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Cyber Chase: racing after an understanding of the future

February 1, 2019

On January 21, 2002, the quirky trio of Jackie, Matt and Inez graced the television screens of millions of PBS kids viewers across the United States for the first time. For a glorious 23 and a half minutes, audiences joined the trio and traveled to Cyberchase, a digital universe, where they protected Motherboard, “the brain of the giant computer system that oversees all of Cyberspace,” from cybercrimes committed by Hacker. In order to do so, they would have to use their biggest weapon: brain power. Over the next 16 years, Cyberchase would receive five Emmy nominations and critical praise for the show’s ability to seamlessly incorporate STEM concepts into an entertaining children’s program. One reviewer said, “the adventures aren’t scary, violent or sexually inappropriate,” and also “require fortitude and brain power.” Incredible!

The past couple of decades have proven the point of Cyberchase. Innovative Silicon Valley companies have doubled their value over the course of Cyberchase’s run, and are demanding more workers skilled in computer science, engineering, mathematics and information science to keep up with this growth. To anticipate the next Facebook or Google, angel investors are funneling money into startups. If that funding reaches a billion dollars, these startups are dubbed “unicorns.” At the end of 2015, there were 82 unicorns. In August of 2018, there were 266 unicorns.

The European Union is working to form a single digital market, frustrating American tourists clicking through one annoying data policy agreement after another. Meanwhile, countries like Sweden are adopting access to broadband internet as a human right.

The applications of technology are expanding. Genetic engineering. eCommerce. eHealth. Driver-less cars. Cryptocurrency. Hundreds upon thousands of apps that can help you grow your booty (either monetary or physical) or grow your garden.

We’re communicating differently. “Google it.” “Link me.” “*reacted with !!*”.

As a genuine Taurus (read: bull-headed and resistant to change), I ask the question: Is this change good?

If we look to Hollywood (a dubious North Star, but nevertheless), the answer is ominous. On the one hand, we have the hysterical nerds of Silicon Valley, who through their own startup aspirations, such as Pied Piper, demonstrate the tumultuous landscape of the technology industry. At the same time, we are faced with Black Mirror predictions of the many ways in which technology can harm society, causing me to look at phones, puppets and exercise machines in horror. “Her” convinces us that a middle-aged man really could fall in love with an intelligent computer operating system.

If we look to the news, the answer is ambiguous. Since these technologies are relatively new, 1) society is ill-advised about how to deal with them; 2) regulations are sparse, or inefficient and 3) technology isn’t perfect and is thus susceptible to hackers.

Let’s take Facebook, for example. In just the last three years, headlines surrounding the social media platform’s operations have been as frightening as Mark Zuckerberg’s inability to genuinely smile. Allegations range from unintentionally aggravating racial tensions in Myanmar to failing to control third parties like Cambridge Analytica from influencing election outcomes in 2016. These situations arose in instances when Facebook either escaped regulation or lacked its own infrastructure to handle the consequences of its own technology. If the congressional hearings showed us anything, it is that the same people who are tasked with regulating tech giants like Facebook are shockingly ill-informed on how to do so (“With ads, Senator”).

Hacks are prevalent. Given the high pace of growth of the tech sector, innovators are eager to get their products out on the market, which often results in premature adoption. And even in cases when a product has had ample time on the market, hacks still occur—often at significant cost to both the innovator and consumer. For example, in December 2016, Yahoo announced that over one billion accounts had been compromised—my dad’s included. In May 2017, Target’s 2013 data breach reached an incurred cost of $292 million to the company.

Other recent hacks include: Macy’s, Delta, WholeFoods, Under Armour and Bowdoin.

Last month, German politicians, including Angela Merkel, lost their personal information after a hack by a 20-year-old German student. Sophisticated passwords like “1234” and “Iloveyou” were the extent of protection for the accounts of these top German officials, according to the New York Times.

Governments are not only unsure how to proceed with tech-related issues but are also misusing information-gathering technologies themselves. The 2013 Edward Snowden revelations showed the public and private sectors working in unison in the interest of national security but at the cost of individual privacy. While Orwellian techniques of the state are nothing new, both the scale and detail of information-gathering is. In 2016, a researcher used information collected by the U.S. census to geographically recreate the United States by personal identity. After comparing his findings to the confidential records of the individuals, he found that he was correct 50 percent of the time.

Last month, the U.S. Census announced that it was going to intentionally add a ‘“differential privacy” element to its data-gathering practices, or an amount of randomness, in order to reduce privacy risks, according to an article in the Upshot.

At the same time, technology has also revolutionized our lives for the better in countless ways. From making information readily available, connecting the world and providing new environmental solutions, technology has been able to both lessen inequalities between people, as well as raise capabilities. I can go into more details of the ways in which technology has made our lives better, but as a generation who can chart its aging with iPhone releases, I think that would be a waste of the Orient’s precious resources.

Where do we go from here?

Much like my quirky childhood companions, I hope to cyberchase and crowdsource thoughts, opinions, questions and more, from you—the Bowdoin community. Each article of the Cyber Chase column will feature a professor, a student, an IT professional or an institutional data analyst, voicing their own alarmist or optimistic feelings regarding “the future.”

Technology is an incredibly powerful tool that has the potential to overcome many obstacles facing the world today, as we already know. But it must be done in the right way.


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