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$100,000 Fellowship Honors Internet Pioneer

Giving News

By Kerri D. Battles

Internet pioneer Bob Taylor

Internet pioneer Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor, recipient of two degrees from the University, epitomizes the idea that what starts here changes the world. The Internet visionary, a master researcher whose understanding of human nature and the potential of technology revolutionized communication, visited the campus to help the Graduate School kick off its centennial celebration. Taylor took the audience along as he recounted his personal journey of innovation and invention, which began at the University.

John Markoff, technology reporter for The New York Times, interviewed Taylor on many aspects of his career, his vision and foresight in nurturing world-changing ideas, and his predictions for the future of technology and communication. Markoff asked about Taylor’s idea of an “intergalactic network,” a concept he came up with as the basis for the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

“I asked myself ‘What is it that I really want to make happen?’ I didn’t want geography to be in the way of people who have mutual interests,” said Taylor. “So, we used the ARPAnet to make it possible for researchers in one place to communicate in various ways with researchers in other places.”

Markoff pointed to Taylor’s white paper, co-written with J.C.R. Licklider in 1968, titled “The Computer as a Communication Device,” and how so many of his ideas came to fruition except for one, the idea of an “intelligent agent,” or artificial intelligence. “To make computers behave like people is not likely to happen any time soon,” said Taylor. “The people who worked for me knew more about computer programming than me, but I knew more about the human nervous system then most of them, and they didn’t have sufficient regard for the complexity of the human nervous system. They thought they could build a program that would outperform a human. If it is well bound like checkers or chess, then yes, and eventually a computer did beat a chess master. But if you want the computer to play ping-pong with a ping-pong champion or write a best selling novel, fat chance. Not anytime soon.”

UT Graduate School alumnus Bob Taylor's campus appearance helped kick off the school's centennial celebration.

Graduate School alumnus Bob Taylor's campus visit helped kick off the school's centennial celebration.

Taylor, thought by many to be one of the greatest directors of research and development the world has ever seen, earned a BA in 1957 and and MA in 1964. Following his work on the ARPAnet project, he was involved with the development of many staples of modern computing, including the mouse, the laser printer, and the program that would eventually become Microsoft Word. During a question and answer session, he expressed his desire that the Internet be free to everyone in the future. “I want very much, and always have since I first imagined such a thing, the Internet to be free to everyone around the world,” he said. “Many things we use are free, even things built by us — highways, except for toll roads. We pay for them in taxes. We should be able to pay for Internet access through taxes.”

An audience member posed a question about the role government should play in future development in technology and the Internet. “The people who are worried about government taking over things like to say, ‘If you want the government to run things you should go to the DMV and see what they do.’ But the government had a huge impact in creating the Internet, and I say if you go to the DMV on the Internet you will find you won’t have to stand in line.”

“I hope that the government has a strong role in innovation, but there is a strong role for the private sector as well,” continued Taylor. “We just have to be careful about how we give them latitude. No one is interested in creating private armies; we are willing to have the government do that, and to have local government support the fire department, the police department, and parks. No one is arguing that private companies should take those over. Private industry is very important for our nation, but this dichotomy that private industry can always do better than government and vice versa is false, sad, and divisive.”

Charles Simonyi

UT friend Charles Simonyi (photo © Brian Smale)

UT President Bill Powers was on hand at a reception following the event, at which he toasted Victoria Rodriguez, vice provost and dean of graduate studies, and the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Graduate School. The president thanked Taylor for being the first in a series of speakers commemorating that milestone and announced that an Endowed Presidential Fellowship has been established in Taylor’s name. The endowment was funded by Charles Simonyi’s Seattle-based Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, which generously contributed $100,000. The fellowship will support graduate students in any discipline who use computers and future technological advances in the pursuit of knowledge, information, and creativity.

J Strother Moore, chair of the Department of Computer Science, and Gary Chapman, a senior lecturer with the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and associate director of UT’s Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute, served as masters of ceremony. M. Mitchell Waldrop, author of The Dream Machine, a book about the history of computing, and Michael A. Hiltzik, author of Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, also shared insights into how Taylor orchestrated the watershed change that transformed computers from number-crunching calculators into communication devices that acted as conduits for human creativity.

The event was sponsored by the Dell Distinguished Lecture Series with special thanks to the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

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