Radia Perlman is one of few technology experts who can claim to have made a significant contribution to the foundations of the Internet as we know it today. Now a Fellow at Dell Technologies, Perlman was the inventor of the spanning tree algorithm, which addressed a major information routing problem.
Her achievements has led to Perlman being elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, inductions into the Inventor Hall of Fame and Internet Hall of Fame, and receiving the moniker of ‘Mother of the Internet’.
Speaking to a packed audience at Tech Show London 2023, Perlman discussed the ever-changing role of the Internet, the issues with related legislation, and how to build diverse workforces.
The Changing Face of the Internet
When approaching seemingly insurmountable challenges, Perlman advises people first understand the problem in detail before looking at it from different angles.
“I know some people who dive right in and start writing code before they really understand what is needed. Then they come up with this monstrously complicated thing,” said Perlman.
Perlman recalled that when working on the spanning tree algorithm, she had no idea how much of a game-changer the Internet would soon become.
“I was astonished at how marvellous and what a miracle the Internet is in terms of how easy it is to stay in touch – you can find like minded people all over the place. You can buy widgets from somebody across the country or across the world and so forth,” she added.
However, Perlman’s outlook on the Internet has evolved over the past decade, particularly due to the proliferation of ‘poisonous content’ online.
The Imperative of Diverse Workforces in Technology
Perlman has often faced the question of why there are so few women working in technology, and why many senior women switch to management.
“Every single of them told me that they were not smart enough to stay on the tech ladder. This happens when a certain culture is in place at organisations,” said Perlman.
One solution to this issue is by shifting the focus away from women’s events by including women in all events and all levels of a company, according to Perlman.
“It is so subjective when you hire somebody. Some people cannot imagine someone as a true engineer unless they brag about how young they were when they built their first HAM radio or something. The number of women [in tech] is not changing all that much, and the more senior you get, the fewer there are,” added Perlman.
Legislative Challenges and the Future of Technology
During her talk at Tech Show London, Radia Perlman also addressed the future of technology and the burgeoning use of AI.
With the rise of AI-backed solutions like ChatGPT, it is more important than ever for advanced technologies to be safely used. But Perlman believes that regulators and legislators need to do more.
She believes that responsible AI use is possible ‘if the right people are in charge’ to eradicate hate speech and add appropriate regulations.
“If I can be in charge and shape it the way I want it to be, but that is not going to happen. Maybe it should just be a free for all but that is terrifying,” concluded Perlman.