**The Future is Connectivity: Insights from Internet Pioneer Bob Metcalfe**
**Evolution of the Internet: From IMP #6 to Ethernet**
Bob Metcalfe, a tech pioneer who recently received the Turing Prize, provides valuable insights into the history and future of the Internet. He emphasizes the importance of connectivity and describes how it has shaped the tech world. Metcalfe draws parallels between the Chinese axiom “if you want to be rich, build a road” and the development of technologies like AI. He also references his ancestor, Jack Metcalfe, who contributed to infrastructure development during the industrial revolution. Today, we find ourselves at a crossroads, and connectivity is poised to become a top priority.
Metcalfe believes that connectivity encompasses various aspects such as moving mass, energy, and signals. He highlights the significance of this sudden interconnectedness in our lives. His involvement in the birth of the Internet in 1969, working for J.C.R. Licklider, allowed him to witness the rapid evolution of the Internet as he witnessed the development of standards and technologies like Telnet, FTP, and TCP/IP. Additionally, he recognizes Xerox’s contribution to the creation of the first PC in 1973, which fueled the pursuit of a better network.
During Metcalfe’s discussion on the emerging Ethernet, which serves as the ancestor of contemporary wireless systems, he introduces three pivotal technological advancements: the vampire tap, Manchester encoding, and the Aloha network. These innovations enabled seamless changes to the bus technology, self-clocking data storage, and consistent message transmission, respectively.
Metcalfe highlights the remarkable speed of the nascent Internet on coaxial cable, reaching approximately 2.94 Mbps—an order of magnitude faster than its predecessor. This need for speed aligns with the advancements driven by Moore’s Law. For instance, he compares a 1400 baud modem from the ’90s to today’s internet speeds, emphasizing the exponential improvement.
**Connectivity During the Pandemic Era**
Shifting to the pandemic era, Metcalfe reflects on the limitations imposed by the global health crisis. He notes how people quickly abandoned their reluctance to use video for teaching purposes, as professors at the University of Texas swiftly transitioned to video teaching. Metcalfe coined the acronym COVID to refer humorously to “collaborative video.”
**Connectivity: Transistors vs. Neurons**
Metcalfe frequently contrasts transistors and neurons, exploring the differences between the two and their implications for connectivity. While transistors may outperform neurons in certain ways, neurons possess inherent deep connections, unlike transistors. Metcalfe asserts that although transistors dominate neurons, it is the connectivity of our brains that surpasses the capabilities of computers. This further emphasizes the significance of connectivity.
**Emerging Technologies and Connectivity**
Metcalfe also identifies two technologies with interesting applications: interstellar radio and GPT networks. Interstellar radio employs Manchester encoding for sending plutonium-powered space signals, while GPT networks rely on orders of magnitude to approach the capabilities of the human brain. Both examples highlight the crucial role that connectivity plays, whether through biological synapses or digital switches.
**Connectivity as an Organizing Principle**
Metcalfe predicts that enhancing neural networks will require an emphasis on connectivity rather than solely focusing on functions. He asserts that the most significant fact about the human race is our newfound connectedness. Consequently, he advocates for connectivity to be an integral part of system design, serving as a guiding and organizing principle.
**The Significance of Connectivity in the Technological Progress**
Metcalfe’s insights provide valuable perspectives on the future. As technology progresses exponentially, the demand for connectivity will only increase. Metcalfe’s emphasis on connectivity encourages us to consider its role in the coming decades and beyond. By recognizing the importance of connectivity, we can harness its power to shape and design future systems aligned with the needs of the interconnected world we live in.