Srinivasan Ramani: One driving thought all my life has been that of computer communication for use in developing countries. You know, I did a PhD in India and came to the United States in 1971. I spent two years there, at Carnegie Mellon University and returned. And during those two years, they were exciting years of the ARPANET. I personally was working in the area of artificial intelligence and its use in education. There was always a concern for things which were of value in national development, the kind of thing that leads to socioeconomic development in a nation. And education was one of them.
And then I realized, when I first ran into the ARPANET, here was a new technology which was going to be very important to developing countries as a whole. Including of course India, which was at a much earlier stage of development at that time. And I was excited by that thought. And that drew me to spend the next fifteen years of my life working on computer network technologies, including the Internet technologies. And it is what happened in those fifteen years that were particularly significant in what’s happening here now.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant?
Ramani: The breakthrough moments were the moments when you succeeded in establishing communication. To a person in our field it’s a bit like the moment when Marconi tries to establish communication over the Atlantic. And you’re personally reenacting it in your own life, doing it in a different context using a technology. And because we had the benefit of others who had done something similar before. But all the same then, you connect across the continent suddenly, from where you are, and boom here is a connection. And that is a moment of great excitement.
And that moment came to me in 1988 when we connected the computers in our lab with the computers in Amsterdam at what is called CWI, Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica. CWI was the Internet gateway which allowed us to connect up, and so we connected up using a very primitive technology. And we succeed. If I remember right, that moment was using good old telephone dialup. And— Oh no, it was not telephone dialup. It was an X.25 connection. Which was dialup X.25. We dialed into a network in Bombay, which connected us to the X.25 network of the world, which was the approved network that the government telecom agencies were allowed to use in those days. They considered the Internet protocols of today as not being international protocols at that time. There had been exciting moments of what you might call protocol warfare, and every country tried to push its own set of protocols. And we were allowed X.25 so we came in on X.25 to Amsterdam, and then ran an Internet protocol, TCP, on top of that. It’s a peculiar combination of TCP over X.25, which was technically known as a possibility but rarely anyone bothered to use it. But we used it, and we made a connection.
But that just the beginning, and after that we were running…whether it was perfectly legal or not I don’t know, but we were running TCP/IP over a dialup line to the United States and then we were formally allowed to have a leased line and run TCP/IP on it. These were all exciting moments. The moments when we established connection to the world. And the moment of connection to the US was when we connected up to Falls Church in Virginia, where there was this pioneering institution called UUNET. If I remember right, it was a company. And we connected up with UUNET, and for a couple of years we depended on their network connection—maybe more than a couple of years. And these were exciting days.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Ramani: That’s an interesting question but let me turn it around. If you look out there, would you say it is cloudy and a bit cold, for a person coming from one country? Or would you say it’s a great day for a walk? I don’t know. To a large extent I think it depends not on the weather, but it depends upon you, what you feel inside. And therefore looking at the Internet, there are great, bright things to be seen. There are worries and concerns you could have. Both are possible. I’m personally the type who gets excited by looking at positive things in life. Looking at the silver lining rather than than at the cloud.
So I would say I have great hopes for the Internet. I think the Internet is the culmination of all that the universities of the whole world have been doing for 600 years or more. And the modern universities as we talk about them, dealing with the kind of modern knowledge as we talk about knowledge… Not theological knowledge but knowledge of… I don’t know. I don’t want to characterize it too much at the moment. But talking about knowledge that leads to science and technology. And I think the Internet is a great step forward in that spirit of sharing of knowledge, and creating, opening communication channels all over. And sharing services, and sharing knowledge. These are the great things in human life that the Internet has made possible. So, I am all excited about this.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Ramani: I think… I’m a little concerned about the invasion of privacy. Anyone who accesses the Internet quickly can find out more about me than what my mother knows about me. Or my wife knows about me. Right? And my bank depends upon me to remember my mother’s maiden name. And if I can speak it out on the phone…oh, it’s authenticated. Obviously it’s Ramani and he knows his mother’s maiden name. And nobody else knows. This is nonsense, because you get to the Internet, you know everybody’s mother’s maiden name.
So loss of privacy I think is a concern. It doesn’t hurt as long as there are no pathological elements around. And if you’re fortunate and avoid the pathological elements you’re alright. But we should not rule out the possibility of people misusing the openness that has been encouraged in the world. Partly by the excitement of sharing information about each other and maintaining our college days continuously. To maintain that comradery and claim that community feeling.
But partly also commercially. There are people who promote your declaring everything about your— My birthday. What concern is it to anybody in the world what my birthday is? Maybe it is of importance to fifty people. And I tell them, and they know it. But why should I put it out on the Internet? But every web site tells me I have to give them my birthday. So I think privacy is a bit irritating; the lack of privacy. I think it’s a professional issue for many people to research and do something about.
Second is security. The world’s electronic commerce seems largely to depend upon a few simple technologies. For example let me mention there is the public key interchange, which is the mechanism which kicks in when you call your bank on the Internet. And it runs on a protocol which uses a cryptographic mechanism…there is no mathematical proof to say it is unbreakable. And, it’s been tried and tested, and they make it bigger and bigger and bigger. And they think it’s safer and safer and safer.
If some damn fool builds a quantum computer tomorrow, and breaks through the PKI, I don’t know what’ll happen to the world’s electronic commerce. The day your bank account and my bank account vanish, and what happens to people. Even if 1% of the money in the banks gets mishandled, there’ll be an economic collapse in civilization as we have never known. So I think it’s a critical issue. A computer professor worries about such things. It’s not everybody’s concern. It may not be very important. I do not know. But to a computer science professor it looks like a challenge. Why can’t we have provable protocols to insure the security of communication?
But that’s more of an academic interest as a professor, rather than other concerns. I think socially there is a third concern. A very peculiar new concern of mine. I’m really excited about the astronomers who go and look at far-away stars and identify planets like the Earth around— Thousands of them. None of them seems true. There is no sign there is any habitable climate there, and there is no sign there is anything like an intelligent being out there.
So, are we alone in the world, in the universe? Are we very unique? And what do we have? We are just not well-evolved animals. We also happen to be having an unbelievable community. We have social life. We have built up a society. We have a method of sharing knowledge. And we have created a hell of a lot of knowledge in the last 20,000 years. If all this disappears one day due to some astronomical stupid thing like a huge big asteroid coming out of—or a comet or somesuch ridiculous thing, what happens to all of this?
And suddenly I find there is something to worry about. And there is something very important to care about. It’s not my life, it’s not your life, it’s not anyone else’s life alone. It is the continuity of human life. It is the continuity of human society and continuity of human knowledge. And we have to recognize how rare it is. And we have to give it to the astronomers who have discovered it’s extremely rare. It’s an unbelievable thing. It is too complicated and too beautiful to arise out of accident. It is something remarkable.
And I hope the Internet will play a role in preserving human knowledge and making it very invulnerable to any form of catastrophe. On Earth…maybe we’ll mess up the Earth by what we do to the climate. Maybe some astronomical phenomenon will wipe us out—whatever. But I think the Internet is a hope that somebody someday out there…having access to this knowledge that has been created, and to the ways of life that we have created.
Intertitle: What action should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Ramani: I think we have to look back 600 years ago. You know. In particular I’m very excited about things that I’ve read about and seen picturizations of. Remarkable moments, when an English student traveled all the way to the University of Padua somewhere in the 1400s, the end of the 1400s, the beautiful period of the Renaissance. And they’re doing crazy things in Padua. Cutting up dead bodies and things like that, which was prohibited. And doing research. And this guy wanted to go and do that kind of research. Surely it was not possible where he lived. And he traveled all the way, went internationally to another university and studied there. And he is supposed to have discovered the nature of blood pressure. But in reality what he discovered was that the heart is a pump. And he explained how it works. Physiology, the physiology of the heart. And out of that came brilliant knowledge.
And this knowledge was not preserved very carefully by the university to get some paintings and a bit more money and a few million dollars more. It was shared. It was given to some stranger from far away. And he was educated, and this knowledge was shared with him. And I think that is what a university is all about. Where the biggest reward a professor gets is that if he discovers and discloses information about a new disease, it is named after him. It is Addison’s disease. It is not somebody else’s disease. He gets his name attached to the disease. This is the great credit he gets. So Addison tells the world about the disease.
And this is what the universities are about. And this is what we have been doing. And the Internet to some extent exemplifies that kind of spirit. When the US government put money into developing communication capability on the Unix operating system, there was a version of Unix that was given over to the world. BSD Unix. I think it is called Berkeley Systems Distribution or something like that. BSD Unix. And this willingness to share new technology, to share new knowledge. And not to say you know, I’ll lock up the protocol; I’ll make sure I’ll make sure I make money on it. And we spent government money, but the government money should go to everyone.
And not just every American, not every US citizen, but it’s available to anyone in the world. I think I remember paying $110 or $75 or somesuch princely sum of money to get a copy of BSD Unix on a big tape. And the day we got it I was so excited to put it on our machine and it ran. And this was great fun. I think we have to preserve these values of creating new knowledge and sharing new knowledge, internationally. And making sure it goes to benefit everyone. I think in the process we just don’t make somebody else rich, we make everyone else rich. Everyone rich. And I think this is very important.