Vint Cerf and the Beauty of Engineering
I first met Vint Cerf (one of the fathers of the Internet) at an i4j (innovations for jobs) event at Menlo Park in 2015. After a few exchanges of ideas, he said, “Young man, you sit next to me on my table”. Since, then Vint has become a mentor for me and an advisor to the SAP Academy for Engineering. I consider it a huge honor to know Vint closely and work with him on various projects. Contributing to the Coolabilties.ai project and The People Centered Economy was a high point. I also had the honor of hosting him at the Responsible Ai/Di Summit in New York and at the “Code to Success” Event at SAP Academy for Engineering in San Ramon. As an advisor, Vint spends an hour every quarter, answering our questions and guiding us in building some of the best engineers for the future.
Here are some of the key takeaways from a recent conversation:
1. The next frontier is to build an internet in space (to define a fundamental protocol for communication between planets)
2. We should not blindly trust AI tools like ChatGPT. Large language models like ChatGPT are akin to Salad Shooters. For simplicity (not how embedding is actually done), consider each word or phrase as a slice of a vegetable that gets out of the salad shooter. When you have many veggies, there are many slices (also called vectors). What language models do is they mix up these slices based on probability (learnt from all the text on the internet), which determines what the next slice (vector) could be to complete a sentence.
So ChatGPT can write the first draft of codes (and content) quickly, but for accuracy, software engineers are still needed to refine and put constraints on this AI.
3. Maintenance of systems is as important as (if not more important than) building systems. Never underestimate the role of engineers who are maintaining existing solutions. The ability to think in systems is one of the most important skills of an engineer.
4. Surround yourself with people who are better than you. And always ask for help when needed. As a leader, encourage your team members to speak up when they don’t agree with your thinking. Let your team know that just because you are their manager, you don’t have all the answers and neither have you figured out everything.
5. The most important skill for the future generation is to think independently and it can only be learnt by doing, not by rote memory.
Vint Cerf is one of those rare individuals who is always dressed in a three-piece suit with a handkerchief neatly tucked in his front pocket. It is hard to pick which is better — his sense of dressing or his sense of humor! Vint Cerf along with Bob Kahn wrote the internet’s fundamental architecture in longhand on a yellow pad of paper over a couple of days in a conference room (if you ever walk into Hotel Crowne Plaza in Palo Alto, you will see the above plaque). His numerous awards include the prestigious Turing award (2004) also called the Nobel Prize of Computer Science (he received it on the same day as his birthday!), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005) from President George W Bush. This year he will receive the IEEE medal of honor. Incidentally, science fiction fans might see a close resemblance between the “Architect” in the Matrix movie and Vint Cerf!
But above all, the reasons that make Vint special are his humility, his ability to see the world through the lens of beauty and to always see perfection in all beings — that’s what makes him one of the greatest engineers of our time!