Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2272nd Meeting

President Robin Taylor called the 2,272nd meeting to order at 8:18 pm September 24, 2010 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club, after the hardware trials. Ms. Taylor introduced three new members of the Society. The minutes of the 2,271st meeting were read and approved.

Ms. Taylor then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Robert Kahn of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives. Mr. Kahn spoke on “Interoperability of Heterogeneous Information Systems on the Internet.” Mr. Kahn founded CNRI after a term leading the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.


Mr. Kahn does not see the internet as a network. It is a means of getting all the machines on the network to work together. The internet is really defined by all the processes and structures that enable one part of the system to work with others. It is a system of structuring information that enables existing and new types of information to be reliably managed and accessed, including over very long periods of time.

Everything on the internet today is either processed according to some existing process or is navigated by a user. Email, for example, follows an existing process. The machine does not analyze it, it just reads and directs it. There is no way for the internet to be dynamic and adaptable. Where adaptability is needed, the user must make choices.

In the early days of the network, they dealt with problems such as how to get the different machines to work together. If you have information on a 24-bit machine and you send it to a 36-bit machine, what do you do with the other 12 bits? If one machine is set up to read the bits from left to right, how do you deal with a file from a machine that reads them right to left? Problems like that put them on the course that made the internet what it is.

The government is facing a similar problem in attempting to make health records transferable. Digitizing the records is easy, but unless there is a standard format, one machine will not be able to use a file that was recorded for use on a different machine. This infrastructure part of the problem is not the most important, but it is the one Mr. Kahn has chosen to work on because he believes it is the one most ready for progress.

He and his colleagues came up with the idea of a digital object architecture as a way of better structuring information. To explain this, he challenged us to tell him what a book is. Is it the object you hold in your hand? No, that bundle of paper is identical to all the other copies that carry the same International Standard Book Number. It is just a paper version of a set of information. The book is the set of information. The digital object is the book minus the paper.

This concept introduces a whole new set of problems, as well as new opportunities. If you put a digital material material on a digital bookshelf and you take it off after a hundred years, will the “clickables” at the back still work. Even today, most of the URLs, probably 90% or more, are not functional. Other major issues are security, privacy, intellectual property protection.

Mr. Kahn has found that creating an open architecture in which many can contribute is a good way of approaching problems. Early on, at DARPA, the creation of the internet had seemingly impossible barriers and difficult choices. The Defense Department had few computers and no way to connect them. The few computers did represent many manufacturers and many design differences. Connecting a number of computers to all the other computers requires a many lines. Having information pass through computers requires them all to be able to process the information.

DARPA has rules, but ignored them to allow this problem to be worked “under the radar.” Solutions to the problems developed and the internet took shape. Little boxes, mini-computers, were placed in front of each computer to do most of the routing work. The structure of information problem was given a minimalist solution: just get the bits to the computer that was supposed to get them and let that computer deal with them. Internet protocol addresses were introduced; they are stored in network devices and indicate to the devices where to send information.

Mr. Kahn believes that development of a more adaptive internet will be best served if the basic elements of the system are uniform. He believes the long-term retrieval capability should follow the design elements of the storage. He thinks the system will be best served by an open architecture approach.

Even if those propositions are adopted, major problems remain. Capacity is a vicious circle; the ability to handle large amounts of information engenders demand for the resources and demands ability to handle more information. Key management will be a problem; there could be a trillion keys to manage. Information should be pre-positioned so one location won’t have to be responsible for a whole set of information. Ownership and responsibility for multiple copies of digital objects will have to be addressed. Audit trails will be needed to indicate who has accessed information.


Ms. Taylor made the usual housekeeping announcements and invited guests to apply for membership. Finally, at 9:34 pm, she adjourned the 2,272nd meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 96
The weather: Beautiful
The temperature: 32°C

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary


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