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Bringing the Spirit of the Internet to New Connected Technologies

Coauthored by Leonard Kleinrock and Paula Reinman

UCLA recently announced the creation of the UCLA Connection Lab, funded by a $5M gift to the Samueli School of Engineering from the Sunday Group. This generous gift honors UCLA Professor and Marconi Fellow Leonard Kleinrock and his pioneering contributions to the Internet.

Kleinrock is heavily involved in the Connection Lab and its strategy. He is brimming with ideas and shared his vision, plans and philosophy in this interview.

What do you want to achieve with the UCLA Connection Lab?

I have a big goal – I want to replicate the paradigm shift of the Internet. When we created the Internet, it had 20 years to incubate and grow in an environment that was not driven by profits or speculation. It was carefully curated before it became subject to the profit motive because it was the domain of engineers and academics who knew they were creating a new underlying network. It had a very stable foundation before it became a commercial tool that reached billions of people and provided enormous benefits along with certain dark side detriments.

Today’s new technologies do not have that luxury. They appear quickly in a robust commercial environment. For example, blockchain had no time to be curated, having been born with a dollar sign in its mouth. Its development is being driven by speculators while at the same time offering the potential of innovative applications and technology.

The Connection Lab will be an environment that brings back the democratic, trusted and shared world in which the Internet was founded. We will do this by bringing together interdisciplinary views and by focusing on connection technologies designed to keep networks open and free.

What is the underlying idea behind the UCLA Connection Lab?

When Nicholas Negroponte and Jerry Wiesner founded the MIT Media Lab, they did not think in terms of a narrow focus, but rather they created an environment with design as the guiding principle for the work to be done in the Lab.

I am using the same approach. The UCLA Connection Lab is also an environment for research, but in this case the underlying theme is connectivity and we look at connectivity in a very inclusive way. Anything having to do with connectivity is appropriate research, including work on the Internet, the Internet of Things (IoT), mobility, social networking, machine learning, security and blockchain technologies. The latter example may seem surprising. Blockchains use a distributed ledger and making this network of ledgers and users perform correctly is a connectivity issue.

Tell me about the cross-disciplinary aspect of the Connection Lab.

Our cross-disciplinary work started three years ago as the Internet Research Initiative. The incredible undergraduate students that we get to work with across the UCLA campus inspired this concept. They are full of exciting ideas that they are passionate about, but they often cannot execute on them due to lack of money, labs, mentors and faculty.

The Internet Research Initiative is a prize program that we started across the university, involving humanities, engineering, medicine and other disciplines. Students proposed their projects and we looked at everything that was broadly Internet-related. Each year, we give 12 significant cash prizes, provide lab space and access to faculty and mentors to enable students to focus on their work, rather than having to hold down a separate job to make ends meet. 12 mentors, including industry leaders, venture capitalists and professors, select the recipients and mentor them for the year.

Going forward, the Connection Lab will house the Internet Research Initiative undergraduates, as well as PhD students from various disciplines, faculty, post-docs, visitors, etc. We will invite other groups on campus to have desks in the Connection Lab thereby providing a rich environment for collaboration, innovation and research.

You see blockchain as a pivotal technology for the Connection Lab. Why?

Every few generations, a major technological breakthrough comes along that shifts things.

Of course, there was the Internet. Blockchain has the potential to create another inflection point because it is more than an underlying technology. It will impact the way businesses are organized and the way people conduct their everyday affairs by eliminating many of the intermediaries that society is structured around, including some financial institutions, attorneys, brokers, and others.

Let’s take financial intermediaries, for example. If you and I want to exchange money, there is a financial intermediary involved if we do anything other than hand each other cash. This is true whether we write a check or use Venmo or any other funds transfer. Or, if someone works for me and sends money to their family in another country, they are paid in US dollars and send the money somewhere else through an intermediary who takes a (possibly exorbitant) fee. When these intermediaries handle many transactions, they control certain aspects of the economy and its stability. If there were a globally-accepted crypto currency, my employee could send that to their family without an intermediary taking a bite out of it. It would be facilitated by the underlying blockchain technology, which keeps an accurate and irrefutable record of that transaction. Multiple copies kept in the blockchain ledger ensure that it cannot be altered.

There are many evolving aspects of blockchain technology: performance, protocols, security, the structure of the chain, how quickly it can carry out transactions, what those transactions cost, etc. With all of these unknowns, and with speculation and volatility, blockchain applications are at risk of being exploited by dark groups.

One of the critical issues around blockchain is reputation because the information in the blockchain is only as reliable as what is put into it and by whom. A reputation system for open blockchains must be connected. If I say that you have credibility and you do, that gives both of us credibility. And the opposite is true, as well; if you provide a false reference, then your reputation suffers. Blockchain requires a reputation network that is correct and reliable, that evaluates the information and, importantly, the person who provides it. Without a reputation system, we get are in danger of spreading fake news and allowing bad actors who are spreading disinformation and using the network for dark purposes.

What role will security play in the Connection Lab’s work?

We must make our new networking technologies secure so that we minimize the fraud, phishing, hacking, spamming, crime, etc. that we have seen on the Internet.

The lack of Internet security is causing nations and corporations to pull back and build walls around their networking worlds. This creates balkanization that spells the end of the open, free and accessible Internet that we so carefully curated years ago.

If we can build security into new technologies it will help prevent this balkanization. The edge is one of the weakest places in the Internet and the edge is where we live with our cell phones and our Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as the sensors that help us control our homes, but can also be hijacked by others who can destroy our privacy and security.

We will raise security to the status of a key consideration in the connectivity research that we do, across the board.

What does the future of networking look like to you?

You’re really asking two questions: what the infrastructure will be and what it will be used for.

The infrastructure (i.e., the cables, switches and devices) of the future is the easier part. We can already see its ingredients. It’s not difficult to predict what is coming. Nomadic computing, mobility, wireless everywhere, embedded devices, smart spaces, intelligent software agents, etc. – the infrastructure will be a pervasive global nervous system. It will be everywhere and will disappear into the environment, yet be readily accessible to us. People will interact naturally, using their voice, gestures and haptics. In my 1969 vision, I said that the network would be invisible, like electricity. We are not there yet. It is too clumsy now with specialized interfaces, tiny keyboards, buttons and gadgets.

We will eventually get to a place where you walk into a room and it knows you are there. It will know your profile, privileges and preferences and use them to customize your experience.

What will the future applications be? That’s really hard to predict – just look at how woefully inadequate we have been for decades in predicting the dominant applications before they came along: email, the world wide web, search engines, shopping engines, peer-to-peer file sharing, YouTube and other user-generated content, Facebook, social networking, etc. We have created a system that will constantly surprise us with unanticipated and exciting new uses that explode on the scene.

The UCLA Connection Lab will help me realize my vision of bringing back ethical values and to create high leverage technologies that can keep dominant players from exerting undue influence and stifling innovation. I want to give everyone a voice again, like we did years ago with the Internet.