All posts by Finbarr Begley

Apocalypse Narratives and Technology – the Terminator problem

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Last week I attended one of The Register’s lectures: AI turning on us? Let’s talk existential risk. The main speaker was Adrian Currie from The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge, who spoke about existential risk, challenges of science funding and the perception of AI.

CSER works to analyse the risks to species survival and threats that may cause the destruction of our social structures and society. This includes physically large threats like asteroids and small threats such as viruses. Adrian explained that whilst much of the research was dedicated to unlikely situations, why not dedicate a small bit of research to asking what we do if that 0.0001% event tries to kill us all.

The most relevant part to PR was how sensational narratives around technology can skew research funding and public interest to negatively impact our ability to look at future risk. The example given being that scientists researching AI from the perspective of safety and future risk must deal with the Terminator image every time. Currie argued that this can affect public perception and even where and if research funding is assigned.

There is a broad range of technologies that need to be researched with safety and future safety in mind. Yet, often the narratives in media and the public eye tend towards sensationalism, and are at risk of disproportionally making people focus on interesting but unlikely threats like the Terminator, rather than less flashy but more likely ones such as environmental population displacement.

AI, for example, needs a lot of research into how best to design the ‘boring’ systems that we make to do tasks more efficiently and easily. Otherwise we risk badly programmed AI (and here you see how easy it is to be sensationalist), such as a recent game where an industrial AI tasked with making paperclips with no limits turns the entire universe into paperclips!

Another example is recently developed algorithms that raise the question of ‘can’ vs ‘should’. Facebook, Google and social media platforms have all developed systems for providing content that the user wants, but not always what the user should see. For these companies, serving up content that a user wants to see increases engagement, which pushes the value of the advertising, generating revenue. But this particular process needs in-depth evaluation.

Potentially the government needs to intervene to force the algorithm to be less efficient, and instead provide ‘breaks’ from showing you content you approve of and creating a loop. However, you could see how perception of this research could be controlled by Facebook, which could in turn whip the public into a frenzy about ‘interference with freedom of speech’ and ‘government censorship’. This could then result in a researcher looking into this topic having their funding cut.

For PR professionals, we continue doing our jobs; asking questions about our clients, using the best language to describe their products, and creating narratives for the media. Yet, as part of our narrative creation, we should also take the time to ask what the implications of our narratives could be. As the ones in charge of storytelling, we should take responsibility for the narratives we create.

One of the ways we can do this is by creating narratives that foster discussion of all aspects of our clients’ business; increasing user engagement. Also ensuring we are creating constructive dialogue rather than focusing solely on reactive PR where all the messaging is tightly controlled.

Liberty’s Mobile World Congress 2018: Day Four and it’s a connected 5G wrap

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MWC has seen some fantastic buzz this year, and the Liberty team have definitely been enjoying it from the show floor. There has been lots of discussion of 5G that we won’t recap, but safe to say it has been an exciting show for everyone.

On this final day of MWC until next year, Stephen Stokols, Founder and CEO of FreedomPop, argued in a panel session that if your technology is good enough then you shouldn’t need customer services. FreedomPop is known for its Freemium model, offering a baseline free mobile service that comes with optional premium additions to generate revenue for the company.

This is quite an interesting notion, and one that has been echoed across MWC – tech is replacing human interaction, not because it’s better for companies, but because consumers want it. For example, in Hall 8 there were Pepper Robots that people could interact with. In a world led by technology, the question many are asking now is do we prefer do-it-yourself and automated self-service platforms to talking to real customer service representatives?

The final day of MWC 2018 also saw what has become an annual Women in Tech Event, featuring inspirational speakers such as Emma McGuigan from Accenture, Berit Svendsen from Telenor Norway, and Julia Woods-Moss from Tata Communications. These speakers joined the stage for the final keynote on what was a thought provoking series of panel discussions covering diverse issues including how to build pipelines, evaluate best practice, and work to close the gender gap through role models, internships, and many more programmes.

One key question posed was that since we are now seeing the global participation of women in politics increase, can we expect a similar shift in tech soon as younger women joining politics and the workforce now get more aspirational figures to emulate in their own lives?

The final day also included the GSMA’s own announcement about the show. We now know that more than 107,000 visitors from 205 countries and territories attended Mobile World Congress 2018. With over 55% of this year’s attendees holding senior-level positions, including more than 7,700 CEOs, that’s a lot of suits! The Women-in-Tech speakers may be right, as 28% of all speakers in the conference programme were female, up from 21% in 2017.

And there we have it, another exciting MWC. Thanks to all our clients who were with us at the show – it was great to see and support you all. Thanks also to all the media and analysts who came to meet our clients and discuss the latest developments in their respective industries. It was great to meet so many new faces and learn about new technologies, and we are already looking forward to MWC 2019!

Capacity and Net Neutrality

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The technology deployed on any network has a set limit, something which anyone who gets slow video speeds when their siblings are playing Call of Duty will attest to.

 

net neutrality

 

This is referred to as the maximum capacity of the network and most people have encountered it at a specific point. Think back to trying to use your phone at a concert or to send a text on New Year’s Eve. There was a period when the internet was a niche thing and capacity was less of a problem (think after 56k modems but before iPhones) as less people demanded its resources. Then the minority of users were responsible for the majority of traffic and could be fairly free with its use.

 

However, with the rise of social everything, “internet of things” and an abundance of random cat videos, more and more people are demanding video and rich media content across their network connections.

 

To be fair to the networks they are also improving to match.  We have seen mobile connections move from GPRS to 2G, to 3G and 4G, in wired connections we have seen 10G turn into 40G and now 100G and work is already underway on 400G – it cannot be denied that the internet itself is getting faster.

 

Yet for cities like London, with population density on the rise and the level of service people demand ever increasing, experts are predicting an upcoming “capacity bottleneck” –  the amount of available capacity just won’t be enough for what people want to do with it.

 

This will of course eventually be solved by the next generation of technology but that is thought to not be soon enough to prevent the immediate problem of delays and under-resourcing.

 

This, as I understand it, is part of the argument being used by operators and ISPs to argue against the idea of Net Neutrality which is that equal access should be given to all content on the internet for any who wish to access it. This is a practice which network operators argue is impractical since there are already capacity issues when multiple people are streaming content on the same local area – like trying to use social media during the Olympics. Since there is a limited supply and consumers demand a high quality service, operators should be able to prioritise content more than they already do by charging a company for its services to be delivered at premium speeds over the network. This has been predicted to have broad implications for start-ups who cannot afford to pay for the same priority treatment as a large content provider.

 

Although this idea has been widely discussed in the media, it hasn’t gained the necessary traction in the public mind to affect the debate, however, if it was rebranded as the potential “Monetisation of Capacity” it might benefit from more widespread debate as it would tie the probable outcome to its effect on consumers.

 

It is true that, capacity bottlenecking will become more prevalent as content demand growth outpaces the development of the next technology standard (5G, 400G). The question is does this provide the justification for this approach?

 

Should operators be entitled to control content access for financial means and place restrictions on the wishes and decisions of their customers? There is a large question as to whether we can maintain the principle of free access which provides a lot of the strength of the internet as a content-sharing and idea generation platform.

 

This is what troubles me. Smaller indie platforms which can’t buy priority speeds will be relegated by market forces as consumers are fickle beings. If Netflix or Amazon is more reliable due to these agreements then that is what the consumers will use, which will essentially create a monopoly in certain spaces where existing content providers who already have the market share can dominate their smaller competitors. This causes me concern as it could have a negative effect on tech start-ups and innovation as well as the freedom of content which has made the internet the powerful tool in society that it is today.

 

The Guardians of the Internet

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Not a day goes by without a story about hacking but mostly people are oblivious to the threats around them. It falls to corporations to protect hapless users online.

 

How could an individual hope to secure this?

 

I for one, think these companies deserve a bit more thanks than they currently get. Microsoft and its security partners take on the global botnet problem regularly – a botnet is a network of hacked computers linked together to provide computer power for nefarious means.

 

How many computers does this affect? One Botnet called Citadel was at a conservative estimate believed to be 1.9 million machines before it was brought down.

 

Microsoft didn’t just disable the command and control centre of Citadel, it also created a sinkhole in its place which responded to infected machines and removed defences of the malicious program which allowed anti-virus software to remove it.

 

Someone actually criticized Microsoft for doing this because when they removed the virus’ defences they were doing just as the criminals had done and modified a computer without the owner’s permission. I don’t understand this criticism … I mean yes in abstract theory a computer giant abusing its power to modify files without a user’s permission is bad. But in this specific case it was the right thing to do.

 

There may be non-philanthropic motives, Microsoft has become the face of modern computing and makes a living from Windows being trusted. These attacks are often not due to a fault in Windows but still reduce trust in the system especially as other operating systems make exaggerated claims to being virus free.

 

I, however, choose to believe that there is a beneficent motive behind this, since Microsoft must accept that no one else could do this as effectively. Their security team stands by default as the Guardians of the Internet for the common user which is something worthy of our gratitude.

 

Not to mention that after this happened spam watchers at Symantec saw a 25 per cent drop in spam across the internet… the whole internet…

 

So rather than being critical, I’ll just say thanks!

Mobile Security: The pink elephant in the room

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We are probably all familiar with the phrase the pink elephant; a giant creature which is ignored by everyone walking past.

 

Harder to ignore when its dancing

 

So what makes mobile security a pink elephant, blue pig, , red sheep, or some variant of exotically coloured animal? Mostly ignorance: the mobile space is still new and most users haven’t realised that a mobile phone is just like a computer and needs to be protected. In May, a report from Trend Micro said that only 20% of Android users had virus protection, the other 80% were guilty of ignoring the giant pink elephant. Many people don’t notice until something goes wrong.

 
Mobile security is much like, the pink elephant in the field, it is such a colossal issue, and so daunting to consider, that for the majority of people it becomes something to be ignored until it becomes a problem.

 
So why is mobile security so easy to ignore? A large proportion of people treat their smartphones “like a Swiss army knife”. There is nothing inherently worrying about the information these apps require – though it might be a bit embarrassing if some hacker revealed your pace per mile – what they really want is the ability to spam your friends with a phishing SMS.

 
People need to get into the mindset that their identity, destinations, actions, and contacts are a valuable commodity worth protecting; yet for most people if the elephant is charging away from them, they don’t panic until they see it turn around.
If you use your device for more than this Swiss army knife approach; if you enter your bank details into your phone; or download a home banking app you are creating a possible threat to your device. It is your bank accounts and apple accounts that are most valuable. In the case of your Apple accounts, hackers could pay for downloads and “blow out” your balance on in-game purchases.

 
If you use an un-protected mobile device you are leaving yourself open to your details being stolen and used by hackers, for whatever nefarious purpose they devise – whether it is stealing your money direct, or buying £3,000 pounds worth of smurfberries.

 

So what are the actual dangers? A Trojan is the name for an app that pretends to do one thing, and has lots of other processes running behind the scenes. Around half of Trojans send texts to premium rate lines; however, the majority of them are spyware. At the most harmless level spyware wants to know who you are, where you are and what you like.

 
More advanced spyware poses as the official app to gain access to your login information, or logs your key strokes when you log into a website. Far too many internet users use the same email/password combination for everything, so they can gain access to your entire online life. A good example of this is the fake Netflix app that looked almost identical to the real one.

 
In truth the pink elephant analogy isn’t perfect; in fact it’s more of a red herring. People are not purposefully ignoring that gargantuan mass of pinkness. Rather they are just ignorant about the topic, making it not an awkward elephant to be ignored, but something that the general public needs to be educated about rather more than they are at present.