Ray Tomlinson: Not Your Average Game Developer and Shepherd

June 5, 2013

By the Internet Hall of Fame Editorial Staff

Here’s a factoid for everyone who thinks that nothing about Internet Hall of Famers could ever surprise them:

The man who invented email raises rare, tiny French sheep.

At just a foot-and-a-half high, the Ouessant breed has a couple of huge advantages. “They’re easy to handle and don’t need a lot of land,” Ray Tomlinson says of his flock.

Tomlinson, an inaugural inductee into the Internet Hall of Fame, can’t spend too much time playing Little Boy Blue: He’s still working for Raytheon BBN in Cambridge, Mass., as he has for 46 years. These days, he’s involved with a project to try to tap the power of the crowd – specifically, the computer gaming crowd – to solve software problems. In the game he’s developing, players try to move through various levels, as they do in many other games, but what they’re really doing is helping to improve the software that’s running the game itself.

“We’re going to try to make players feel as if they’re only playing a game, but with each move they make, we’ll actually be taking advantage of pattern recognition and other processes that humans are capable of,” he says. The real goal of the game is ultimately to help improve the robustness of security on the Internet.

BBN is shooting for releasing the as-yet-unnamed game in a “friends and family” version in September, before, in a second phase, it’s refined for gamers everywhere. Subcontractors will provide the graphics.

“There’s been a lot of background work done on this already – lots of math,” he says. “My job is to map it all into a game-like environment and make it fun.”

Recently, Tomlinson was asked to name someone who’d had a major influence on his life. He quickly pointed to his dad.

“In high-school science class one day, I corrected the teacher in front of everyone. I came home and proudly told my father about it and he said, “Ray, that’s not a good thing to do.” He taught me that even though lots of people may know less than you do about one particular thing, everybody knows more than you do about something.”

Tomlinson’s humble nature is reflected in his reluctance to make predictions about the Internet. “If I knew what was coming along, I’d be working on it,” he says. He does, however, believe that the proliferation of tablets and mobile devices are a positive development. “They can help make people’s lives better,” he says. And when people say they feel they’re getting swamped by the constant flood of information from such devices, he has a simple answer: “Turn them off.”

He wryly repeats, so that his point isn’t lost: “You can actually turn them off.” And he’s serious about the importance of down-time: The man who invented email doesn’t even own a cellphone.

For Tomlinson, life’s not just all sheep and games. He tries to keep up with research in areas like biology, as well.

“I like to follow what’s happening in genome sequencing for various critters,” he says. “Just 10 years ago, it seemed really difficult to sequence genomes, but now it’s almost commonplace to hear about advances in that field. Today’s computers have the power to take massive amounts of information and organize it so it’s useful. They can more and more easily keep up with all that data.” Tomlinson says that, in high school, he even thought about becoming a physician – but now, like the billions of email users worldwide – he’s very glad he chose engineering instead.

And who would say “baaah” to that?

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