The sobering aspects of the cyber world – and our future

Yesterday the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6, held a public speech – for the first time ever. He was dealing with ethical issues such as torture and secrecy.

I’d like to focus on some other aspects of the speech (full version here) by Sir John Sawers, which have to do with a networked world and future threats. I think these issues, even though depressing, are important if one wants to think about scenarios for the future.

Sawers briefly explained the structure of the security services. The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, operates abroad, dealing with threats overseas and gathering intelligence mainly from human sources. The security service, MI5, works in the UK, protecting the homeland from terrorist attack and other threats. GCHQ produces intelligence from communications, and takes the lead in the cyber world.

These three specialised services form the UK intelligence community, and operate in a networked world. Technology plays an ever growing part in their work, for SIS as well as GCHQ, and the boundary line between home and abroad is increasingly blurred. So, they’ll have to collaborate more and more – also in order to make savings.

The security services are dealing with more than the classical terrorist attacks:

But our country, our democratic system, will not be brought down by a typical terrorist attack.

The dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons – and chemical and biological weapons – are more far-reaching. It can alter the whole balance of power in a region.

The impact of cyber attacks can be devastating as well:

Attacks on government information and commercial secrets of our companies are happening all the time. Electricity grids, our banking system, anything controlled by computers, could possibly be vulnerable. For some, cyber is becoming an instrument of policy as much as diplomacy or military force.

A few weeks ago, GCHQ director Iain Lobban said UK’s critical infrastructure – such as power grids and emergency services – faces a “real and credible” threat of cyber attack. The threat posed by terrorists, organised criminals and hostile foreign governments was “real and credible” and he demanded a swifter response to match the speed with which “cyber events” happened, so the BBC reported. Another interesting quote from the BBC coverage:

“Cyberspace is contested every day, every hour, every minute, every second. I can vouch for that from the displays in our own operations centre of minute-by-minute cyber attempts to penetrate systems around the world.”

While 80% of the threat to government systems could be dealt with through good information assurance practice – such as keeping security “patches” up to date – the remaining 20% was more complex and could not simply be solved by building “higher and higher” security walls.

It’s a sobering thought that the same characteristics we usually like so much in cyberspace, such as the blurring of national boundaries and the dazzling speed of innovation and change, are also lethal menaces.

Roland Legrand

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Thinking the unthinkable

A strange sequence of events: last Saturday I was on a personal finance event (I’m a financial journalist) in Brussels, Belgium, and the day after I went to the Photo Museum of Antwerp (Belgium). I visited the exposition of the work of Willy Kessels (1898-1974), who is considered as one of the most important Belgian representatives of a new, ‘modernistic’ photography which came to the foreground from the end of the 1920’s onward. His body of works is particularly illustrative of the practise of the professional photographer in the 1930’s, so the museum site explains. Strangely enough, visiting that exposition made me muse about futurism.

Maybe it was not that strange after all: in the thirties Kessels made pictures of the modernist headquarters of the socialist newspaper Le Peuple, of the at the time very modern installations of the national broadcasting organization NIR, of new installations of factories and breweries. The pictures show us an optimistic, modern wold which seems very familiar to us, even in this day and age.

It was that familiarity which made me feel uneasy. The people in those modern interiors and buildings, would they have realized what horror and collapse of civilization would take place a few year later (the Second World War, the holocaust… )?

Kessels’ career was rather strange. He made those modernist pictures, and also pictures of the making of the movie Misère au Borinage about the suffering of workers. But he would also befriend Joris Van Severen of the Verdinaso, a very right-wing organization. Kessels would become a photographer of rural Flanders, trying to capture a sense of authenticity.

While many observers think Kessels was an opportunist, he also demonstrates an important cultural tension in the West: on the one hand the optimism, a belief in progress (economically, socially, politically, technologically) and on the other hand a Romantic rejection of all this in favor of the (often imaginary) virtues of the past, of local roots versus cosmopolitanism and globalization.

This tension increases when the social fabric of society is threatened. This was one of the themes we discussed at the investment seminars the day before and it is one of the big underlying issues in the trade discussions between the US and China: which of both countries will end up with an unemployment of 10 percent to 20 percent of the labor force? About 42 million people, more than one in eight Americans, are now on food stamps.

It’s rather difficult to have constructive political debates in such a context – on the contrary, it’s an ideal environment for extremists.

All of which explains my rather depressing thoughts: will museum visitors of the future look at pictures of our time, with our technological dreams and our modernist buildings and interiors, and wonder whether we realized what horror would happen to us a few year later?

As financial experts said during the seminar, the shift toward the East of the world economy is not that strange. Before the Industrial Revolution about 70 percent of the world economy was non-Western, so the fact that we return to that situation should not surprise us.

The road toward that new world order will be bumpy. How bumpy, we cannot know at this point in time. Will discussion about trade and exchange rates lead to war? Will extremists and fundamentalists use of the technological empowerment of the individual in order to commit horrible acts of mass destruction?

It’s strange that experts these days often work in ignorance of each other’s work. While security experts study issues like nuclear- cyber- and bio-terrorism, urbanists and economists often just don’t take these dreadful possibilities into account in their risk assessments. It’s one of the reasons that I like near-future science fiction so much: it constitutes one of the few accessible places where scenarios are developed and knowledge from various fields is combined into possible futures. It helps us imagine the unthinkable, so that we can try to prevent it.

Roland Legrand

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Minecraft, that strange 3D game in our browsers

I saw this fascinating video about Minecraft (via Kotaku). Wikipedia explains:

Minecraft is a sandbox game which allows players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world. It is currently in development by Markus “Notch” Persson on the Java platform. The gameplay is inspired by Dwarf Fortress, RollerCoaster Tycoon, Dungeon Keeper, and especially Infiniminer. Minecraft was developed for about a week before its public release on May 16, 2009 on the TIGSource forums, where it gained a considerable level of popularity. It has been continually updated since then.

There is now a multiplayer version. I just ran the game in a browser on an office computer – no download was necessary. The game is pretty addictive, the fact that it’s clunky and in some early development phase seems to add to its charm.

It’s another example of how much more is possible in browsers, apart from the usual text/2D animations/video – and also how an individual can create something beautiful and inspiring, going viral.

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Burn2 in SL: also the emptiness matters

Where does our inspiration come from? It seems that for Philip Rosedale the inspiration for a virtual world came from Burning Man, an annual event in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, in the United States. The idea is to build a city for about a week, collaborating and exchanging gifts. It takes its name from the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy and after the event all traces of the city have to disappear.

In Second Life there is a virtual version of this event. It was organized by the folks at Linden Lab, but this year it was up to the residents to take care of Burn2.

It’s very inspiring to walk around and visit the various installations. In fact, one should not just visit, but participate – there are no tourists or “just visitors” at Burning Man. I guess the experience of the actual desert must be very impressive, but the emptiness of the virtual desert between the installations and event places really is a special experience as well.

Burn2 in Second Life

The virtual desert where burn2 takes place

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The launch of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club – in search of Connectivity

Talking about OpenSim, John “Pathfinder” Lester, an expert and strategist in educational online communities and virtual worlds, launches an open club for anyone interested in group explorations of virtual worlds on the Hypergrid and sharing their experiences with others.

Pathfinder officially starts the Hypergrid Adventurers Club:

We’ll be meeting regularly each week, and the first meeting will be Sunday October 24 from 10pm-11pm GMT.

For more details and a link to our calendar of scheduled meetings, please see my new Hypergrid Adventurers Club main page (there’s now a permanent link to that page in the header bar of my blog).

strongly feel that the future of the Metaverse will involve Connectivity.  So let’s put theory into practice and explore that Connectivity together.

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Could Second Life be a portal for the Metaverse?

I attended a wonderful Metanomics community meeting in Second Life, where Jennette Forager (Metanomics) interviewed Maria Korolov from Hypergrid Business, a website focusing on enterprise users of virtual worlds. Korolov talked about the development of OpenSim, the open source server platform for hosting virtual worlds. OpenSim is compatible with the Second Life client.

Maria compared the current metaverse situation with that of the web and AOL in the nineties. AOL had a big community and was very convenient while outside of that walled garden smaller sites developed, often very primitive and lacking big communities. This could not prevent people from trying out the wide open web.

OpenSim is very much like the open web, in this sense that you can start your own site world, eventually host it yourself, decide whether to link it up to the wider OpenSim grids or keep it private. The platform is growing rapidly, and trade in virtual goods is taking off. However, Second Life remains by far the bigger place, with large communities, sophisticated and convenient tools.

I don’t think the folks of OpenSim hope that Second Life will somehow disappear. OpenSim is catching up technologically, but typically waits for certain developments to succeed in Second Life (voice, or mesh import) before really introducing those possibilities on a large scale on OpenSim grids.

Korolov has a vision: that of Second Life as the place where one can meet lots of virtual worlds people, and which is a kind of portal for the wilder, Far West zones of the Metaverse – the OpenSim grids. For that to fully succeed, it would be useful to be able to teleport back and forth avatars and virtual goods from Second Life to the OpenSim universe. Problems regarding property rights could be solved by enabling content creators to restrict their goods to one particular world – Second Life, or some OpenSim grid for example.

Read also: The launch of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club – in search of Connectivity

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Rosedale steps down as interim CEO of Linden Lab, search for new CEO launched

Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life, steps down (for the second time) as CEO of Linden Lab, the company behind the virtual world. Rosedale announced this in a short blog post. Residents of Second Life are surprised by the sudden announcement, even though Rosedale had made it clear that he replaced the former CEO, Mark Kingdon, as an interim CEO.

Only a few days ago a new avatar for Philip Linden (as his avatar name is) was shown to the public, and that timing seems odd now, according to some Linden Lab watchers. More about the announcement and reactions on my experimental page The Metaverse in Turmoil.

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World of Teachcraft

This seems great:

Title: World of Teachcraft: The Learning Quest

Date: November 2 – December 16, 2010

Location: Rockcliffe University http://slurl.com/secondlife/Rockcliffe%20Library/215/73/23

Campus portion 5 pm SLT Tuesday and Thursday (On Rockcliffe in Second Life)

Reporting over 12 million paying subscribers, World of Warcraft (WoW) is the most popular massively multi-player online role-playing game on the Internet. Rockcliffe is looking for 6 adventurous educators to participate in World of Teachcraft course!

Your Quest: After participating in a 6 week pilot project, you should have experienced, researched and analyzed how this MMORPG could be used in your classroom, online course, after school program or professional development activity.

Your Battleground: Each week, participants will attend a synchronous meeting in Second Life. World of Warcraft will be used for the laboratory portion and online discussions will take place in at Rockcliffe University’s Moodle course.

I loved playing World of Warcraft but I was so addictive I decided to stop. Recently I could not longer resist and I returned with a new character, Wilbear.

Note however that the course also uses Second Life, which is an open-ended while World of Warcraft – to my knowledge – is focused on a specific game experience. I guess World of Warcraft is more popular among younger people, just because it provides well-defined goals even though it allows for a variety of behaviors (for instance catering for players who primarily want to roleplay). The open-ended nature of Second Life is more flexible but makes people wonder “what the hell am I doing here”, so it seems a nice idea to combine both environments in this learning experience.

More information can be found in this page on the site of Rockcliffe University Consortium.

Because I can’t resist, here is the trailer for World of Warcraft ‘Cataclysm':

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That dangerous Singularity

Talking about the future: I’ve been reading insightful posts by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing and Annalee Newitz on i09 about the Technological Singularity, described by Wikipedia as

(…)a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so extremely rapid, due in most accounts to the technological creation of superhuman intelligences, that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict. It has been proposed that a technological singularity will occur in the 21st century via one or more possible technological advances.

Doctorow discusses Newitz’ post and agrees with her identifying

a common flaw in futuristic prediction: assuming that technology will go far enough to benefit us, and then stop before it disrupts us. For a prime example from recent history, see the record industry’s correct belief that technology would advance to the point where we could have optical disc readers in every room, encouraging us to buy all our music again on CD; but their failure to understand that technology would continue to advance to the point where we could rip all those CDs and share the music on them using the Internet.

I think in the media industry most of us learned to see the disruptive effects of technological change. But as mentioned in my previous post, one of the common themes in near-future science fiction is security, which goes far beyond the upheaval in particular industries and has to do with our survival.

If the bold predictions by the singularity-thinkers are even remotely true, the growth of our technological capabilities risks to enable even small groups or individuals to produce and use weapons of mass destruction. These weapons could very well be designer bioviruses (read Doctorow’s interview with Ray Kurzweil).

In order to avoid such a catastrophic event to happen, authorities could try to establish a Big Brother regime. They could try to heavily regulate the dissemination of technology and knowledge. Kurzweil does not believe that would be the right response:

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the rationale for the totalitarian system was that technology was too dangerous and needed to be controlled. But that just pushes technology underground where it becomes less stable. Regulation gives the edge of power to the irresponsible who won’t listen to the regulators anyway.

The way to put more stones on the defense side of the scale is to put more resources into defensive technologies, not create a totalitarian regime of Draconian control.

This of course acknowledges the danger in a rather optimistic way – science and technology will deliver the tools necessary to stop the ultimate evil use of that same science and technology.

We could expand this discussion to media in general. Our networks, our beloved internet and the way it allows us to spread and discuss ideas, also helps those who are sufficiently alienated to dream of mass destruction. Even discussing how difficult it is to design a biovirus capable of erupting and spreading silently with long incubation periods, could incite some disgruntled young man (for a number of reasons, it seems primarily young males have such destructive desires) to actually try it out. But then again, talking about it openly could make more people aware of the dangers ahead and stimulate ideas and policies to deal with them.

What is fascinating as well as frightening is that the blending of augmented reality, virtual reality and the physical reality is a very fundamental process. Often we think of augmented reality and virtual worlds as ‘constructed’ environments while the physical reality is more stable, more solid. In fact, what we call ‘physical reality’ changes all the time – the ancient insight of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. We humans are working hard trying to control matter on an atomic and molecular scale, adding insights from biology and using our ever-expanding computing power – which one day could no longer be ‘our’ power.

Somehow the question in this ‘mixed realities’ world is whether we’re realizing the old dreams of ensuring the conditions for prosperity and happiness for all or whether the endgame of humanity is near.

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