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The first keynote speech of IPC APEX EXPO 2018 was presented by Jared Cohen, head of Google’s Jigsaw team of engineers, researchers, and geopolitical experts. He explained that Jigsaw builds products not only to tackle global security challenges, but also to support free expression and access to information, especially in repressive societies.
Cohen had travelled extensively (North Korea, Iran) to try to understand firsthand the profound positive and negative influences of technology on society, whether civilised, wartorn, or geographically remote. He quoted plenty of statistics to illustrate the phenomenal growth in the number of mobile devices and the quantity of information carried by the Internet—for example, there were more cellphones in the world than toothbrushes, and 350 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute.
But the story of this “access revolution” was too heavily weighted towards the spread of devices and the proliferation of content, and was missing the most important part of the story—that technology was reshaping so many aspects of people’s lives, especially business, communications, entertainment, and politics.
He discussed signal-to-noise problems and commented that revolutions were much easier to start than to finish! And with the aid of many anecdotes, some humorous, some deadly serious, he gave many examples of the importance that people give—in all sorts of situations—to having their mobile devices, and in some instances, actually risking their lives.
In his opinion, there was another major revolution in prospect, which would be even more disruptive than the invention of the Internet— the next generation of artificial intelligence. Machine learning and “inventive artificial intelligence” would go far beyond what could already be achieved, and it would be possible to give a computer with the right algorithms a mass of unstructured business-record data and let it give in return high-quality guidance and direction on how to run the business. The relationship between people and machines would also become increasingly dynamic—no longer would machines be seen simply as assistants, they would become proactive partners in predicting needs and solving problems.
Exploring the implications on the world around us—economic, political, and militarypower dynamics—he declared that data was now the most valuable man-made resource, although without the sustainability problems associated with natural resources. However, simply having data was not enough—people had to do something with it. His big concern was that in the future, all wars would begin as “cyberwars,” which would not necessarily spill over into the physical domain. Terrorists were already expert in mobile communications, and it would only be a matter of time before they would be resorting to spreading disinformation via “fake news,” “patriotic trolling,” and “digital paramilitaries” to destabilise their perceived enemies. Certain countries were undoubtedly covertly engaged in such tactics at a much higher level, and it was hard to assess the damage caused by a cyberattack, especially when the consequences might not become apparent until later.
How did Cohen suggest that the next “great war” could be prevented? “By keeping our environment healthy—we are all infected and contagious, and we don’t look after our digital health because we can’t be bothered!” A technology company was only as good as its security, which was the digital equivalent of a healthcare plan. “We are living in a digital war zone, caught in the crossfire of digital shrapnel!”
Cohen’s final observation was that there was no blueprint for innovation, neither was there any secret source of innovation. He ended an attention-grabbing and thought-provoking presentation with a quote from Charles Kettering: “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”
This article originally appeared in Show & Tell magazine.