Are We Fit for the Machine Age?

June 13, 2016

What is going on out there? Not even a century back, it took decades and hundreds of thousands of people to build lasting billion-$ ventures. Zoom forward to the turn of the century, and companies like Google grew within a decade with maybe tens of thousands of staff. Zoom forward another few years and Facebook appeared with just a few thousand people behind the scene. The likes of Whatsapp and Instagram then showed to the world that only a few months and some dozen folks are needed. Today, mid 2016, we have Elon Musk being split-CEO on two publicly-listed billion-$ companies. What’s on for tomorrow then? We are heading into an era of part-time CEOs of billion-$ ventures and serial-billion-$ entrepreneurs. Beyond that, we will have machines and algorithms slowly taking over our board positions and it won’t be long until an entire company will be purely algorithmic. Interesting questions around liabilities lay ahead, that is for sure!

What has enabled all this acceleration of technology and market growth? The Internet.

Each Internet generation was believed to be the last, with designs pushed to near perfection. The first and original Internet, a virtually infinite network of computers, was a paradigm changer and went on to define the economies of the late 20th century. However, after that Internet came the Mobile Internet, connecting billions of smart phones and laptops, and yet again redefining entire segments of the economy in the first decade of the 21st century. Today, we witness the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), shortly to connect trillions of objects and starting to redefine yet again various economies of this decade. Is that it?

As it turns out, these different embodiments of the Internet will be dwarfed by the emergence of an Internet of Skills which we believe is a true paradigm shift, in which sufficiently responsive, reliable and intelligent network connectivity will enable it to deliver physical, tactile experiences remotely. For example, imagine delivering (possibly self-assembling) hospital equipment to areas of West Africa suffering from an Ebola epidemic. The best doctors and surgeons could then perform diagnosis and even surgery remotely, using connected, tactile technologies. Imagine Vauxhall and Rolls-Royce engineers servicing engines and mechanical equipment remotely. Imagine me teaching somebody how to play the piano, or somebody teaching me how to paint. And all that without actually leaving the country. So far, we have used digital platforms to negotiate skill but then always needed to physically get there to execute the job. The Internet of Skills will allow us to perform our physical tasks remotely. That would be in 2025-2030.

A lot still needs to happen until then, notably in networking, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). All three fields are evolving very quickly now, with our communications community designing the Tactile Internet which is a highly responsive and reliable communications network. Our colleagues in robotics are conquering the realms of drones, nano-robots, soft-robots, etc, etc. And our colleagues in AI are quickly advancing cognitive algorithmic frameworks which are soon to outperform humans at many tasks.

With these quickly advancing tech trends, massive challenges emerge, some of which have a big impact on regulation and law: 

1.      Smart Procurement: Quick tech advances are meaningless if they struggle to be deployed. Smart technologies are rarely the cheapest and thus struggle with large procurement opportunities. We urgently need a stronger regulatory framework supporting smart tech over tech which just about meets the requirements.

2.      Sharing Economy: I guess we all figured it out by now: business as usual is not sustainable and entrepreneurs have started to look into new economic and operational models. The most prominent model pertains to the sharing economy with related business models underpinning companies like Uber or Airbnb. Often capitalising on a regulatory loophole, these companies struggle long-term – notably when regulation and law have caught up. I would welcome more thoughts around protecting businesses and business models which aid the emergence of such a circular/sharing economy.

3.      Net Neutrality: Europe has finally released its regulatory directives on net neutrality – laudable but arguably a few years late. The discussion originally emerged because of some operators blocking services like Whatsapp. With the exception of some countries, this however is now really something of the past with no telco able to afford such blockage anymore. The regulation, as it stands, protects consumers and that is great. However, it may not be fit for purpose for all the interesting and important use cases of the future, such as the Internet of Skills. The result is that we will see more and more private fibre infrastructures being deployed globally, where the trend rather ought to be the opposite.

4.      Security: Cryptography for point-to-point links is sound, so far, but we do struggle with systems and systems-of-systems security. And the really hard questions in security will emerge once the IoT is up and running. Many of the IoT devices transmit very little information. Indeed, data packets have become so short that some of our most fundamental crypto algorithms, such as AES128, wouldn’t fit anymore and we don’t know how best to protect these short packets. And if the scenario of sensors measuring data is stressful, imagine the security problems we will have in the downstream, ie from a control centre to the actuators, drones and robots? We need a much stronger security in the downstream than in the upstream but, given all the constraints, we just don’t know how best to go about it.

Oh, did I mention ‘quantum computers’ already? Once operational, and they will be in a not-so-distant future, any of our traditional security cyphers will be easily broken. I am sure, we will find a ‘patch’ even though it may look a little more sophisticated for these type of emerging attacks. I am also sure we will all be able to replace/upgrade all of our laptops and mobile phones, mainly because we do this anyway every year or so. What I can’t see happening is anybody fixing the trillions of IoT devices which were meant to be out there for several decades. These are the same devices which control, for instance, the city’s traffic lights, the pacemaker’s rhythm, the car’s brake, or the nuclear power plant’s fuel levels … Am I the only one who is worried here?

5.      Privacy: The notion of privacy emerged during the industrial revolution when we massified working and living places, and separated both. The burning question of this century is clearly on how to achieve privacy without jeopardising utility; remember that, in a world with perfect privacy, Google search would be largely meaningless. And the really hard questions around privacy will emerge with the quickly growing IoT: these devices do not have a ‘user’ interface (screen, keyboard); how do we properly interact with them to control them or switch them off? To make things worse, these devices may actually be invisible; how can I be sure that things around me are off when I want them to be off so that they do not transmit sensitive information about me? Technical and regulatory solutions are required quickly, as the IoT is a tsunami in making.

6.      Innovating Regulation: All of above issues require hard technical but also hard legal/regulatory challenges to be solved. Technology moves relatively fast – mainly because the underlying principles around innovation have been, well, innovated. In that spirit, we may want to explore how to innovate regulatory bodies so that they can stay head-to-head if not ahead of the technology game rather than catching up. I don’t have a personal solution for this but I would invite our wider community to think about it.

In summary, digital tech has brought about some important changes over past decades. Possibly the most important one to me is what I refer to as the ‘atomisation of identity’. Identity – so I understood from discussions with representatives from the United Nations – has been underlying any form of conflict ever since the dawn of humanity. It is therefore a truly important notion. And digital has just changed our understanding of identity. Over past years, we transited from a world where our passport defined our identity to a world where our password dictates our identity/ies.

Important technology waves enable convergence. Digital is clearly such a wave as it enabled us to converge to platforms, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. The next big tech wave will likely be the mixed-reality wave where advanced VR/AR will be projected onto our real physical surroundings. Possibly the wave after that one is the biotech wave where tech will converge onto our human bodies.

I have no crystal ball to predict what the last wave may look like. However, given humanity’s sustainability struggles and the clear indications that we won’t be able to continue existing in an ever-expanding market system, our ulterior existence may just converge at algorithmic level. These algorithms would exist, evolve, grow and multiply on machines which are much more efficient to maintain. I could imagine a world where particularly well-performing algorithms are entitled to spend their ‘summer holidays’ in a human body. That will be, maybe, in 2200.

Until then, let’s see if we manage to keep regulatory cycles up to pace with tech cycles.

Prof Mischa Dohler is Head of the Centre for Telecom Research, Chair Professor at King’s College London and a Fellow of the IEEE & Royal Society of Arts: