The Many Pursuits of 2023 Turing Award Winner Bob Metcalfe

Metcalfe co-invented Ethernet, co-founded 3Com, and formulated Metcalfe's law, which describes the effect of a telecommunications network
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In 1972, Bob Metcalfe, a 26-year-old engineer fresh out of graduate school, took upon himself the task to build a technology that could connect personal computers across an office and send information between them. The result was Ethernet, which became the industry standard in the world of computing.

Fast forward to 2023, Metcalfe is still making an impact in the tech world. He recently received the AM Turing Award (often referred to as the ‘Nobel Prize of computing’) for his contributions to the development of Ethernet. Metcalfe’s hobbies and pursuits have evolved over the years, from entrepreneurship to tech journalism to his current focus on researching the application of supercomputers to complex problems in energy and other fields. 

Less than a year ago, at the age of 75, Metcalfe made yet another career change. He is now a research affiliate at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), delving into the application of supercomputers to tackle intricate issues in various fields, including energy. Despite his long and illustrious career, Metcalfe humbly admits that he is still at the initial stages of the learning curve and aims to expand his knowledge in this domain.

In a recent interview with Reuters, Metcalfe discussed the future of AI and the challenges of connecting artificial neural networks, which he believes is key to improving the processing power of these networks. “The brain teaches us that connecting [neurons] is where it’s at,” Metcalfe said. The considerable potential for improving the interconnectivity of networks provides several reasons for optimism in artificial intelligence. In his view, the continued scalability of AI is a likely outcome.

Metcalfe’s interest in AI is just the latest chapter in a career that has spanned several industries and pursuits. After helping develop Ethernet, Metcalfe founded 3Com, a networking company that became one of the leading players in the industry. He also became an in-demand author, pundit, and conference host, with a column in InfoWorld and played a vital role in relaunching MIT’s technology review.

But as Metcalfe approached his mid-50s, he began to question whether he was making the most of his many talents. “I think he’s capable of a lot more,” wrote Scott Kirsner in a 1998 article.

In one of his columns in December 1995, Metcalfe predicted the 1996 collapse of the Internet and said that the information superhighway would become no more than using Federal Express to ship CD-ROMs back and forth.

For over eight years, he has shared his expert insights on the Internet through a widely-syndicated InfoWorld column that was consumed on a weekly basis by over 500,000 information technologists. Metcalfe acknowledged that he was overcommitted and often struggled to meet his various deadlines and obligations. In 1998, when he turned 52, he remained committed to his pursuit of excellence, joking that he had just 13 years left before retirement to win the Pulitzer prize.

Journalistic Calling

Metcalfe’s interest in technology was never solely focused on networking and computing. In a 1990 interview with PC Week magazine, he expressed frustration with the media’s left-leaning bias and hinted at a potential career change. “It annoys me that 80% of journalists are registered Democrats. The journalistic field has a very strange view of itself. What it considers mainstream, I consider Left wing. I’ve thought of going into politics,” he said.

Beginning in 1991, he spent a year as a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University in England. Upon his return, he began his career in journalism by writing for Computerworld, Communications Week, Digital Media, Network Computing, and Technology Review. In 1993 he became VP of technology for the parent company of InfoWorld Magazine, and began writing “From the Ether”.

No Shying Away From Limelight

In recent years, he has focused on researching the application of supercomputers to solving complex problems in energy and other fields. And he still remains committed to learning and exploring new avenues.

Metcalfe is not one to downplay his achievements. He proudly asserts that he was the author of the initial memo that brought to light Arpanet’s susceptibility to hackers, and also takes credit for coining the term “ping” in the context of computer networking. He is also responsible for creating the term “extranet”, in addition to “ethernet”. Furthermore, Metcalfe claims to have been the first to expose Microsoft’s monopolistic practices in 1991. He also takes credit for inventing the “terminal keynote” speech, a 45-minute recap that serves as the grand finale of his technology conferences.

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