Photo of Robert E. Kahn

Robert E. Kahn

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Communications
For creating and sustaining development of Internet Protocols and continuing to provide leadership in the emerging industry of internetworking.

To say that most of us take the internet for granted these days is probably an understatement. But it was not that long ago, a little over 30 years ago, to be specific, that there was no such thing as a global information superhighway…and there certainly wasn’t a twitter, a facebook, or a google. Selfies were nowhere to be found.

Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn changed all that. In the 1970s, Kahn, who was working for the Department of Defense, became interested in coming up with a way to allow different computer networks to talk to each other. Eventually, he reached out to Cerf, who was a professor at Stanford.

Together, the two men developed the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP)–basically a set communications protocols that allow data to flow from computer to computer. Those protocols are still the foundation that underlies the internet as we know it today.

The genius of their architecture was that it placed minimal demands on participating networks and ensured that no one machine would have more control over the network than any other. Perhaps most importantly, their protocol was designed to scale up easily and gracefully–a key feature that would enable the internet’s rapid expansion in the 1990s.

Since their groundbreaking invention, both men have gone on to other impressive roles. Cerf is Google’s vice president & chief Internet evangelist. Kahn serves as Chairman, CEO and President of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI).

Though the expansion of the internet has had some dark sides–spying and data collection, bullying, and other abuses–both men see far more to celebrate than to wring their hands over. “I’m an optimist, ” says Cerf, who has used hearing aids to cope with hearing loss for most of his life. He was very excited by the prospect of written electronic mail as an alternative to oral telephonic communication. “Let me return to the idea of information sharing. That’s what the Internet was designed for; it’s what it does best. People’s lives improve and humankind makes progress when we share our best ideas and others can act on them. This overwhelms all the bad stuff.”