Isaac Asimov predicted that we would live in a world filled with useful robots. He was right.
Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury predicted we would have large parts of society absorbed in a constant stream of media, games and trivial diversions. They were right. George Orwell predicted a world in which Big Brother could monitor all aspects of our private lives. He was right, too.
In I, Robot, we were taken over by our robot servants “for our own good.” In Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, society becomes so consumed by consumption they do not care to pay attention to the deeds of their governments or the loss of their liberties. In 1984, the incessant propaganda and constant monitoring leaves its citizenry in a police state and a constant state of war.
So there are the parts of science fiction that come true, and thankfully many parts that do not. We should be thankful for the latter and pay attention to the former.
What I am driving at is that there is very little happening today that was not thought about nearly a century ago. If you can imagine, it you can create it.
Today you can be watched through your computer, smart TV or game console. Your physical location is constantly updated via your mobile device to the cloud. There are not only robots building our cars but they are also sweeping our floors and keeping our seniors company.
Now we are standing on a timeline of technical change that is about to take a steep turn upwards. We are on the verge of developing artificial intelligence technology that can rival the human brain and beyond. We are watching self-driving cars manoeuvre around the streets of California and Nevada. We have tiny little TV studios in our pockets that know where we are and tell us where to go and how to get there. What’s next? Are we on the brink of Skynet and the Matrix? Well, maybe…
Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan. I am a huge technophile, which is why I want to make sure that we speed forward with forethought. For every action there is an equal or greater reaction and I just think we should be thoughtful about the way we link all of this brilliant technology together.
If you are reading this you are likely one of the people involved in the development, maintenance or future of the Connected World. Nearly everything we do today involves some form of digital service. We are not just reading about science fiction, we are creating it and living it and that, my friends, is a wonderful thing and thank you very much. The concern I have is that while many of the societal predictions in our great works of science fiction have not come true, they could.
What is happening is that there is an entire net economy exceeding $400bn that is dedicated to criminal acts on our global network. The entire global infrastructure that we depend on every day is running on a system that was designed for trusted communications between trusted parties, and I think we can agree that there are many players on the net we simply cannot trust.
With great power comes great responsibility and it is our job, the job of the people responsible for creating and operating the Connected World to stop and think about where it is going and how to prevent it from going somewhere we don’t want to be, a place where criminals can attack enterprises with impunity and no recourse. A place where governments can shut down power grids, derail trains or release toxic gas. A place where our most basic of daily tasks are dependent upon the Connected World, and if it should become unavailable it would result in a very costly day, week and month.
Yes, all of these things are possible today. We simply connected all of this precious unprotected infrastructure to a communications network that was never designed for this level of responsibility and we need to think seriously about correcting these deficiencies.
So what is to be done? We need to think, plan and act on the aspects of the Connected World we are responsible for. In much the same way you attempt to lower your carbon footprint and reduce waste you can also think how to ensure that the digital systems you are involved in supporting continue to operate seamlessly and flawlessly without interruption. Why? Because we are depending on you.
We want to purchase gas or diesel with an iPhone, get cash from an ATM and deposit a check on our mobile. We want to binge watch The Walking Dead and see walking directions on our watch. We want to fall into the back of our self-driving car and head out to work while doing email and drinking coffee.
We need to think about what happens when our small patch of the digital garden fails to grow. We are a massive digital collective serving and relying on each other. So as you think about the next big phase in your IT plans think about what happens when it doesn’t work. Think about what is at stake and think about what happens when the hackers have compute power exceeding the capacity of the human brain.
We are going to need a lot more than Asimov’s basic rules of robotics. We need you, we need to work together and we need guardians for our new Connected World.
Jim McNiel is CMO at network performance management firm NetScout. He is former CEO of FalconStor Software, the inventor of the virtual tape library, and has worked on numerous strategies for IPO and spinout of technology companies.