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Inventor of Web has hope for Artificial Intelligence

The man who invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, argues that the evils of artificial intelligence have been exaggerated. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK reports from Las Vegas.

The man who invented the World Wide Web could be mistaken for a schoolteacher, or perhaps a university professor. A slight build, spectacles and thinning brown hair combine with an almost humble demeanour that is difficult to associate with a legacy as great as any of the giants of the technology world.

Tim Berners-Lee was looking for an easier way to connect information when he first came up with the concept of the World Wide Web in the 1980s, while working as a physicist at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Today he is a director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which in effect sets the technical rules for how the Web operates. But he remains an academic, and is a senior researcher and founder chair at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

It is little wonder, then, that he is as preoccupied with artificial intelligence (AI) as he is with the Web. The latter remains his baby, however, and he has far more to say about it than any other topic. In March 2017, he issued an open letter warning that we have lost control of our personal data, that it’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web, and that political advertising online needs transparency.

Clearly, he is not one to gloss over the perils of progress. So, when it was announced that he was to offer his insights into the dangers of AI at the Dell EMC 2017 conference in Las Vegas, it became the must-attend talk of an already-intensive convention.

The conference represented the first joint convention by two giants of the computer world, following computer manufacturer Dell’s purchase of storage leaders EMC for $67-billion – the biggest IT acquisition ever. EMC and its subsidiary VMware are responsible, respectively, for the storage and the management platforms of a large proportion of the world’s cloud computing infrastructure. The cloud, in turn, is going to be integral to AI, hosting and processing the massive amounts of data that will allow AI to help human beings make and act on decisions.

Photo by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It was no surprise that a record 13 500 delegates attended Dell EMC World. And it was no surprise that the lines to get into Berners-Lee’s “AI in Perspective” talk were almost as long as those for the conference’s opening keynote by Dell founder Michael Dell.

The Web founder did not disappoint.

While he speaks with a rapid-fire energy that sometimes appears to run ahead of his thoughts, he delivers his perspective of the future with both authority and empathy.

“The promise of AI is really exciting, but you still have to look at it as the thing which makes a lot of people concerned,” he says by way of introduction. “We have to look at not just the hopes, but also the fears.”

The promise, he says, is that of almost all computer projects:

“We’re trying to get machines to do things we don’t want to do, like filling out a form. A lot of the progress in computing starts off with simple things, like doing accounts and taxes. Translating languages has always been just about to happen, but is now starting to become functional.

“You can train a machine to beat a game. Instead of training it by looking at lots of people playing a game, you just teach it to play against it self and it becomes better than a human.

“You can grab yourself some cloud storage and some cloud computation and find some open data produced by government or scientific or enterprise, find lots of data, find the latest algorithm, and create something that has added value, and put out signal where there wasn’t signal before. Like enabling you to decide where to invest.

“More and more, computers are starting to tick off all those things we were told computers just couldn’t do. So these are very exciting times.”

There are two key problems in this Utopian vision, however. The first seems easily solved:

“There is a huge dearth of people who know how to do this stuff, but there will be more and more. The stuff is out there and you can teach yourself. The promise is huge.”

The second issue is that most difficult of challenges: public perception. Berners-Lee talks about an AI Spring, when the world was full of hope, turning into an AI winter: “The world turned on them and said: ‘You were supposed to give us robots by now, what happened? This sucks’.”

At the same time, the fear is building that AI will take away jobs.

“Suddenly its no longer AI. Now it’s Natural Language Processing, now it’s self-driving cars. But they wont call it AI.”

The three fears of AI

Berners-Lee addresses the fears of AI in “three pieces”:

“Let’s talk about robots replacing jobs. The first take you get on AI: are robots going to take my job or all the jobs of my people? Is an autonomous vehicle going to take my job? Autonomous vehicles are coming. A lot of people, when they arrive somewhere as immigrants, or people between jobs, start out with Uber or a cab company, where driving is one of the things they can do. If that goes away, there is going to be a big shift and we have to be responsible about how we do these things.”

The second big category of AI fears lies in its ability to generate fake news. However, Berners-Lee sees AI as the solution rather than the problem: “AI can be a frontline defence against things which can be proven to be false. There’s no way of really objecting to the decisions of AI.”

The third and most famous category, he says, is the Singularity – when AI surpasses human intelligence.

“Is all this getting out of control? As a kid I read Asimov books, Arthur C Clarke book. Asimov imagined robots would become just as powerful as us and therefore they’d have to be controlled. Ask people who make robots about the problem of robots becoming smarter than you, they say, ‘Do you know how difficult it is to build a robot? You know how long it’s going to take, getting smarter than us?’ Don’t worry about it.”

He mocks the current trend in movies of showing future robots not only as smart, but humanoid, female, beautiful, blonde and blue-eyed, with female voices.

“By the time they are smarter than us, they won’t look like us. A lot of the intelligence already out there is sitting in the cloud, it doesn’t have blue eyes, but it does play a part in our society.

“The funny thing is, we’re worrying about robots, but we’re not worrying about the companies that program them. People are not good at stopping bad things.”

In short, he says real people, rather than artificial intelligence, are the bigger threat.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Cisco gives pre-owned tech a Refresh

In a market of constant upgrades, Cisco Refresh aims to keep quality product away from landfills, writes BRYAN TURNER.

When one gets a new smartphone upgrade, the old device may be used as a backup or can be used by someone else. In business environments, equipment upgrades may not be conducive to keeping old equipment around, which may send older, working equipment to landfills.

This is where Cisco’s Refresh initiative comes in. At Cisco Connect in Sun City this week, Ehrika Gladden, VP and general manager of Cisco Refresh, lifted the lid on a little-known aspect of the company’s strategy. 

“Refresh is Cisco’s global pre-owned equipment business unit,” said Gladden. “It is certified to meet the quality and engineering standards of Cisco. It is licensed for software and it’s also inclusive of a services warranty.

“Our responsibility in 80 countries around the world is tied to both the recovery of assets and the ability to leverage those assets at a lower price point. This ensures our sustainability and proper usage of the Earth’s resources while providing access to small and medium businesses. The products are typically in the range of 20-40% cheaper. The products represent the entire portfolio for Cisco in some part, the majority of that product set is 2+ years in terms of generation.”

Cisco’s Circular Economy initiative ensures a sustainable loop through businesses willing to pay a premium for the latest, cutting-edge solutions, while Cisco markets older, working equipment for resale to those who don’t require the latest solutions. This ensures far less new components need to be used in a product range.

“We are leveraging the model of remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and reusing,” said Gladden. “Depending on the product set, there is a certain set of product yield that we expect. They vary from product to product, but we do have a percentage that doesn’t make it through.

“Those are always reused, meaning we will look at those products and decide to use them completely differently, leveraging the components, remanufacturing back into the overall build process. If that can’t be done, we will go into a recycle process where we melt those products down to reuse them.”

Repairing and refurbishing older products isn’t just that. Cisco is creating repair centres that are owned by third-parties to uplift local ownership.

“The repair centres, as a global manufacturer, is Cisco’s entree into local ownership,” said Gladden. “I want to be precise about what I mean by local ownership. It’s critical for us to have a localised presence, but doing that through ownership. When you look at inclusive economies, those that are participative, to be sustainable – not in the product set, but generationally.

“The ability as a global manufacturer through a local ownership model  isto create a repair centre where a product can be returned, screened, tested, and repaired, leveraging the talent that the Networking Academy is creating.”

Cisco is working closely with local governments to understand where it operates and how to leverage the skills in the market.

Gladden said: “We are also super excited about the National Development Plan and African Union statements which with we align: eradication of poverty, job creation, ownership, healthcare, education, it all fits in the model. So we were very excited to have the opportunity to come to Africa first to announce this. Over the next twelve months, we want to establish our first repair centres, and in the next 3 to 5 years, build that vision into a reality.”

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Why Data Privacy has become a Pipe Dream

If you’re active on WhatsApp, Facebook or any other social platform, you’re not as safe as you thought, writes
AARON THORNTON, MD of Dial a Nerd

As you begin to read this, let’s perform a quick experiment! How many active conversations are you engaged in – right now – on WhatsApp? When was the last time you shared a picture or video on Instagram? Is Facebook currently open and active on one of your devices? And how many internet- connected devices are you using at this moment? Chances are, you have multiple devices running multiple applications most of the time. So what’s the problem, you ask? Since when did checking in with a high school buddy in Australia via Facebook become a dangerous act?  

In reply, we say, read on if you can stomach it!  

Nation-State Hacking & You  

It might seem like a laughably long shot to say that you are a key player in the increasingly sinister and sophisticated world of nation-state hacking. Well, you are. Given that individuals, businesses and governments are now constantly connected, round the clock, consumers and businesses have become fair game in cyber espionage. And as we create and share more and more data, both the value and accessibility of that data increases. According to a report by McAfee, IP theft now accounts for more than 25% of the estimated $600 billion cost of cybercrime to the world economy.    

With data having become the ‘new gold’, nation states are naturally pouring investment and key resources into building advanced cyber warfare tools. Indeed, entire divisions of armed forces as well as the upper echelons of corporate leadership are devising ways to harness data to gain economic, political and social power. At the highest level, tools and platforms are being developed with the specific aim of perpetrating cyber espionage and data theft. No surprise then, that the consumer and business environments are rife with increasingly advanced malware, ransomware and many other malicious hacking tools and methods.  

Still not convinced? Yes, we can smell the scepticism from here! So let’s take a moment to see how this has already played out, beneath our noses.  

Remember the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal of early 2018? For many, this was a watershed moment in the emerging war for consumer data – and the ensuing tensions between privacy, power and profit. Need a refresh? Well, in 2018, Facebook exposed data on up to 87 million Facebook users to a researcher who worked at Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign. In essence, the data was harvested without user consent and used for political purposes.  

Another chilling but less direct example can be found in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. According to Politico, Russia launched a massive social media campaign to ‘sow discord’ leading up to the elections. The website reported that as early as 2014, an infamous Russian “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency – a company linked to Russian president Putin – developed a strategy using fraudulent bank accounts and other fake identity documents to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” 

When referring to the Russian hacks and their impact on election results, one U.S. Representative sagely noted: “They didn’t just steal data; they weaponized it.” 

Ignorance is not bliss 

Okay, so data is being ‘weaponized’, and ordinary people and businesses are being caught in the crosshairs of cyber warfare. A little bit frightening, but the good news is that savvy individuals like you can take steps to protect personal data and actively combat the creeping influence of juggernauts such as Facebook and Google.  

To begin with, awareness is key. As you engage with various platforms and applications at work and at home, take time to understand how your data is being used and what the terms of use are. Is your data being accessed and sold to advertisers? Have you consented to this? In addition to scrutinizing your consent, also pay close attention to how much data you share online – and the nature of the details you are divulging. Always keep in mind that hackers are employing smart social engineering tactics and using the details of your private life (birthdays, holidays, pet’s names, etc) to trick you into opening infected emails and clicking on malware. Whenever you are online, you are a target – and vigilance at all times is critical. Beyond that, it goes without saying that you must commit to following basic security protocols with your devices. So always keep software up to date and keep your data backed up so that you can reboot or wipe a device if needed.   

Now that we’ve left you sufficiently spooked, you can get back to those demanding WhatsApp/Facebook/Instagram notifications (same company, by the way)…albeit, we hope, with a slightly altered [cyber] worldview!  

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