Next viral threat is coming, but we’re still not ready
If there is one thing we have realised during the COVID-19 crisis, it's how interconnected our world now really is.
We are now far beyond the internet being just about information transfer, and it now the control panel of the physical world around us.
The danger with this interconnectivity, though, is that the web is ill-equipped and fundamentally insecure. And the fact that the same computers and networks we have in our homes and office control critical infrastructure is something we should be worrying about.
Humans have been on a trajectory to ubiquitous computing ever since most of us got connected to the internet 25 years ago.
Connectivity, in all its forms, is often cheaper than the packaging it comes in, leaving us in a race to add forms of human senses via digital replication - sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and even decision making, to this rapidly expanding digital world.
This desire to connect the digital to the physical is often referred to as the 'internet of Things', which relates to a world where every product or thing that exists, will have a computer attached to it. We are literally giving agency to things, allowing them to form a quasi-sentience.
While these 'things' don't really make decisions, (rather they follow algorithmic instructions) consequences can still be equally as real.
Up until now, getting hacked was largely informational, inconvenient and a financial threat. Increasingly though, as systems have become more integrated, getting hacked now adds a potential layer of physical and personal harm.
For example, it is impossible today to buy a new car that doesn't have an internet connection. And while it would be criminal for someone to hack into your car and listen into your conversations via the Bluetooth connection, it would be potentially fatal if they hacked in and disabled the brakes.
Likewise, if our medical records, conveniently stored in globally connected databases in hospitals around the world, were hacked and vital information like our blood was changed, or severe allergies removed from our records, things could quickly become a matter of life or death.
Connectivity has consequences, and just like the technology that makes them possible, the downside is exponential.
Imagine a new form of Artificial Intelligence that becomes so smart and self-aware that it develops its own agenda. Not a walking talking terminator style robot, but an AI-driven virus which infects our hyper-global technological organism, taking down every desktop, laptop, phone, tablet, server farm, terminal, and device connected to the internet across the world. A virus so clever that it can work around every safety measure and firewall designed, with no one knowing how it started, where it came from, or how to stop it.
With everything in our industrial world connected to the internet a virus of this type would not only be inconvenient - it would be catastrophic, and make COVID-19 look like child's play.
Almost instantly we would be unable to use the internet or any computing device to feed ourselves, keep our houses warm and people healthy. Energy grids, water supplies, hospitals, public transport, traffic networks, warehouses, supermarkets, and even tractors on our farms would be taken out.
In the face of a modern-day data deluge we have broken the first rule of computer science - make a physical back-up of everything - and it has left us all at great risk. And unless we have full control, we have no control, which is why we need an off switch.
This is not the prose of a neo-Luddite - it's a recommendation from a technology economist who understands that redundancy is a core function of economic risk management. It's something few corporations and governments take seriously enough.
Governments around the world are all wishing they had their time over again to prepare and plan for a pandemic that was always going to come, whether it was COVID-19 or some other virus.
Which is why, once clear of this virus, we need to put thought to the protections needed in our connected world so that technological global incidents do not become global tragedies.
If we don't, our world leaders will find themselves staring into the same wishing well they find themselves today, except this time there will be no vaccine that can save them.
Steve Sammartino is a futurist and technology expert
Originally published as Next viral threat is coming, but we're still not ready