People of ACM - Robert Kahn

November 7, 2013

Robert Kahn is President and CEO of Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), a nonprofit organization focused on R&D for the national information infrastructure. He initiated the government's Internet program and is co-developer with Vinton Cerf of the TCP/IP protocols, the fundamental technology underpinning the internet for which they received the ACM Turing Award.

In his recent work, Kahn has been developing the concept of a Digital Object Architecture to provide a framework for interoperability of heterogeneous information systems. This work is being used in many applications that incorporate digital object identifiers, such as scientific publications. Indeed, ACM is one of the many publishers making use of this identifier technology developed by CNRI.

Kahn is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Inventors Hall of Fame. He is a Fellow of ACM, IEEE, AAAI, and the Computer History Museum. He has received many awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Technology, the Prince of Asturias Award, the Japan Prize, and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

He holds a BEE degree from the City College of New York, and MA and PhD degrees from Princeton University.

As a New York native, how do you assess the current environment for entrepreneurship and job growth in the city's technology sector in the wake of the Bloomberg initiative to build a new technology campus in the city?

I think the new technology campus is helping to energize the technology community in the city, which should become more competitive as a result. It has attracted a number of very capable faculty members from other locations in the country and is formulating an ambitious program in cooperation with Technion. As for entrepreneurship, the flagship activities surrounding startups are still in Silicon Valley; and New York would have to learn to compete in that arena as well. While the city has certain natural advantages, it will have to leverage them effectively to stimulate long-term job growth and economic development.

In light of recent accusations that Internet privacy has been compromised by the actions of individuals and governments, are you confident that people can trust their information to the Net, and access it securely and privately for as long as they want?

If the question is about the capabilities of high-power government agencies now or in the future, I'm not in a position to comment on that. For most normal use of the Internet, however, I think technology can accommodate trustworthy access with security as long as techniques are available for high reliability and for users to adequately secure their information. Many concerns that involve interception of information in transit from one place to another can be mitigated by use of encryption techniques.

Even if the information is securely conveyed from one place to another, however, it may not be encrypted in storage and, as a result, privacy issues can easily arise. For example, a cloud computing service would have access to the user's information, even if their agreements promise not to intercede, unless the actual information is well encrypted in storage and the cloud service never holds the keys. Metadata, however you define it, is another subject entirely. Let me simply say that loss of metadata could result in an inability to find information (whether encrypted or not) that would otherwise be easily accessed—or at least to find it relatively quickly.

As a global advocate for long-range infrastructure research and open-architecture networking, how confident are you that public and private investments will be sufficient to achieve your expectations for digital object architecture?

I think the ideas embodied in the digital object architecture are powerful and compelling. However, the basic ideas there break from conventional approaches to computing environments and database management in several fundamental ways. As a result, it will take a while for these ideas to be internalized even within the technical communities that might benefit most from them. In some cases, they compete with existing approaches that meet near-term needs and produce significant revenue streams. So, as a result, the potential for adoption is greatly impeded.

On the other hand, powerful ideas usually surface for what they are, and I can easily see public and private investment enabling this technology to be widely adopted in the coming years. The recent approval of ITU-T Recommendation X.1255 is an example a positive step in this direction.

The Internet is perhaps the best example of a powerful idea that was not universally adopted at the beginning. In the final analysis, it was too compelling to ignore. But it took time, and sustained funding by the U.S. government to demonstrate the capability and its utility in the research and education communities. The action of the U.S. government in Fiscal Year 1993 to allow the private sector to participate was instrumental in its evolution. Today's Internet infrastructure is in widespread use and is now largely provided by the private sector.

As a visionary whose genius enabled the Internet to develop and thrive, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

Well, computing is one important component of the information technology landscape, and I would broaden your question to include networking, systems architecture and design, information management, and even microsystems (including nano, pico, and the like). The field of opportunity here is still enormous.

Part of the opportunity is in inventing and creating new technology. Another is in determining how to make existing technology better and safer. Yet the largest challenge of all is in applying the technology in new and innovative ways to solve real problems.

In my view, the biggest obstacle to success by capable young people is in not trusting their instincts and hesitating to take chances when they believe in an idea of theirs and are young enough to withstand some initial failures. Not every such idea will work out in practice, but if they never try, it is guaranteed not to do so. So, my advice would be for them to trust their instincts and find a way to enable their ideas to have a chance at becoming reality.