Turing Lecture 2015 – “The Internet Paradox”

Major figures from the world of technology give lectures at UK universities around this time of year. For this we thank the annual Turing lecture series from the Institute of Engineering (IET) and the Chartered Institute of IT (BCS). This year’s was delivered by Dr. Robert Pepper, Cisco Vice President for Global Technology Policy.

In the previous two years I’ve scribbled less learned thoughts here after hearing the talks.

In 2013 we had Suranga Chandratillake, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of blinkx plc, who spoke about the video search engine he started in 2004, took public in 2007 and led as CEO until 2012; and about his time as CTO at Autonomy.

In 2014 Dr. Bernard Meyerson, Vice President for Innovation at IBM, gave a dizzying talk entitled “Beyond silicon: cognition and much, much more,” parts of which were indeed way beyond my cognition.

This year the BCS/IET Turing Lecture gave us Dr Robert Pepper, Vice President of Global Technology Policy at Cisco. The title of his talk was “The Internet Paradox: How bottom-up beat(s) command and control.”

The opening several minutes went over trends and transitions: how the original ‘big iron’ mainframe has morphed into the nano computers we have today, how the centralised has been decentralised. “Pepper” as he is commonly referred to by his peers and colleagues, talked of connectivity, devices connected in 1984 (about 1000) to devices connected in 2020 – 20 to 50 billion.

Dr Pepper spoke of smart fabrics, smart cars, data, apps like Uber, analytics, smart nutrition apps.

If you spend any time reading and writing tech stories, generally keeping up with tech news, this part didn’t offer so much. Not for a Turing Lecture anyway. I was expecting a bit more, and began to wonder if this guy was a technologist in the same vein as his 2013 and 2014 Turing Lecture predecessors.

I wanted new stuff I had to think hard about and probably fail to fully understand. I found myself getting more distracted by the MacBook Air screen of the man in front of me, a man I recognised as being local star Computer Scientist and hypertweeter Dr Tom Crick. (Now that right ther is a Twitter following, Dr Pepper).

Concentrate on the man talking, I told myself. The next major transition will be the internet of everything, Dr Pepper slightly disappointingly informed us.  Oh yes, that.

It will be how people, processes, data and things effectively integrate. Currently only 5 per cent of data is analysed, apparently. How do you even figure out that statistic? Next came the main course, Dr. Pepper’s own thing and the title of his talk: the governance of the internet.

Here he discussed perceptions of governance and presented an ecosystem diagram of people or bodies who tackle separate issues. Sitting right at the back I couldn’t see it in much detail, but a lazy knee-jerk view was that it was a slightly slippery image, a way of saying the internet is governed by everyone, all these apparently responsible designated people. But in the term ‘permissionless innovation’ there was also a subtle implication that it was sort of governed by nobody.  Possibly my misunderstanding, it left me confused.



Dr Pepper said we need a continuation of transparent, multi-stakeholder process (as shown in his diagram) to foster the open, unregulated and multi-stakeholder internet. Decentralising the internet of everything is a bad thing, inviting silos of forced localisation, national standards (as opposed to global standards), command and control, potentially trade barriers to promote native domestic industries in data, hardware, IP and software. All bad things.

But here comes the problem and paradox. Some nations (usually non democratic) claim that decentralisation and localisation is the route to solving big internet issues. Issues like safety, security and privacy – protecting kids and catching bad guys. Some claim this can be governed best by command and control, and localised multi-lateral governance.

Dr Pepper strongly disagrees with this line, and framed it as a riskier path less travelled. Although I struggled with this, as surely it’s the status quo, the track we’re on at the moment?  I also found it difficult to comprehend a world of strict command and control as we in the modern western world know it today. How would or could that even happen?

It’s worth a look back at the title of the talk “The Internet Paradox: How bottom-up beat(s) command and control.”  Those brackets around the ‘s’ are arguably significant. An American turn of phrase or did ‘Pepper’ originally intend past tense, suggesting that bottom-up has in fact already beaten command and control?

What the Cisco VP said was that right now we’re at an important crossroads, and it’s important to get the governance balance right.

Read the Composed blog post about the 2014 Turing Lecture.
Read the Composed blog post about the 2013 Turing Lecture.

More Turing lecture goodness can be found via the Twitter hashtag.