Thursday, May 22, 2014

Technology and culture at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium 2014

Sandy Pentland, MIT Media Lab

I learned a new buzzword at yesterday’s MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: "The Fog”—sort of Cloud + Internet of Things. Mercifully, that notwithstanding, the event was per usual an in-depth snapshot of not only up-and-coming technology trends (as one would expect at MIT) but also many of the related cultural and organizational issues. You can think of the event as being about the technological possibilities—but also about the constraints on those possibilities imposed by culture and other factors. 

The MIT Academic Panel is a good jumping off point. Moderated by Erik Brynjolfsson (co-author with Andrew McAfee of The Second Machine Age), it examined the idea that we are “now beginning to have technologies that augment the control system” (i.e. the human brain) in addition to the "physical power system" (i.e. human muscles). Brynjolfsson went on to state that “We are at the cusp on a 10 year period where we go from machines not really understanding us to being able to."

One example discussed by the panel was self-driving cars. John Leonard from MIT CSAIL and the Department of Mechanical Engineering said that he was “amazed by the progress of what’s happening out there,” likening autonomous driving systems to search for the physical world. At the same time—and here’s where the constraints come in—he also said that he had the “sense that we’re not quite there yet,” for example, to determine what might happen in a tricky driving situation. What’s “not quite there”? No real predictions. Leonard did say however that he only saw a 1 in 10 chance of a "really big [employment] transformation” which I took to mean a 1 in 10 chance of a what I like to call a robo-Uber (i.e. truly autonomous cars) in any near-term time horizon. Sloan prof Thomas Malone added that he would “be surprised to see general intelligence computers relative to people” in 30 to 40 years. 

In other words, strong AI—as opposed to things like IBM Watson that just appear intelligent—remains elusive. And it’s also unclear what limits that constraint puts in place.

The MIT Media Lab’s Sandy Pentland—decked out in vintage wearables—offered some other potential limits when he noted that the “rate of innovation in technology is much greater than the rate of change in government is much greater than the rate of change in culture. The NSA was a pretty well-governed organization—for the technology of the 1960s.” But, now, he went on to say “Everything is becoming data-fied.” And, while there’s always been a lot of slop in laws and how they’re enforced, that becomes more difficult when there’s potential telemetry and data everywhere. Automatic traffic tickets anyone?

As for passwords? They’re “useless” says Patrick Gilmore of the Markley Group. “If you’re not already using 2-factor authentication, you’re behind.” Nor was he a fan of password managers. Mind you, this is a somewhat enterprise-centric view of security. Tim Bray has argued for federated identity in a broader context. Which requires trusting someone and people generally aren’t very trusting these days. But it’s probably better than the password status quo in a lot of situations. Risk management and security—and their intersection with ever-increasing quantities of data—were also big topics throughout the day. Forrester Research’s Peter Burris, moderating a Leading the Digital Enterprise panel, opined that instead of saying we can protect everything we have, we have to think about what we can do about it afterwards—in addition to continue trying to stop attacks. Equinix’s Brian Lillie agreed, saying “You’re not going to stop everything; it’s a cornerstone of risk management.” And Raytheon’s Rebecca Rhoads spoke about the need to have sophisticated compartmentalization of information, driven by regulations and other factors.

Gilmore also suggested that people coming to his company—Markley’s a colocation provider—“mostly aren’t asking the right questions.” When dealing with cloud and other infrastructure providers, he argued that you should be looking in more depth than most people do. How long do you keep backups? How many versions? What type of physical security do you have? Do you degauss your hard drives when you retire them?

Mark Morrison of State Street also noted that you can’t outsource all of your security and have to think about how all of your security fits together—including all your point security products, your operational processes, and your external providers—and constantly evaluate. He also noted that there’s a “conundrum between privacy and information security—the level of monitoring and sophistication that lets you institute countermeasures."

Patrick Gilmore, Markley Group

Security and privacy aren’t the only things that play into data though. There’s also the pesky matter of physics. Lillie discussed hybrid cloud models in this context because “if you have enormous data sets, data gravity is happening. You need to find ways to connect clouds to private enterprises."

If I had to sum up my main takeaways from the day, they’d be something like the following. There’s the potential for many big changes related to computing power, to data, to computing ubiquity. We’re already starting to see some of the results. But some technological distances that seem small aren’t. (Think reliable speech recognition.) And, even more importantly, culture, laws, ethics,  and economics all matter. Which is one reasons that CIOs increasingly have to work closely with business owners to deliver on technology promises rather than focusing on the technology alone.

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