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Rise of the machines

In association with eir Business

Andy O’Kelly

Published 24/08/2016 | 12:41

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At the Ireland eGovernment Summit earlier this year, Emer Coleman was bracingly frank in knocking over the naïve presumption that technology always results in societal improvement.

She took robots as a case in point. While the expectation of her generation was a future where drudgery and dull and/or dangerous and repetitive work would be automated first, making time for more creative and fulfilling lives for all, this has not been the case. She used the example of a project in California, which has automated hospital dispensary services with robots. Emer made the point that robots were no doubt excellent at the task, but were replacing the future work that would otherwise be carried out by highly educated (and highly paid) pharmacists.

As we look to the knowledge economy to replace jobs lost to globalisation, it’s becoming clear that even those jobs are not immune to being replaced by technology moving at pace.

Hello, I’m your conference call Virtual Assistant

Take for instance that staple of the business world, the conference call. Cisco’s Rowan Trollope has outlined the development of Virtual Assistants within Cisco’s collaboration meeting room service, Spark. For anyone else who struggles with juggling a lot of collaboration sessions and conference calls, these Assistants sound really useful, solving problems associated with collaboration services, including “chat room and message overload and wasting time in meetings”. And they will also stand in for you on calls, providing answers to basic questions, and notifying the missing person when it gets complicated.

Maybe soon you won’t need to attend conference calls at all. You’ll be able to delegate this work to a Virtual Assistant that has learned your voice and turn of phrase. At what point will you be able to outsource the parts of your job to machines? In the logical extension of the guy who outsourced his own programming work to China to free up time to watch cat videos on the internet, will the other participants of the conference call know whether they’re talking to you or your Virtual Assistant?

I’m not a robot, I’m a real human

That’s a Turing Test scenario that’s already happening in London, where Enfield Borough Council is using cognitive technology and a ‘virtual agent’ from IPSoft called Amelia to provide information to their visitors through natural dialogue. As reported by Forbes here,“Amelia’s memory is organized like our memory with episodic and semantic capabilities. Amelia’s episodic memory gives it cognition of various experiences and events. Its semantic memory provides a structured record of facts, meanings, concepts and knowledge about the client world. The combination of the two allows Amelia to hold a more natural conversation.” (To get a sense of how fast this technology is developing, you can take a look at two bots in Cornell University having a row about God in 2011).

When it comes to self-service, you would expect Ikea to be ahead of the game. Proving that everything – not just everyone – is replaceable; the bot they used on their website, Anna, was itself retired last year.

Is Skynet in our future?

What does this mean from a security viewpoint? Robots – be they Virtual Assistants, machines on a production line or hospital floor, or code trawling the network to detect patterns – are another asset in a complex value chain of interdependencies that will require care through its lifecycle. What better spy than a Virtual Assistant? What better sabotage than halting an automated process that underpins economic success or citizen health? In an asymmetric war, proliferation of devices and code presents a wider threat surface to protect, while the attacker has ready access to short term resource of scale in the cloud that were previously out of their economic reach.

Dealing with such an exponential threat surface will itself require automation of detection and decision-making. The generation of techies who watched the first Terminator movies in the cinema are particularly vocal on this, to the point of existential Skynet warnings about our future from Elon Musk. The span of automation is widening in areas that have heretofore been deliberately isolated and self-contained and obscure. This Internet of Things, and any other rapidly evolving technology on which we might depend for our well-being or prosperity, presents significant security challenges, particularly given the far from perfect capabilities evolving from the world of IT.

Andy O’Kelly is Chief Architect at eir Business. In that role Andy provides vision and direction on emerging business and technology trends, and promotes eir solutions to key customers. You can read more of Andy’s blog posts on the eir Business blog https://business.eir.ie/blog-author/andy-okelly/