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.