Artificial intelligence (AI) is making speedy progress in acquiring skills that were previously regarded as exclusively human.
Whether it’s beating masters at the ancient game of Go or getting better and better at autonomous driving, the many emerging forms of computer intelligence are giving us pause as a species.
AI is real and it’s the next big thing in our social evolution.
Even if you don’t believe in the singularity – the theoretical point at which AI will outstrip all human intelligence – it’s undeniable that AI is playing an increasing role in our everyday lives, from serving up search results, car navigating, suggesting entertainment options, shopping recommendations and automating more and more jobs.
It’s natural to be wary, even scared, of the growing power of AI.
Are we humans becoming obsolete?
Now is a good opportunity to reflect on what will mean to be human in this age of advanced technology.
As homo sapiens (wise man), we are “wise” compared to all other organisms, including whales and chimpanzees, in that we can centralize control and make a large number of people believe in abstract concepts, be they religion, government, money or business.
This skill of organizing people around a common belief generated mutual trust that others would adhere to the belief and its goals.
This mindset has powered rapid innovation amid the first three industrial revolutions, from mechanization to mass production, to automation, as well as the ongoing fourth industrial revolution: cyber-physical systems.
The scientific method is a similar example from the scientific world that allows researchers to build upon each other’s discoveries by trusting in the reproducibility of findings.
Networks of trust
In 1969, humans embarked on a quest to create a communications system that applied the concept of trust to relaying information electronically on a network of computers.
This, of course, was the internet, and it was also designed to withstand a nuclear war.
A few decades later, commercial-grade encryption became available, increasing the trustworthiness of the network and allowing it to be used for business purposes. But the internet has grown to such an extent that the internet-based economy has become the economy, something that was seen as the province of science fiction movies – fantasy – less than a generation ago.
The largest companies in the world are using one or a combination of crowd sourcing, crowd funding, or the sharing economy. In these businesses, the network, not the company employees, does the bulk of the work.
Facebook’s network creates the ads, Airnb’s network provides the rooms, and Uber’s network provides the cars, to give just three examples.
In the IT industry, it’s now standard to outsource back-office tasks to people on the other side of the planet, who you may never meet, and pay them in a currency you’ve barely heard of.
Why trust matters
Of course, these new business models extend the methods of engagement and interaction that allow for something like a transaction on the internet between strangers who have never met – something not possible without mutual trust.
Infrastructure providers such as telecoms and makers of telecom equipment are becoming commoditized, while the retail sector is becoming a network of facilitators for selling products and services. In order for this to happen, trust in a brand, a company, and the community that supports them is key.
Looking back at our progress as a species, we can distinguish several kinds of trust that have evolved over time.
There is the ability to work together and believe in others, which differentiates us from other animals, and which took thousands of years to develop; trust associated with money, governments, religion and business, which took hundreds of years; trust associated with creating the “bucket brigade” of passing packets of data between unfamiliar hosts that is the internet, which took decades; and network trust that has enabled new business models over the past few years.
Not only is this rate of change accelerating by an order of magnitude, but the paradigm shifts have completely disrupted the prior modes of trust.
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Wherever you go in the world, even the concept of money is itself backed by the trust of a government alone. This trust is now being extended globally into the cyber domain, decentralized through virtual currencies such as bitcoin. This evolution of trust is now stretching our concept of what money and governments mean.
The need for cybersecurity
The internet is no utopia.
Bad actors are continually using the internet for fraud, theft and other crimes. Major incidents such as ransomware attacks are eroding users’ confidence in the security of their work and private lives.
The internet has been around for about 40 years and it clearly hasn’t lived up to its enormous potential as a decentralized global system powered by trust.
So what does it need to make that final step? Cybersecurity.
As I’ve argued before, cybersecurity is an absolutely critical part of enterprise, industry and consumer applications of the internet, but all too often it’s still an afterthought.
Internet of Things (IoT) devices are designed without basic security in the hardware.
Corporations delegate cybersecurity to people in the IT department instead of making it a matter for the board of directors. Consumers ignore warnings about software vulnerabilities until it’s too late.
This is a mindset that must change before we can see the internet grow to its full potential.
At a fundamental level, cybersecurity is the trust component that allows the internet to be used as a business tool, as well as a tool for everything else.
If we’re going to embrace the fourth industrial revolution, and the promises of the internet and of AI, I believe that cybersecurity is fundamental to the history of humankind in creating a whole new level of trust that is global, decentralized and moving at the speed of light.
But creating this culture of trust is exceedingly challenging. In one study, Accenture and HfS Research identified gaps in areas such as human resources, technology, budgets and management that are eroding the cybersecurity environment of enterprises and organizations.
As cyber attacks have increased in frequency and ferocity in recent years, terms such as “Distributed Denial of Service” (DDoS), “phishing” and “ransomware” have unfortunately become familiar to everyone. These are all forms of attack in which the trust built into the internet is used against the network itself.
In DDoS attacks, targeted machines implicitly trust that packets they’re receiving are valid, and spend time processing them, using up valuable resources. With phishing, attackers are pretending to be someone else while getting the victim to open damaging malware. Meanwhile, ransomware leverages the anonymity of the internet to safely extort money from a large number of people.
These kinds of attacks are in some ways similar to cancer cells taking advantage of the naturally occurring resources of the host organism. While our bodies have immune cells that are deployed to fight tumour formation, we as a society have yet to develop the requisite immunity against cyberattacks in our global communications system.
We’re gradually developing a sense of cyber hygiene to keep us safe from threats on the internet, but it’s happening too slowly.
We’ve made enormous societal gains from internet technology but it’s become a double-edged sword. We’re at a turning point where, unless we engineer more security into the basic architecture of the internet, the exponential increase in cyber attacks threatens to further erode public trust in the system.
Security by design
Adding on more security tools after the fact won’t help us keep up; what’s required is security by design. And while some governments have considered building “cyber armies” to take on attackers, I believe a strong defence is the best offence: it’s far more important to protect the infrastructure itself and make it more trustworthy. This will lead to increased efficiency, productivity and other benefits through greater usage.
Only a few years ago, many people would hesitate to enter their credit card numbers on a website, but today most of us won’t hesitate to shop online – much to the consternation of traditional brick-and-mortar stores.
Like any innovations, trust and the technology behind trust-building take time and innovation to make them secure, easy-to-use, resilient and disruptive.
Today’s technologies are not limited by innovation itself. In many cases, it is the “trust” that cannot be guaranteed or explained. In a recent discussion at an international forum I attended, participants said that a popular search engine provider had the technology to fully power its searches using deep learning, a form of AI. Unfortunately, the company was apprehensive about using deep learning to power all of its searches because it could not yet trust how the results were derived.
Similarly, many business leaders are apprehensive about using the latest technologies, such as cloud computing and big data. This is not because of the limitations of the technology, but because they can’t seem to trust this new know-how even though there is a preponderance of data that show that it’s more secure than conventional technology.
The moral of the story here is that it’s more important to take the bull by the horns and be proactive in using these new technologies through “security by design” and “security by default” to get ahead of the curve, instead of being left behind by your customers and clients.
As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “the most important economic resource is trust in the future.”
It’s clear to me that it’s trust, the capacity that distinguishes us from all other animals on our planet, that keeps us moving forward, innovating and growing. The power to trust, cooperate and find creative solutions means that AI can never make us obsolete.
If we lose trust in what is clearly driving our economy, the internet, we will stop challenging the status quo and stop taking risks to build a better future. We simply can’t afford to do that.