP version 6, which makes room for 380 trillion trillion trillion unique Net addresses. The trick is upgrading the global infrastructure to fit this new protocol.

Trillions upon trillions of addresses may sound out of this world. But consider that electronic devices may shrink down to the dimensions of biological cells, which humans and other creatures manufacture in the trillions. Whether cell-sized contraptions with nanoscale parts are eventually crafted from silicon, carbon, or some other material, they're bound to require Net connectivity, just as the neurons of the brain depend upon the synapses that connect them. "Though we haven't gotten to a point where we understand how to make it happen artificially, the idea of using something as small as a molecule to store memory is not crazy at all," he says.

Whether molecular computing is crazy or not, Cerf remains a proud father of the world's greatest artificial network. And he isn't finished egging his offspring on to a bigger future.

By Catherine Yang

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