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Dawn of the robot CEO: Are we making it easier for cybercriminals?

At a conference in China, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma proclaimed we are just decades away from a robot CEO revolution. He backed that claim up shortly after via a television interview with CNN, predicting that, in 30 years, a robot would grace the cover of Time Magazine.
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As implausible as that scenario might seem, he’s not isolated in his thinking. Earlier this year, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son spoke at Mobile World Conference 2017 about the concept of “singularity” – the point at which machine intelligence will surpass our own and start improving itself at an exponential rate – which he predicts will happen by 2047.

In fact, the entire jobs market looks set to suffer from the rise of robotics and AI – results from a report by Nesta predict that 40-60% of jobs could be lost to robotics and artificial intelligence by 2030.

When taking into consideration the advantages that robots hold over their human counterparts – having continuous availability and working without breaks – robot CEOs seem an attractive prospect to a company board. A human CEO working 16 hours a day, five days a week would still do less than half the hours of a robot CEO in seven days.

Not only that, but the variables to which humans are subject (chiefly emotions) wouldn’t have any bearing on performance. In many ways, a robot CEO would makes sense. But where does this leave us? Well, if we are to believe the hype, it won’t be long before speculation over the size of the CEO’s salary and bonus becomes irrelevant, and the corner office (not to mention the best parking spot in the building) will be up for grabs. It might not be that bad after all, right?

There are some potential pitfalls of course. Aside from the obvious fact that your new robot boss might lack the emotional intelligence needed to navigate complex people issues, there’s also the issue of vulnerability to tampering, or hacking.

Human factor: the saving grace?

A human CEO can be corrupted by outside influence, but generally they have the freedom to make up their own minds and will face life-changing consequences should their impropriety be discovered.

Robot CEOs could be “brain-washed” by cybercriminals. For all of their incisive decision making and their unfaltering commitment to the company’s balance sheets, board and shareholders, a robot CEO could effectively ruin a company in seconds, or – if obfuscation is the game – quietly skim the company of profits in a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach.

Kaspersky Lab researchers think the idea of robot CEOs is intriguing, but has some very real concerns about a future where robots are given too much responsibility.

Cybercriminals go where the money is. That means if the robot stands between them and the possibility of substantial financial gain, they’ll find a way to exploit it. It’s always a cat and mouse game in cybersecurity. We come up with a defence; they find a way around it. It would be no different for a robot CEO.

One example could be a firmware level attack, such as was seen in 2015 when Kaspersky Lab researchers uncovered the Equation Group APT. A threat of such an advanced nature would be very expensive to create, but hard to detect and could have devastating consequences for the robot (and anyone relying on it).

Kaspersky Lab researchers believe such an attack, is not beyond comprehension. There are currently plenty of attacks on robots that make critical decisions. Robot CEOs will face the same challenges. Does this mean robot CEOs are simply inviting cybercrime to the door?

Adam Maskatiya is UK&I general manager at Kaspersky Lab

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