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An early tale of the Internet

John Markoff , Jan 7, 2013, NYT 20:56 IST
Recently I interviewed Peter E Hart, an electrical engineer who was an early artificial intelligence researcher, about one of the first robots, a machine named Shakey that was designed at SRI International beginning in 1966.

SRI was one of the laboratories from which many personal computing and networking technologies were first developed.

The forerunner to today’s Internet, the ARPAnet, began with a first link between SRI and UCLA in 1969, and for years afterward only an elite group of engineers, scientists and students had any idea of what computer networking was.

After I left his office, Peter remembered an additional story about the early ARPAnet. With his permission, here is an e-mail he sent to me:

SRI International, where I was the director of the AI Center, was periodically visited by the US government auditors. One day I got a call from an internal contracts administrator telling me to expect such a visit– in other words, I was supposed to be on my best behaviour.

The government auditor soon appeared in my office, armed with a no-nonsense demeanour and a bulging briefcase. He pulled up a chair, pulled a file from his briefcase, and without preamble said in an authoritarian tone of voice, “Dr Hart, it says here that you’ve received 2,493,786,916 packets of bits. Is that correct?”

I certainly hadn’t expected that question, but I was on my best behaviour, so I politely replied, “Well, I’m not sure of the exact number, but that sounds about right.” He made a check mark on his file. He then asked, “Were adequate procedures set up to inspect the condition of these incoming packets?”

I was starting to get an inkling of where this was going. I thought there must be some error-detecting codes somewhere in the communication path, so I simply answered “Yes”. A second check mark. Next he asked, “And did all the packets arrive in good condition? Was there any corrosion or tarnish on any of the packets?”

At this point I was struggling to keep a straight face, but I truthfully answered, “No sir, there was no tarnish or corrosion on any of the packets we received.” One more check mark.

Another question: “And did you have adequate facilities available to store all of these packets?” I thought, hey, didn’t you see all those disk drives in the machine room across from my office? So I answered, “Yes.” He made a final check mark, stuffed the file back into his briefcase, thanked me and left. You can’t make this stuff up.

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