ChatGPT warned me towards asking legendary engineer Bob Metcalfe about his 1996 prediction that the web would collapse. This got here after I sought the chatbot’s steerage on what inquiries to ask the person who this week acquired the ACM Turing Award, the $1 million prize dubbed the Nobel of computing. The AI oracle advised I stick with quizzing him on his well-known accomplishments—inventing Ethernet, beginning the 3Com Company, codifying the worth of networks, and educating college students in Texas about innovation, which he did till he retired final yr “to pursue a sixth profession.”
However ChatGPT thought it was a horrible concept to carry up Metcalfe’s daring prognostication, simply because the community he’d helped pioneer was taking off, that the quantity of bits zipping across the web would trigger the mom of all crashes. OpenAI’s black field informed me that since Metcalfe’s guess had flopped in a really public method, I’d be risking the honoree’s pique if I raised it, and from then on he’d be too aggravated to share his greatest ideas. The interview could be a catastrophe.
Oh-kay, I believed. After which I clicked on the Zoom hyperlink.
The prizewinner who greeted me regarded terrific at 76, hardly modified from the man I final noticed possibly 30 years in the past when he was working tech conferences and internet hosting nice events at his mansion in Boston’s Again Bay. (He spoke to me from his house in Austin, the place he had moved for his educating gig.)
For somebody recognized for his bluster, he appeared genuinely humbled to hitch the Turing membership, although you may say it took them lengthy sufficient. It was nearly 50 years in the past to the day that Metcalfe wrote a memo to his bosses at Xerox Palo Alto Analysis Heart proposing a method to join the lab’s modern private computer systems to its groundbreaking laser printer, and to 1 one other. Impressed by an obscure Hawaiian system referred to as AlohaNet, he discovered a method to dynamically deal with high-speed knowledge in a community with out having the bits conflict or forcing reconfiguration every time a brand new person confirmed up. He dubbed it Ethernet. (He developed it with a co-inventor, David Boggs.)
Metcalfe’s concept not solely solved the issue at PARC, however wound up scaling into a significant expertise for everybody. Over 5 billion individuals use the web. Did he have that in thoughts when he concocted these first networks? “No, though it would be handy for me to say so,” he says. “PARC was a really a lot ‘construct your individual instruments’ form of place. However looking back, what we had been doing was serving to the web transition from the networking of dumb terminals to the networking of non-public computer systems.”
In 1979, Metcalfe based 3Com to assist commercialize Ethernet, after he’d persuaded Xerox to make the networking expertise an open normal. All through the Eighties he relentlessly promoted the usual; by then he’d made a superb commentary that defined the expansion of not simply the web, but additionally the various companies constructed on high of it: that the worth of a community is proportional to the sq. of the variety of customers. In different phrases, every time a brand new person joins a community it grows extra highly effective.
In 1985, the economist George Gilder named the concept Metcalfe’s regulation. It’s in all probability essentially the most celebrated equation of its type since Gordon Moore’s commentary about laptop chips. Metcalfe says his motivation was not science however commerce. “It was a gross sales software,” he says. “Folks had been constructing small networks and never discovering them helpful. So I ginned up a slide on an Alto that confirmed that the price of a community goes up linearly with the variety of nodes, however the variety of potential connections goes up because the sq.. Our salesforce took this 35-millimeter slide and informed individuals the rationale they weren’t helpful is that they weren’t sufficiently big. The treatment, in fact, was shopping for extra of our networks.”