Bob Taylor: Internet Visionary

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Conversations with Bob Taylor

From Punch Cards to Personal Computers, Internet Visionary Bob Taylor Takes Austin on His Journey of Innovation That Changed the World; Calls on Telecoms To Increase Bandwidth For Future Growth

$100,000 Presidential Endowed Fellowship Established in Taylor’s Name Through Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences

Bob Taylor a recipient of a bachelor’s and master’s degree from The University of Texas at Austin, epitomizes that what starts here really does change the world. As a master director of research and development and a visionary whose understanding of human nature and the potential of technology revolutionized the art of communication, Robert W. Taylor exemplifies the vast potential that dwells in every student at the university.

In a rare appearance, the Internet visionary, visited Austin to kick off the Graduate School’s Centennial celebration, took audiences, both live and virtual, on his personal journey of innovation and invention which began some 40 years ago at The University of Texas at Austin.

“The first time I went to use a computer was to process the data of my thesis,” said Taylor. “I went over to the UT computer lab. This guy in a white coat behind a glass wall explained all of the rigmarole of the punch card system. I was appalled. After I thought about it for a while, I was angry. Back in my lab I had a Monroe calculator, and I just went back to my lab and programmed up my data with my calculator. I was offended, but I didn’t know what to do.”

John Markoff, technology reporter for The New York Times, interviewed Taylor on many aspects of his career, his vision and foresight in nurturing world-changing ideas, and his predictions for the future of technology and communication.

Markoff asked about Taylor’s idea of an “intergalactic network,” a concept Taylor came up with as the basis for the ARPAnet.

“I asked myself ‘What is it that I really want to make happen?’ I didn’t want geography to be in the way of people who have mutual interests,” said Taylor. “So, we used the ARPAnet to make it possible for researchers in one place to communicate in various ways with researchers in other places.”

Markoff pointed to Taylor’s white paper, co-written with J.C.R. Licklider in 1968, titled “The Computer as a Communication Device,” and how so many of his ideas came to fruition except for one, the idea of an “intelligent agent,” or artificial intelligence. “To make computers behave like people is not likely to happen any time soon,” said Taylor. “The people who worked for me knew more about computer programming than me, but I knew more about the human nervous system then most of them, and they didn’t have sufficient regard for the complexity of the human nervous system. They thought they could build a program that would out perform a human. If it is well bound like checkers or chess, then yes, and eventually a computer did beat a chess master. But if you want the computer to play ping-pong with ping-pong champion or write a best selling novel, fat chance. Not anytime soon.”

During a question and answer session, Taylor expressed his desire that the Internet be free to everyone in the future.

“I want very much, and always have since I first imagined such a thing, to be free to everyone, everyone around the world,” said Taylor. “Many things we use are free, even things built by us— highways, except for toll roads. We pay for them in taxes. We should be able to pay for Internet access through taxes.”

Taylor went on to talk about a counter problem that arises from unfettered access to the Internet.

“One irresponsible individual can do a lot of damage,” said Taylor. “If there is an irresponsible driver on the highway system, you can take their drivers license away. If I could think of a way to give people licenses to use the Internet, I would be advocating that. But I can’t think of that solution, so there is this tug between wanting it to be free and some way to make people who use it, do so responsibly.”

An audience member posed the question of the role government should play in future development in technology and the Internet.

“The people who are worried about government taking over things like to say, ‘If you want the government to run things you should go to the DMV and see what they do,’ but the government had a huge impact in creating the Internet, and I say if you go to the DMV on the Internet you will find you won’t have to stand in line.”

“I hope that the government has a strong role in innovation, but there is a strong role for the private sector as well,” continued Taylor. “We just have to be careful about how we give them latitude. No one is interested in creating private armies, we are willing to have the government do that, and to have local government support the fire department, the police department, and parks. No one is arguing that private companies should take that over. Private industry is very important for our nation, but this dichotomy that private industry can always do better than government and vice versa is false, sad and divisive.”

Taylor also had a word of caution for the future of the Internet in America.

“We are coming up against bandwidth limitations,” said Taylor. “This nation falls behind all other nations in terms of how much bandwidth is available to individuals. The telecom industry has promised if we increase rates and allow merges that they will make investments to increase bandwidth. The have not kept their word.”

University of Texas at Austin President, William C. Powers, was on hand at a private reception following the event where he toasted Victoria Rodriguez, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Texas, and the 100th anniversary of the Graduate School. He also thanked Taylor for being the first in a series of speakers commemorating that milestone. Powers expressed his pride in Bob Taylor saying that he epitomizes the saying “What Starts Here Changes the World.” Powers went on to announce that a Presidential Endowed Fellowship has been established in Taylor’s name. The endowment was made possible by the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, who generously contributed $100,000. The funds will be used to support graduate students in any discipline who use computers and future technological advances in the pursuit of knowledge, information and creativity.

Taylor, thought by many to be greatest director of research and development the world has ever seen, initiated the ARPAnet project, the precursor to the Internet, before going on to fund many staples of modern computing including the mouse, the laser printer and the program that would eventually become Microsoft Word.

J Strother Moore, Professor with the Department of Computer Science at UT Austin, and Gary Chapman, Senior Lecturer with the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Associate Director of the UT Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute, served as masters of ceremony.

M. Mitchell Waldrop, author of The Dream Machine, a book about the history of computing, and Michael A. Hiltzik, author of Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, also shared their insight into how Taylor orchestrated the water-shed change that transformed computers from number-crunching calculators into communication devices that acted as conduits for human creativity.

The event was the first in a series celebrating the Centennial anniversary of the Graduate School, sponsored by the Dell Distinguished Lecture Series, with special thanks to the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

by Kerri D. Battles

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