What happened in that big moment?
All we wanted to do was log in to the second host computer at SRI, 400 miles to the north, to see if one machine could talk to another. You have to type "L-O-G" and then the remote machine types "I-N." We typed the L and [called SRI and] said, did you get the L? Yep, got the L. Get the O? Yep, got the O. Typed the G and craaaaash. But the message couldn't have been shorter or more prophetic: LO, lo and behold. You can't beat that.
You call it a message and not an e-mail.
E-mail was introduced in 1971. That's when I realized this was about people communicating, because it suddenly dominated the traffic exchange. An e-mail has a protocol behind it that allows you to compose, send, acknowledge and have it recorded. We were just sending data from one machine to another with a meaning. The meaning was to log in.
Did you have any inkling about how broad and indispensable the Internet would become -- not as just an academic tool but a social tool?
You ask the key question. I did foresee that the Internet would be always on, always available, it would allow anybody to connect anyplace, anytime, and it would be invisible. But I did not foresee that my 99-year-old mother would be on the Internet. So the social side I totally missed. I thought this was about computer-to-computer communication or people-to-computer communication, not a mechanism for communities to form and grow and interact.
You weren't alone. You approached AT&T with packet switching and they weren't interested.
Worse than that. They said it wouldn't work. Then they said even if it does work, we want nothing to do with it. At that time, all their revenue was coming from voice communications. They made a long-term mistake big-time, but short term you could understand it.
What has the Internet begotten?
The Internet has constantly surprised us with applications that no one anticipated, so you can say the early Internet was the progenitor of these magnificent applications such as the Web, which is an application, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, peer-to-peer networking, file sharing and some cellphone technology as well.
And spam. Tell me you get spam like everybody else.
You bet I do. I have to train my Mac operating system what's junk and what's not, and it gets to be tiresome after awhile. Spam first appeared in 1994, the first [commercial] spam. [A law firm] sent out an e-mail to the world saying that there was a "green card" lottery, come to us and we'll help you get into the lottery. We looked at it and said, "What the hell is that? They can't advertise on our Internet!" So we sent messages back saying, "You can't do that. Bad. Stop. Horrible." We sent so much e-mail back to them that we took down their server, so by accident we created the first denial of service.
Are you on Facebook? Do you Twitter?
Nope. I don't want to know that you're picking up a cup of coffee right now, and you don't want to know that I'm holding a pen in my hand.
Thousands of people have made billions of dollars from the Internet. Have you been able to profit a bit too?
I've certainly not been in the billionaire class. I've made some nice money in some companies [I helped start] and investing in other companies. Back then, the early pioneers were not at all motivated by money. Our gratification was to share ideas with each other, do good technology and have others use it. There were five phases: The first were the pioneers, then you get the implementers, you get the value-adders, you get the deployers, and finally you get to the billionaires, and the billionaires were the latter phase when the people who developed the applications were able to take advantage of it.
Seven-year-olds can do things on computers that I can't. Do you ever find yourself in that position?
Not "ever" -- often! I formed [a company] with one of my graduate students -- this young man got his first computer at age 6. The machine was part of his DNA. He could just wave his hands over the keyboard and make things come to life. That's not in my DNA. I was building crystal radio sets [at that age]. The 6-year-olds are teaching the 8-year-olds these days.
What's the physical future of computers?
We're going to be living in a world where cyberspace has been released from the screen in front of you, into our physical environment by means of embedded technology, in our walls, in our cars, in our fingernails, in our eyeglasses. Internet enablement will be everywhere you go. The devices you carry around will be far more sophisticated than the smart phones now, because they'll be interacting with the environment, they'll be taking note of the physical location, suck[ing] things out of the network.
What are your privacy concerns?
I'm very relaxed about privacy because there is none left. John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist with the Grateful Dead, was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His life is public. He says that's the only way to have privacy -- expose it all and you have nothing to hide.
What about the Internet's downside?
Kids have retreated out of the physical world into the cyber world. It gives them a larger reach, [but] they're not getting out in the sun, playing with other kids and looking in their eyes and watching their body language as much as they used to, which I think is a shame and can create a kind of indifference in the way in which you deal with your peers. Excesses include things like notifying your significant other [by computer] that you're no longer significant to them.
What might you have done different all those years ago?
What we should have done is basically provide for strong user authentication and strong file authentication, so that I know that if you sent me a document, what I receive hasn't been altered along the way. Had we introduced that, the first thing we should have done with it is turn it off. We needed open access to allow [the Internet] to grow. We trusted everybody on the Internet. I knew them all. So we didn't feel a need to install those protections. Now when we need it, we could have turned it on to protect against some of the dark-side issues.
Do you feel like Pandora sometimes?
Absolutely. There's so much that we've released -- there's no pulling it back. Even if we have the ability to turn off the Internet, there's no way we can. Users today expect to be able to see a video, chat with their friends, do shopping, exchange information -- you can't ever pull that back. Nobody controls this thing.
How significant a risk is sabotage?
People trying to protect us against that are always one step behind. They have to see the attack before they can do much with it. Identity theft, fraud -- it's been outrageous. But the thing that really scares me are these botnets, machines taking over. It becomes a zombie -- hidden software that can be enabled anytime the owner chooses to. They've infected so many thousands of machines. There's been a lot of work on it, but everyone's ended up in a blind alley. It is really hard. If you consider what the dark side of the Internet is, it's some unpleasant person sitting in their basement in front of a computer with a high-speed line, who can reach out to millions of people quickly, easily, anonymously. That was the formula we used in the early days of the Internet -- open, accessible, easy, free -- that enabled the Internet to get started. Now it's causing this other problem.
Its strengths are its vulnerabilities.
Do you have any Internet guilty pleasures?
I will play a game of Sudoku on my cellphone when I'm waiting to fall asleep. I've never been addicted to solitaire or EBay. That's part of the reason I won't do Twitter or Facebook: I don't want to have another source of demands on my time that I feel guilty if I don't react to.
Does your wife ever tell you to shut that thing off and come to bed?
All the time. She's a Luddite. She finally agreed to have an e-mail account about six months ago, but she never reads it. I'm her filter for e-mail. People send me e-mails to deliver to her.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped and transcribed conversation. An archive of the conversations is online at latimes.com/pattasks.