In what is sure to be a historic conversation, Internet visionaries Robert Kahn and Larry Peterson will talk tomorrow with Jennifer Rexford about the future of the Internet.

Kahn is of course one of the fathers of the Internet, having formulated the key concept of open-architecture networking and co-invented the TCP-IP protocols. Peterson, chair of computer science at Princeton, headed the planning group for GENI — aka the Global Environment for Network Innovations — which is the National Science Foundation-backed initiative charged with figuring out how to ensure that the virtual world remains worthy of society’s trust. Rexford, who will moderate the Kahn-Peterson conversation, is a professor of computer science at Princeton and also a key player behind GENI.

Josh Fischman, an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently wrote a cover piece on GENI that opens with Larry Peterson trying to navigate the subway system in New York City.

Fischman cleverly likens Peterson to a packet of digital information and points out the similarities between the mass transit system in Manhattan and the Internet: “Both were cobbled together out of a series of smaller networks; switching from one to another has always been a problem; and people [or packets] have trouble finding the best route to their destinations.”

The Chronicle makes clear that GENI is an ambitious effort. “This is our moon shot,” Peterson tells Fischman. “It’s the computer field’s version of the International Space Station. It’s our chance to do big science.”

GENI has been widely covered by the media — see for example, a recent piece in the Guardian Unlimited. But Peterson tells EQN that often journalists, when writing about GENI, tend to set up a false dichotomy of two diametrically opposed camps of thinking about the Internet, with one camp wanting a wholesale restructuring and the other opposing any kind of restructuring whatsoever.

“We have been battling a misconception about GENI’s goals,” Peterson says.

“It is an extreme position to believe that we are going to replace the entire Internet.” On the other hand, Peterson notes, the Internet itself is a model for its own reinvention. “Thirty years ago the Internet was the crazy clean-slate idea on the block and telecommunications was the entrenched system,” Peterson tells EQN.

Peterson does acknowledge that he and clean-slate skeptics — for example that other titan of computer Big Think at Princeton, Ed “The Internet is Broken; Let’s Not Fix It” Felten — might have legitimate differences of opinion on how to best implement security on the Internet. But those differences have yet to be been delineated.

If you can’t be in Princeton tomorrow to hear the Kahn-Peterson conversation, stay tuned to this blog. Princeton Engineering soon will be posting a webcast of the event, which by the way is being held to commemorate Larry Peterson’s appointment as the first Robert E. Kahn Professor at Princeton.

In the meantime, you may want to watch a couple of already historic interviews with Kahn.

Back in 1995 Kahn and Google CEO Eric Schmidt — who by the way is another illustrious Princeton Engineering graduate — engaged in an interesting panel discussion on the future of the Internet. This of course was when we quaintly called the Internet the Information Superhighway.

Schmidt’s pre-Google prescience is striking. Said Schmidt in 1995: “I believe that the information age — as driven by the computer revolution and the decentralizing of networks as pioneered by Bob Kahn and his team — will drive restructurings of governments, restructurings of societies, and restructurings of businesses.”

You can watch the entire video here.

Also, don’t miss this charming interview Kahn did with Robert X. Cringely for NerdTV in 2005. He talks about his graduate days in Princeton’s electrical engineering department, fondly mentioning his thesis advisors, Bede Liu and John Bowman Thomas. He also talks about working for Bell Labs back when its headquarters was in New York City overlooking the Hudson River; knowing Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, as a young assistant professor at MIT; playing four rounds of golf seven days a week during one stretch of graduate school; and being told by virtually everybody back in the 1960s that computer networking was a dead-end idea.

Photo: Kahn appearing on 1995 Sunergy panel, courtesy Sun Microsystems