Robert (Bob) Kahn can be considered one of the fathers of the internet, and was this week awarded the first Queen Elizabeth Prize (alongside four other internet pioneers) for his work.
An electrical engineer by training, he played a key role working for the US government in developing ARPANET, the world’s first computer network to use the packet switching method of sending data. Along with fellow QE Prize winner Vint Cerf, he then developed the protocols that allow multiple computer networks to communicate with each other, providing the basis for internet we use today.
The Engineer was lucky enough to catch up with Kahn shortly after the QE Prize announcement was made.
How does this award compare to the numerous others you’ve won for your work (which include the Turing Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom)?
You can’t really compare them in context. But this one is special because this is the first award that’s been given out specifically to promote engineering. And this one’s got the backing of the Royal Family behind it. If it was only given by the Royal Academy it probably would have less impact.
I think the more that engineering is promoted the better it will be for society because engineers in the Western world are not as well recognised as other groups in what are seen as lucrative fields, whether it’s finance or some other area.
How much of an impact do you think prizes like this have?
The problem is that people can’t go out and compete for this as a prize. It happens to come from judges who are looking at the effect of your work on society. I think the media can play a big role in publicising this, in making people understand why engineering is important and why these kind of issues make a difference.
But ultimately people really can’t become good engineers if they don’t have a good scientific background. Science and technology are really important, good educational systems are important and people need to be motivated to go into those fields in the first place.
What was your motivation for becoming an engineer?
As a kid I liked to build things and I liked math and science and I was good at them. So I though anything that would use that was interesting – it just appealed to me.
How did you come to work on developing the internet?
I thought chemical engineering might be interesting but I really didn’t like the chemistry lab: I didn’t like the smells; I didn’t like the constraints of it. So I switched to electrical engineering because that had more mathematics.
After I finished my doctoral degree, I went to a little company [Bolt, Beranek and Newman] that was in architectural acoustics and computer networking. I thought that was interesting but nobody else thought it was an interesting field so nobody paid too much attention.
When I say I designed ARPANET, the people at ARPA [the forerunner of US defence research organisation DARPA] were asking for it and so the fellow who ran that project undoubtedly thinks of himself as having been responsible. There were clearly people who were interested in this project and had worked on it for a long time.
Giving the Queen Elizabeth Prize to five people demonstrates the inherent teamwork that’s often involved in engineering.
Right and that’s very important. But the thing I would highlight is there are the engineering projects where it takes somebody in charge, like the master conductor controlling everything that happens, which you might get in a big project like designing a very large jet plane or a space rocket where everything’s got to be aligned. The internet was based on an idea I had, known as open architecture, where you would define how it worked by virtue of interfaces and protocols. So individuals could work on pieces of it separately and yet they could all federate when you’re all done, so it didn’t require centralised control.
How important do you think it is that people have a greater understanding and awareness of the engineering behind things like the internet?
If that helps more people to decide to go into science and technology and more people become engineers then probably highlighting it will be useful and the media can tell the story. It’s hard for an engineer to say “Look how important what we did is”, because most people don’t care.
If you get into a car and drive it, do you really know all the details that are involved in the design of a six-cylinder overhead-cam superturbocharged engine, or the details of fuel injection? You probably don’t care about that. What you care about is that it gets you from one place to another, that it’s safe, it’s easy to drive. You probably want to know about how you pay for whatever the energy source is: is it gas, is it electric?
It’s unfortunate that the people you’re trying to appeal to don’t have the technical background to understand what the technology is. So I think the more people that can be made interested in science and technology growing up the better, because they’ll be in a better position to understand the engineering aspects of it.
But again, to motivate people to go into that you really need good engineering educational capabilities. You really want to invest in better schools, better teachers, good curriculum, and I think the opportunity for people to get hands-on experience in doing things.
That’s a topic we’ve discussed on The Engineer recently, the idea that students need to understand that engineering is project-based and requires more than just mathematic skills.
Even if you took somebody who was trained in science and technology, it takes an amazing leap of innovation to understand something that doesn’t exist. I used to give talks in the 1970s about what I called internetworking, the need for different networks and computers to work together. Because nobody had that capability they didn’t really understand it. People used to come up to me and say “That was very interesting but tell me again why I would want an IP address” because they couldn’t relate it to anything.
Some ideas will be fundamental. The person who figured out how to make a light beam lase, that was fundamental. Somebody who figured out how to use it to point a screen, that was pretty trivial. But there other applications that have been pretty profound like using it to cut through materials or to beam energy from one place to another. So some things are fundamental and some are not, but ultimately you’re evaluated by the social impact.
- 1960 Batchelor of Electrical Engineering, City College of New York
- 1964 PhD in Electrical Engineering, Princeton
- 1964 Technical staff, AT&T Bell labs
- 1966 Assistant professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
- 1967 Joined Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) on leave from MIT
- 1972 Program manager/director, Information Processing Techniques Office, ARPA
- 1986 Chairman, CEO and president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI)