Danny Hillis: The Internet Could Crash. We Need a Plan B (Full Transcript)

Danny Hillis – TRANSCRIPT

So, this book that I have in my hand is a directory of everybody who had an email address in 1982. Actually, it’s deceptively large. There’s actually only about 20 people on each page, because we have the name, address and telephone number of every single person. And, in fact, everybody’s listed twice, because it’s sorted once by name and once by email address. Obviously a very small community. There were only two other Dannys on the Internet then; I knew them both.

We didn’t all know each other, but we all kind of trusted each other, and that basic feeling of trust permeated the whole network, and there was a real sense that we could depend on each other to do things. So just to give you an idea of the level of trust in this community, let me tell you what it was like to register a domain name in the early days. Now, it just so happened that I got to register the third domain name on the Internet. So I could have anything I wanted other than bbn.com and symbolics.com. So I picked think.com, but then I thought, you know, there’s a lot of really interesting names out there. Maybe I should register a few extras just in case. And then I thought, “Nah, that wouldn’t be very nice.”

That attitude of only taking what you need was really what everybody had on the network in those days, and in fact, it wasn’t just the people on the network, but it was actually kind of built into the protocols of the Internet itself. So the basic idea of IP, or Internet protocol, and the way that the — the routing algorithm that used it, were fundamentally “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” And so, if you had some extra bandwidth, you’d deliver a message for someone.

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If they had some extra bandwidth, they would deliver a message for you. You’d kind of depend on people to do that, and that was the building block. It was actually interesting that such a communist principle was the basis of a system developed during the Cold War by the Defense Department, but it obviously worked really well, and we all saw what happened with the Internet. It was incredibly successful. In fact, it was so successful that there’s no way that these days you could make a book like this.

My rough calculation is it would be about 25 miles thick. But, of course, you couldn’t do it, because we don’t know the names of all the people with Internet or email addresses, and even if we did know their names, I’m pretty sure that they would not want their name, address and telephone number published to everyone. So the fact is that there’s a lot of bad guys on the Internet these days, and so we dealt with that by making walled communities, secure subnetworks, VPNs, little things that aren’t really the Internet but are made out of the same building blocks, but we’re still basically building it out of those same building blocks with those same assumptions of trust. And that means that it’s vulnerable to certain kinds of mistakes that can happen, or certain kinds of deliberate attacks, but even the mistakes can be bad.

So, for instance, in all of Asia recently, it was impossible to get YouTube for a little while because Pakistan made some mistakes in how it was censoring YouTube in its internal network. They didn’t intend to screw up Asia, but they did because of the way that the protocols work. Another example that may have affected many of you in this audience is, you may remember a couple of years ago, all the planes west of the Mississippi were grounded because a single routing card in Salt Lake City had a bug in it. Now, you don’t really think that our airplane system depends on the Internet, and in some sense it doesn’t. I’ll come back to that later. But the fact is that people couldn’t take off because something was going wrong on the Internet, and the router card was down.

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And so, there are many of those things that start to happen. Now, there was an interesting thing that happened last April. All of a sudden, a very large percentage of the traffic on the whole Internet, including a lot of the traffic between US military installations, started getting re-routed through China.

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