As we watch this month’s movie, Hot Millions (Till, 1968), we look back in time to the 1960s to observe how an organization falls victim to unlawful activity in its computer system. Peter Ustinov plays the hacker role, but is not a lean and stealthy youth marked with tattoos and wearing jeans and a t-shirt. For the most part, he looks like an ordinary suit-wearing business man, like most organizational employees may have looked back then.
Today’s Computer Users Are in a Different Setting
This setting is very different all around for most computer users today. A New Year’s Day article in The New York Times states that computer-based technologies and computer-controlled environments are now part of everyday life for individuals in America (Harvey, 2020).1
That means they are not restricted to glass rooms in office buildings, but instead are carried in pockets, worn on wrists, and embedded in home environments. However, the systems’ vulnerability — to fraud and other security breaches — has not only remained, but has escalated over the years. Among other reasons, systems’ vulnerability can be attributed to the fact that we link all of them to global networks.
Whether safe and secure or not, many of today’s computer-based innovations are designed for personal use, not exclusive to organizations, and are advancing in complexity as part of trending new developments. As examples, new car safety features include GPS display screens, cameras, and sensors that warn about vehicles in adjacent lanes.
Network-enabled thermostats heat our homes before we walk through the door. So-called “Smart TVs” incorporate internal network devices for streaming shows and movies, an attempt to compete with the entrenched external streaming devices, Roku, Apple TV, and now Amazon’s Fire TV. We even wear computers on our bodies that can monitor physical movement — or physical immobility, in my case.
AI Was First SciFi, Now A Reality
The SciFi movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), released the same year as Hot Millions, introduced the concept of computer-controlled environments. “HAL 9000” (HAL: Heuristically-Programmed ALgorithm), a fictional “artificial intelligence” (AI) device, is shown to control a spacecraft and interact with on-board astronauts via voice, but HAL can also read lips.
In addition to maintaining the spacecraft systems during the mission, HAL is capable of speech, speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip reading, art appreciation, interpreting emotional behaviours [sic], automated reasoning, spacecraft piloting and playing chess. (Wikipedia contributors, 2019, Dec)
As an aside, British writer Arthur C. Clarke and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick worked together on the book and the movie, the book released following the release of the movie. In the 1984 sequel, 2010, HAL has a twin, the “SAL 9000.” Whereas HAL is characterized as male, SAL is characterized as female (Candice Bergen’s voice) and is represented by a blue camera eye instead of red.
The SciFi concept of computer control is today’s reality, with AI being actively pursued in the US as innovation without much regulation. As a rapidly advancing development area, in 2018 the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence was created to operate within the technology committee at the National Science and Technology Council. However, regulation in AI is a controversial topic and President Trump favors less intervention to allow for free-flowing innovation in this area.
I am among those who advocate for regulation, in view of the power such innovation may introduce. Exercising caution is best, considering there are still those, like the fraudster in this movie, who would pursue control and wealth opportunities at any cost. It may be too late for effective regulation in AI if we stand by and watch to see what emerges — the technology may then be too advanced to control after the fact.
Computer Control (or Lack There-of) Is a Front-Burner Issue
Implementing adequate security and privacy controls has gone by the wayside for many years in favor of advancing innovation in all manner of computer-based applications. A glaring example is Facebook, a behemoth that has provided the links for people and groups to do untold damage in the world over its 15 years of existence, and only now is Facebook making some very small moves to introduce ethical practices because of US Congressional pressure. Another example of “hands off” regulation is evident in the recent sighting of drones hovering in Colorado and Nebraska with no way to know who or what is ultimately controlling them or what information they are pursuing with no authorization whatsoever.
‘As far as I can ascertain, the drones are abiding within those guide lines,’ said [Colorado Yuma County Sheriff] Combs. ‘The problem is the technology is out pacing the passage of rules for drone usage.’
On Dec. 26, the FAA published a proposed rule that would require drones to be identifiable remotely. (Aguilera, 2020)
Recent software “glitches” that have allowed planes to crash, airport systems to malfunction, and ransomware attacks, join an enormous list of failures over the years that might have been prevented had our government representatives pursued greater oversight responsibility for our security.
621 ransomware security breaches were reported in the US as of Oct 2019, including incidents that closed public schools and delayed surgeries while administrators decided how to respond to the threats. In December, there were 4 more attacks on city governments, like the one that disabled Atlanta city services in 2018 (Wikipedia contributors, 2019, Jul).
And, of course it came to pass as predicted that Iranian hackers would show themselves after America’s recent attack. A news article stated, “A federal government website was hacked over the weekend to show messages vowing revenge for the death of Iran’s most powerful commander and a doctored photograph of President Trump being punched in the jaw” (“Government website is hacked”, 2020).
More government oversight would have helped to prevent some of these incidents, but in truth, it is impossible to identify and protect against all possible failure modes of a computer system. Therefore, in view of the this understanding, and the fact that systems’ vulnerabilities have been well-known for many decades, should we allow any organization, public or private, to pursue new advanced system capabilities with no institutional oversight?
Most of the “new” technologies have been in development for decades but take time to bring to market. That is plenty of time for making better decisions in the future regarding the tradeoffs that justify their use, and their potential for misuse, before their release.
In 2020 and the coming decade, the computer-embedded trend is likely to build momentum. Homes are “smarter” with Internet-connected appliances that work with less human interaction. 5G cellular network technologies can deliver data at higher speeds, which also means delivery of malware at higher speeds.
Automated “Smart” Homes
Some “smart” home products work, yet are complicated to set up and don’t add much value for normal activities around the house. Tech giants state they want their devices to totally control home systems and activities. This means that the devices can communicate autonomously with each other, like the HAL 9000 in the movie, instead of requiring human interaction.
For example, if you open the door, then the door connects to the lights and turn the lights on. In my opinion, this type of application may help in certain circumstances, but also adds complexity to simple home tasks. Home security may be an exception, but even then, if the power goes out or a network fails, is the new home automation better than the methods people already use? Battery backups, home generators, and wired communication connections do add stability to all security systems.
However you may view the value in such innovations, in the last few years, Amazon, Apple and Google have competed for control of home environments through their virtual assistants, which are audio-activated communication systems. Then last month, the three companies announced that they are collaborating on a standard to make smart home products compatible with one another. That means when you buy an Internet-connected light bulb that works with Alexa, it will also work with Siri and Google Assistant.
The virtual assistants can respond to voice commands to play music from speakers, control light bulbs, and activate robot vacuums around the house. This assistance is helpful to those who are physically impaired; however, like many other computer-based technologies, it can also invite privacy issues. For most people, the uses for voice-controlled smart devices in the home don’t yet justify displacing stand-alone mechanical devices or other existing tools like a kitchen timer or a paper shopping list, so they view the virtual assistants as either a novelty or a security vulnerability.
I believe that a lot of people share my opinion about streaming services. To me, this is the most amazing computer-based innovation since word processing and networked systems. Netflix was the most-watched video service in the US in 2019 because of its reliable delivery, excellent user interface, and now highly-rated original content. More streaming services will compete in 2020 to reduce Netflix’s share of the overall time we spend watching video on devices — Disney Plus, HBO Max, Roku Channel, Amazon Video, and Apple TV Plus. With these computer/network technologies, if you don’t like what you’re watching, you don’t change the channel, you switch to a different “app.”
In the setting of Hot Millions, an app would be called a computer program. When Apple introduced the iPhone, to make it appear more friendly to non-professional or non-computer-users, it purposely distanced itself from other hand-held computing devices by calling it a “phone,” and by calling its programs, “apps,” a slang term then unknown to the public that professionals routinely used instead of “computer application program.” Convenient also that it is the first syllable of the word apple. Would people have been drawn to it as quickly if they saw it first as a computer system, which is, of course, what it is?
5G Wireless Technology
In 2019, the telecom industry began shifting to 5G wireless, a technology that can deliver electronic code at speeds that enable people to download entire movies in a few seconds. Carriers began deploying 5G in a few dozen cities around the US. And some new computer-communication devices, “smartphones,” were built last year that can employ the higher speed.
In 2020, 5G gains momentum through carriers like Verizon and AT&T and via device manufacturers such as Samsung and Apple. 5G will be embedded to work in other ways that will become evident over time.
The faster speed of 5G technology can reduce the time it takes for devices to receive and send communications, and especially benefits devices like robots, self-driving cars, and drones. For example, if two cars have 5G, they are able to signal each other more quickly when braking and changing lanes. Eliminating communications delay is crucial for cars to perform safely without human assistance.
Competition in Wearables
Intense competition from Xiaomi, Samsung, Huawei, and Google in wearable computers is set to lead to more creativity and innovation as they try to catch up with Apple. Apple has dominated “wearables” since 2015 when it released the Apple Watch. (Note again the brilliance of Apple, calling one of their smallest computing devices a watch!) This device can be strapped to your wrist and, via wireless technology, can monitor your health, receive phone calls, and do almost anything else that you can do with the iPhone. In fact, the Apple Watch requires a connected iPhone in order to perform many of its functions.
In 2016, Apple introduced AirPods, which are wireless-based systems that fit in a wearer’s ears and can be voice-controlled. Possibilities for ear-held devices: computers that monitor your health by the pulses from your ears, or can be used as hearing aids. Have we done enough research on what any of these mobile devices may do to our eyes and ears to feel confident in releasing them as safe — as they monitor our health?
ADDENDUM: I rush to add on to my already-posted article with the following news reported from Slashdot.
Posted by BeauHD on Tuesday January 21, 2020 @10:30PM from the useless-bricks dept.
An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica (Cox, 2020):
Today’s example of smart stuff going dumb comes courtesy of Under Armour, which is effectively rendering its fitness hardware line very expensive paperweights. The company quietly pulled its UA Record app from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store on New Year’s Eve. In an announcement dated sometime around January 8, Under Armour said that not only has the app been removed from all app stores, but the company is no longer providing customer support or bug fixes for the software, which will completely stop working as of March 31.
Under Armour launched its lineup of connected fitness devices in 2016. The trio of trackers included a wrist-worn activity monitor, a smart scale, and a chest-strap-style heart rate monitor. The scale and wristband retailed at $180 each, with the heart monitor going for $80. Shoppers could buy all three together in a $400 bundle called the UA HealthBox. The end of the road is nigh, it seems, and all three products are about to meet their doom as Under Armour kills off Record for good. Users are instead expected to switch to MapMyFitness, which Under Armour bills as ‘an even better tracking experience.’ The company also set the UA Record Twitter account to private, effectively taking it offline to anyone except the 133 accounts it follows. Current device owners also can’t export all their data. While workout data can be exported and transferred to some other tracking app, Record users cannot capture weight or other historical data to carry forward with them.
Do all of my concerns sound too skeptical toward innovative technology? Some now say that Asimov’s ideas can inspire us to think positively about technology’s future (“Isaac Asimov’s Legacy”, 2020). I need to read more about this.2
1 This article is adapted from Harvey’s article (2020) with my opinions and commentary added.
2 After working for decades as a scientist in many areas in the field of electronic computing, one area being information security, I understand the context and complexity of managing and monitoring advancements in systems. Can we just get over the delight in new gadgets long enough to take a hard look at the practical and ethical consequences for our fellow humans before opening a new Pandora’s box?
- Aguilera, J. (2020). ‘People do not like the unknown.’ Here’s what to know about the mystery drones hovering over rural Colorado and Nebraska. Time Magazine. https://time.com/5757819/drones-colorado-nebraska/
- Clarke, A. (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey. New York City, NY: New American Library.
- Cox, K. (2020, Jan 21). Smart scale goes dumb as Under Armour pulls the plug on connected tech. Ars Technica. https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2020/01/smart-scale-goes-dumb-as-under-armour-pulls-the-plug-on-connected-tech/
- Government website is hacked with pro-Iran messages. (2020, Jan 6). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/06/us/iran-hack-federal-depository-library.html
- Harvey, G. (2020, Jan 1). The tech that will invade our lives in 2020. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/01/technology/personaltech/tech-trends-2020.html
- Hyams, P. (1984). 2010 [Motion picture]. USA: MGM.
- Isaac Asimov’s Legacy. (2020). Georgia Institute of Technology. https://www.iac.gatech.edu/news-events/features/Isaac-Asimov-legacy
- Kubrick, S. (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey [Motion picture]. USA/UK: MGM.
- Till, E. (1968). Hot Millions [Motion picture]. USA/UK: MGM.
- Wikipedia contributors. (2019, Jul 5). 2018 Atlanta cyberattack. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2018_Atlanta_cyberattack&oldid=904938841
- Wikipedia contributors. (2019, Dec 26). HAL 9000. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=HAL_9000&oldid=932445097