ChatGPT warns me Objection Ask legendary engineer Bob Metcalfe about his 1996 prediction that the internet would crash. That’s the question I asked the man who won this week’s ACM Turing Award, the $1 million award dubbed the Nobel Prize of computing, after I sought guidance on a chatbot. The AI oracle advised me to stick with quizzes on his famous accomplishments—inventing Ethernet, starting the company 3Com, codifying the value of the web, and teaching innovation to students in Texas—until he retired last year to “pursue a sixth career.” ” “
But ChatGPT thinks it’s a terrible idea to come up with Metcalfe’s bold prediction that the sheer number of bits traversing the internet will cause the mother of all crashes just as the web he helped pioneer takes off. OpenAI’s black box told me that since Metcalfe’s guess failed in a very public way, if I brought it up, I would run the risk of pissing off the winner, who would be pissed off from then on to share his best ideas . The interview will be a disaster.
Oh well, I thought. Then I clicked the zoom link.
The winner who greeted me looked great at 76, little changed from the man I last saw, some 30 years ago, at his mansion in Boston’s Back Bay, hosting tech conferences and Throw a big party. (He spoke with me at his home in Austin, where he moved for a teaching job.)
For a man known for his megalomania, joining the Turing Club seems genuinely humbling, though you could argue that it took them long enough. Nearly 50 years ago today, Metcalfe wrote a memo to his bosses at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center proposing a way to link the lab’s innovative personal computer to its pioneering laser printer and methods of interconnection. Inspired by an obscure Hawaiian system called AlohaNet, he figured out a way to dynamically process high-speed data across the network without bit collisions or forced reconfiguration every time a new user appeared. He named it Ethernet. (He developed it with co-inventor David Boggs.)
Not only did Metcalfe’s idea solve PARC’s problems, but it eventually evolved into a technology that will be vital to everyone. More than 5 billion people use the Internet. Did he take this into account when designing the first network? “No, though it’s convenient for me to say that,” he said. “PARC was a very ‘build your own tool’ place. But in retrospect, what we did was help transition the Internet from networking dumb terminals to networking PCs.”
In 1979, after convincing Xerox to make the networking technology an open standard, Metcalf founded 3Com to help commercialize Ethernet. Throughout the 1980s, he relentlessly promoted the standard. At that point, he made a brilliant observation that explained not only the growth of the Internet, but the growth of many services built on top of it: the value of the network is proportional to the square of the number of users. In other words, every time a new user joins the network, it becomes stronger.
In 1985, economist George Gilder named this idea Metcalfe’s Law. This is probably the most famous equation of its kind since Gordon Moore’s observations on computer chips. Metcalfe said his motivation was not science but business. “It’s a sales tool,” he said. “People are building small networks and finding that they don’t work. So I made a slide on the Alto showing that the cost of the network rises linearly with the number of nodes, but quadratically with the number of possible connections. Our sales People take this 35mm slide and tell people the reason they don’t work is because they’re not big enough. The remedy, of course, is to buy more of our network.”