An IoT Primer from a Father of the Internet

Vinton Cerf offers some words of caution and optimism.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 27, 2015

I was running errands the other day and happened upon a radio broadcast of an interview with Vinton Cerf on my local public radio station. Cerf, who currently serves as Google's chief Internet evangelist, appeared on the City Arts & Lectures program to talk about the Internet of Things.

Cerf is regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet. While working at the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), Cerf co-developed the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) And in the 1980s, while working at MCI, he developed the first commercial applications of e-mail using the Internet. So it's unsurprising that Cerf, as someone who had a major role in helping to create new ways for people to communicate, has a lot to say about how the IoT is now creating ways for things to communicate.

"We used to joke that some day, toasters would be on the Internet," Cerf told the chuckling crowd. It was just a bit of a gag, he said, but at one trade show in the early '90s, some computer scientists did wire up a toaster and use a messaging system to remotely tell it how burnt they wanted the toast to be.

Now that the IoT has entered the smart-home lexicon and manufacturers have started adding Internet connectivity to everyday appliances, "smart" toasters have become the butt of many a smart-home joke. (And, I believe, rightly so—I've yet to find a valid reason for anyone to own a smart toaster.)

Cerf then went on to give the crowd a primer on IoT technology, explaining its roots in various industries and applications. It was an interesting interview and probably compelling even to people who do not, like me, spend a fair amount of time geeking out about sensor networks and radio protocols.

Below, I've summed up the highlights of the interview.

The origin story of the IoT in consumer appliances:
Smart toasters tend to be ridiculed, but the backstory of how manufacturers even went down that path is that it became cheaper, as the cost of computer components dropped, for manufactures to use microcontrollers in appliances instead of the complex mechanical components upon which they had long relied. But the benefits extend beyond price. "You can change software in an appliance more easily than changing an electromechanical controller," Cerf explained. "So first, you have computers in things. This sets the stage for the possibility for the appliances, already software-driven, to communicate with each other and the Internet."

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