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Internet architect Vint Cerf to young people: science and tech careers can be rewarding

Vint Cerf is one of the most decorated people in the technology field, and with good reason: He co-designed the TCP/IP protocols and was one of the Internet’s original architects. (Also see: Living Legend: Vint Cerf on the Internet and out-of-this-world communications)

Honors for Cerf have included everything from a Presidential Medal of Freedom to a Marconi Prize to induction in the Computer History Museum’s Hall of Fellows. Frequently, he has been honored alongside fellow Internet pioneer Robert Kahn.

Here are Cerf’s thoughts, shared via an email exchange, on such industry recognitions and related topics:

What do you think is the significance of awards that recognize technical achievements in computing and telecom?

These awards are important but they do not get enough visibility in the general population. The Nobel Prizes are so well known and the "laureate" label sticks - giving the recipient a kind of career label that no other prize does. If you are a mathematician, you can't get the Nobel Prize (same for computer scientists). You CAN get the Fields Medal, which is a very big deal among mathematicians, but the rest of the world has difficulty grasping the significance.

My sense is that these awards do not carry the same degree of recognition in the general public. Think of the Kennedy Honors - a three-hour television show at the Kennedy Center; large audience; presidential attendance. The Nobel prizes are days long in celebration. The Japan Prize lasts three or four days and is attended by the Emperor and Empress. The Prince of Asturias Award is at least 2-3 days of activities, lectures, ceremony and the Queen and Prince of Spain attend. The U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom is an afternoon ceremony and a reception but not a black tie, "State Dinner" kind of affair. The National Medals of Technology/Innovation and Science have similar treatment except that a private sector group, the National Medals of Science and Technology Foundation, funds a black tie dinner for the recipients.

Generally, I think it would be useful to find some way to draw public attention to the significance of these awards and the work that qualified the recipients to receive them. In many cases, the work is pretty abstract or technically sophisticated and might need some interpretation to help the general public realize how important it is. I wish we had some way to make these figures as important to Americans as entertainment and sports stars seem to be. Of course, the entertainment and sports stars are constantly in the public eye and keep providing entertainment to the general public over the course of long careers. The winners of science and technology prizes and recognitions continue to produce but their work isn't usually very visible to the general public except when these singular awards are made and even then, they are quickly forgotten. (See: Gold medals, knighthood and $1M cash prizes: Being a tech pioneer is a real honor)

Would you like to see a Nobel Prize in Computing?

As to a Nobel Prize in Computing - it is considered a branch of mathematics and Alfred Nobel resisted making awards in that field. Would I like one in that domain? Well, given the visibility of the Nobel prizes, sure! The Nobel prize for Peace is funded by the Norwegians and I think the Nobel for Economics is funded apart from the Nobel Foundation - both are managed by the Nobel Prize committee apparatus however. It is possible that funding for a $1M prize in computing could be underwritten by one or more companies and the selection process turned over to the Nobel committee. That's what has happened with the A. M. Turing awards and also the awards made by the National Academy of Engineering. (See: Why there’s no Nobel Prize in Computing)

Personally, what do the awards mean to you?

For me, the significance of the awards is the recognition from peers. The pecuniary aspects vary and some are notable ($250-500K or more). Ironically, there is no prize money for the U.S. National Medals, nor the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

You’ve been honored so many times. Does it ever get old?

Well, I admit that honorary degrees have gotten a bit tiring - I have 20 and there are people, like Bill Cosby, with scores more. On the other hand, I was just in LA to be named Alumnus of the Year at UCLA and in Berlin/Potsdam to accept the Hasso Plattner Institute Fellowship, so plainly I have not eschewed all ego-stroking!!

What do you do with all your hardware? Are you running out of space?

Medals and certificates become a problem when you accumulate a lot of them and we are out of room to hang any more plaques, etc. Medals are on display around the house, along with other artifacts such as the Joan Miro sculpture that comes with the Prince of Asturias Award. As to the award money some people return it to the institutions; some use it for charitable donations; some just keep it. I've done all three at one time or another.

Any other thoughts?

The one area that I wish could be bolstered is the opportunity to use these prizes to persuade young people that careers in science and technology are really rewarding and worth pursuing; not for prizes but for the satisfaction of solving hard problems and making contributions to society.

Bob is the father of Internet users. Follow him on Twitter

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