Vint Cerf, often referred to as one of the “Fathers of the Internet,” delves into the intriguing possibilities and challenges that lie ahead in the digital world. As someone who has influenced the trajectory of technology for more than four decades, Cerf’s perspective provides a glimpse into the evolving technological landscape and what the future may hold. His candid discussion with 1-800Flowers chairman Jim McCann sheds light on the necessity of embracing change, fostering collaboration, and exploring the potential of virtual space to mirror or even surpass the physical world.

Jim McCann: Vint, you’ve influenced our lives in so many ways. Now, please help us understand where the world is going. In terms of the metaverse, who will have a metaverse? Will there be several? Will there be standards? 

Vint Cerf: If you want to become a consumer of someone else’s metaverse platform, one of the most important messages you can deliver is, “We’re not interested in your walled garden. We’re interested in being able to use more than one metaverse. We want standards to allow interoperation.” Just like what happened with electronic mail.

In 1983, I helped to develop MCI Mail as an electronic mail service. Electronic mail was invented way back in 1971 on the ARPANET, but I was thinking about how email was only available to people who were on the internet. But the whole thing was government-operated and government-owned.

And they said, “We don’t want any of that commercial traffic to go on the government-sponsored backbones.” And so around 1988, I asked for permission from the Federal Networking Council to connect the MCI Mail commercial mail system to the internet, and they said, “Yes, for a year.”

So, we made the MCI connection, and then all the other email providers, like CompuServe, On Time, Telemail, and so on, said, “We want to be on too!” And the networking council said, “Okay.”

They discovered that because they were all connected to the internet, all their customers could talk to everybody else’s customers. Suddenly, the walled gardens were penetrated. That caused a revolution in interoperability because they adopted common standards.

And so that’s where we want to go with the metaverse; we want multiple systems to interwork with each other. So, you have the flexibility to explore anybody’s metaverse for the purpose of introducing products and services and serving your customers.

And Vint, who would be the governing body there?

That could turn out to be an industry consortium. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a government-sponsored thing. There are international organizations, like the International Standards Organization or the International Telecommunications Union. Those are true international organizations. But some are implicit, like the Internet Engineering Task Force, which the Internet Society runs.

A green cloud, is there such a thing? 

There is absolutely! Google has worked hard to ensure that the energy we use to run the data centers comes from green sources. And we have two or three ways of doing that.

We buy 30-year contracts for wind power or 30-year contracts for solar power. We build solar panels on our data centers and other buildings to try to offset some of the energy use. We, if necessary, buy carbon contracts to offset whatever power generation is not green. We’re shooting for 2030 to be running 100% on green power.

What is Google working on that we might need to learn about? Autonomous vehicles?

Yes, so Waymo is our self-driving car under Alphabet. And I’ve taken a ride in a self-driving car; it ran exceptionally well.

I will tell you that some people will claim that making self-driving cars is easy. But we have spent more than a decade working on it. It would be easy if the only vehicles on the road were self-driving cars with algorithms. The problem is that there are humans that don’t behave rationally. So, figuring out how to deal with that is the hard part.

What percentage of the population of the Earth has access to the internet?

Sixty percent right now. So we still have a ways to go, which is why you still need evangelists.

We have to go out there, as I have been, to try and persuade governments to adopt policies that will encourage investment in the infrastructure needed to build the internet and all the training required to operate or use it. There’s still much work to be done to make this reliably helpful for people, especially in the rural parts of the world, where infrastructure is hard to come by.

In terms of things we’re thinking about, how do we stay? Where should we put our intellectual and physical capital to serve people? 

Two things immediately occurred to me. One of them is an earlier comment about the information that you have about your customers, from the companies that supply the products to the end users who order through 1-800 Flowers.

The more information you have about the way they work that you can analyze, the better off you’ll be to optimize the business. And now, as we start moving into this virtual environment, the idea of having virtual products that match in some way the physical ones feels like there’s a there, there. To give you a very concrete example, think of printed books and electronic books. People buy both, not just one or the other. So when you start thinking about the possibility of virtual products, in some way matching the physical ones, it is intriguing. The fact that virtual products are derived from software means that you can do things that you couldn’t do with the actual product, like evolve them in some way. Think about the possibility of a virtual bouquet that has a property that it changes over time depending on the seasons or the celebratory calendar, etc. Why not invent things like that and take advantage of the software base that gives them flexibility and mutability?

Vint, you’ve inspired us for about 40 years, and I look forward to the next 40. Thank you for spending time with us.