June 5, 2017

Death By Tech

Would you step into a large metal box with a reputation for killing 38,000 people a year?

Would you sit in a flying cylinder 30,000 feet in the air that has a history of blowing up or falling to the ground?

You’ve probably guessed I’m referring to automobiles and airplanes – two ubiquitous technologies that many of us don’t think twice about. Yet, these are deadly technologies. We simply accept the risk because of the convenience. However, if you asked someone these questions 150 years ago they’d probably think you were crazy for even asking.

Today, we are on the cusp of new universal technologies that pose massive dangers. Yet again, convenience will win.

How many people had to die before seatbelts were invented? How many planes were hijacked before airports started scanning for weapons? Security is often an afterthought to technological development.

The frontier of technology today is exciting because of the new conveniences and benefits they will bestow upon mankind. However, the risks could be greater than any faced before because of the networked nature of these technologies.

The self-driving car is close to reaching critical mass in its development, with car companies promising mass production within a few years. This is the technology everyone is talking about and looking forward to – it will likely infuse a massive productivity boost to the economy by improving car utilization rates, reducing the resources (steel, rubber, money) deployed to automobile costs. Businesses and individuals will save money. Moreover, a networked transportation grid should eliminate human error cutting collisions and improving safety for drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists.

Unfortunately, a networked fleet of self-driving cars comes with a risk: hackers. What happens when a North Korean genius installs ransomware into a million self-driving cars seeking payment mid-drive (perhaps the ransomware is triggered when the car reaches a certain speed on the highway) by threatening to crash or simply change destinations? In that situation, many people would opt to pay $10, $20, $100 than take the risk.

The same situation can be applied to any other item networked to the Internet. For example, Nest home thermostats could be used as a weapon against a country during the winter. If a million thermostats were shut off by a hacker in the dead of winter, what would happen? This would be a massive inconvenience at a minimum.

Now take this idea a step further. Various forces are driving humans to become part cyborg. Right now, it sounds far-fetched. But it’s not. It’s already happening.

Prosthetics are taking the human body into the wired world. Artificial limbs are becoming more closely aligned to electrical impulses within the body. Researchers continue to investigate other ways the human body can be repaired by using artificial implants. This research is progressing into the brain to alleviate symptoms of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

But human-machine integration is not only about human health. Earlier in 2017, Elon Musk launched Neuralink, a venture to merge AI and human brains. While this will surely progress the medical field, it is also a way for humans to combat the rising artificial intelligence. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. One day, upgradable brain implants will be used to enhance human intelligence. While this sounds like something many people would opt against, it’s only a step beyond using a smartphone. Consider the many mental tasks we’ve offloaded to a handheld device – maps, calculations, information, contact info, to name a few. The sheer convenience and benefit (mental acuity, gainful employment, profit) unlocked by computerizing the brain will compel many to use such technology.

So what happens when millions of humans are connected – mentally and physically - to the Internet? What ransoms will hackers seek? What actions will hackers direct prosthetics to take? Can a person be assassinated by remote control? Could a foreign enemy essentially incapacitate us by ‘de-activating’ millions of connected individuals?

Perhaps even more sinister, what information will our own government seek? If the network could deduct that a specific series of thoughts by an individual will lead to a criminal action should the action be prevented from happening? What if it could be detected, but wasn’t prevented?

The near-future of inter-connected technology should be raising massive security and ethical questions. Unfortunately, like many technologies developed decades ago, security and ethics appear to be an afterthought. Many will only become aware of the issue as death by technology becomes a reality.

I propose these questions must be raised and addressed before the technology is developed so that it can be part of the technology, as opposed to a series of never-ending add on patches that combat issues as they arise.

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