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5 insights from Vint Cerf on bitcoin, net neutrality and more

Google vice-president Vint Cerf is pictured during the inauguration of a Google cultural hub in Paris on December 10, 2013. "The Lab" is a place in the French capital designed to enable artists, museums, foundations and other cultural players to meet the US giant's engineers and gain access to its technology. France's culture minister cancelled her attendance at the launch at the last minute, in a snub to the US giant over data protection and other issues. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images) (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

When Vint Cerf, often called the “father of the Internet,” is speaking, it’s wise to listen. Earlier this week Cerf, who holds the title of chief Internet evangelist at Google, spoke at a Startup Grind event at Google’s office in Washington, D.C. Here are some of his thoughts, drawn from his remarks to the group and an interview beforehand.

The best use for Google Glass:

I can tell you the one application everybody over the age of 45 asks for, they would like it to tell you what’s that person’s name over there? Because I recognize them but I don’t remember the name and I’m at a party and they’re going to come over and I’m going to have to introduce them and I won’t be able to get this right. The problem is we haven’t authorized that because there are all of these privacy concerns. I have to admit this would be a big help. If you’re thinking about this you could extend this a little bit. Who’s that over there, oh that’s Joe Schmo. You talked with him two weeks ago and he’s an idiot. Nobody else could see that but you.

What he thinks of bitcoin and the future of money:

When bitcoin came along I was impressed by the technology and the mathematics … The fact there’s a finite number of bitcoins bothers me a lot, and second their variable value bothers me a lot. So I’m not impressed. I think something rooted in the banking system is a lot safer for consumers.

The one question is whether or not the transaction costs can be kept low. The credit card companies have a fairly high cost per transaction. And so micro-transactions don’t make sense because of the overhead, but I’m sure that there are better ways to do this without having to go all the way to a bitcoin-like zone.

Why computer science courses should be mandatory in high school:

I think everyone in high school must have written some software at least once. Not because they wanted to be programmers, but because I want them to experience the thought processes that go into the design of the program and I want them to understand how bugs happen and how hard it is to find them. Because then they’ll be aware of the fact that they’re surrounded by software that potentially has bugs in it. They won’t be surprised when things don’t work right, they may even be able to figure out what went wrong.

On whether Google has competition in search:

There is competition, in fact that’s what worries me. There may be somebody, maybe’s he’s at Stanford University in a dorm room somewhere who is coming up with a better strategy for doing search than we have. …

Google hopes to be always the best possible search, but there’s no guarantee that we will be. So there’s plenty of nascent competition that may be out there. We don’t know. So all we can do is run as fast as we can. There’s this story about two guys being chased by the bear. This one guy stops and he puts on his running shoes, and the other guy says ‘You’re crazy you’re not going to be able to outrun the bear,” and he says, “I don’t have to, all I have to do is outrun you.”

Cerf, who noted that “nobody knows what net neutrality is,” offered his definition:

The fundamental notion behind net neutrality is that the parties who were supplying access to the Internet should not be permitted to engage in anti-competitive behavior and in anti-consumer behavior. Consumer choice should be preserved for the consumers. So what we don’t want is parties providing access also limiting choice the users have to where they go on the net and what they do when they get there.

With regard to performance it’s entirely possible that some applications needs far more latency, like games. Other applications need broadband streaming capability in order to deliver real-time video. Others don’t really care as long as they can get the bits there, like e-mail or file transfers and things like that. But it should not be the case that the supplier of the access to the network mediates this on a competitive basis, but you may still have different kinds of service depending on what the requirements are for the different applications.

There’s also some argument that says, well you have to treat every packet the same. That’s not what any of us said. Or you can’t charge more for more usage. We didn’t say that either.

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