Agent 0101: Superhero of the Digital Age

For years, millions of people immersed themselves in stories about special agents, and are mesmerised by characters such as James Bond, Beatrix Kiddo and Jason Bourne. Today, Agent 007 has become the archetype for someone who fights powerful and cunning villains, often facing great odds, but ultimately prevails – thanks to exceptional wits, resourcefulness and, of course, advanced tech. Unsurprisingly, the charming appeal of the figure is driving many to secretly wonder what it would be like to have a similarly exciting and thrilling job.
For much of human history, jobs of security specialists entail physically operating in the domain they are securing – travel to a faraway city, safeguard the location, then neutralise the suspect. As the world becomes more digitally connected, security has a new added dimension.
Securing the digital infrastructure has become just as important as the world outside the window, if not more – lower your guard and an intruder will infiltrate the network, copy valuable trade secrets, steal hard-earned money and even compromise the security of your physical environment which is increasingly filled with objects connected to the net.
However, unlike Agent 007 who roams the streets in a luxury supercar, Agent 0101 – our present-day agent – brandishes a sleek laptop to patrol virtual realms for signs of hackers.

Superheroes Wanted
Cybersecurity is rapidly becoming one of the most exciting fields in technology. As an emerging discipline, its constant evolution offers many opportunities for growth. Combined with heightened awareness of its importance, cybersecurity specialists are in high demand and greatly valued by organisations. No wonder so many tech professionals are showing keen interest in cybersecurity. Question is, what does it really take for one to have a successful career as Agent 0101?

Superhuman Skills Needed
Cybersecurity is a complex discipline that often requires a combination of very different skills.

Technical Know-how
To start with the obvious, technical knowledge is essential for someone operating in the digital domain.

  • A strong grasp of programming languages such as C++, Java and PHP is fundamental for a sound understanding of what is going on in the system backend.
  • Knowledge of how malware works enables the guardian to identify threats and secure networks in times of crisis.
  • A good understanding of cloud technologies and IoT is becoming crucial since many companies are increasingly relying on distributed computing.

Business Savviness
Yet, the technical excellence is just one part of the cybersecurity skill set. After all, safeguarding complex networks calls for a complete approach.

  • A solid insight into how organisations operate, their structure and the way they conduct their business ensures that devised solutions are tailored to meet the organisation’s needs and achieve optimum impact.
  • An appreciation for the processes that are essential for their success, as well as what makes them vulnerable. This way, the agent has a good grounding of not only the “How” but also the “Why” of a potential attack and move fast to mitigate or prevent it.

Interpersonal Skills
This leads to two other important traits of the cybersecurity expert – emotional intelligence and people skills.

  • Empathy for the motivations, psychology and thinking behind hackers’ actions helps the cyber-agent to stay one step ahead and beat them at their own game.
  • Being a strong communicator is handy when it comes to explaining complex aspects of the job to colleagues, put everyone on the same page, get necessary resources and enjoy a faster career progression.

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Lots of fun guaranteed
As we see, just like Agent 007, the job of Agent 0101 offers an incredible mix of fun and excitement. Be warned though that the job also has its share of challenges and demands, like ceaseless learning and mastering of new skills. The good news is, for those of you who can rise above it all, you will have a chance to embark on an adventure just as thrilling as one of Ian Fleming’s books.
Indeed, to do well in this field, you will need to be a technologist, a consultant and a people person all at once – just like superheroes with their supernormal powers.

First published in the IT Society Magazine by the Singapore Computer Society

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Spotlight with the Singapore Computer Society

This conversation took place between the Singapore Computer Society and me in the winter of 2017. I’ve been volunteering with SCS for some time and love what this organization does to promote technological literacy and empower people with tech. It was very fun to talk about AI and how it is transforming many industries, including the most creative ones, such as marketing.

Earliest Tech Experience: Playing games on a Pentium 386 (bought in Singapore, by the way)
Role Model: His father
Always Enjoy: A good book (mostly in audio these days); a good conversation; first person shooter, strategy and role playing games
Currently Reading: The Light of Other Days by Stephen Baxter
Current Pet Topic: AI in Marketing and Creative Industries

Q: Question
VK: Vladyslav Koshelyev

THOUGHTS ON AI
Q: What has inspired your interest in AI?
VK: As a teenager, I was an avid reader of Ray Kurzweil’s books and was deeply intrigued by his theories about the future of humankind and technology. In the book, “The Age of Intelligent Machines”, Kurzweil predicts how the intellectual capacity of AI would become comparable and eventually surpass that of humans. His belief that AI will one day enjoy a collaborative and symbiotic relationship with humans was awe-inspiring. That was when my interest in AI was first seeded. At the time, Kurzweil’s books seemed to be science fiction, however today we see that most of his predictions has come true. My smartphone today is more powerful than a mainframe computer in my childhood days. And it’s just a start.

Q: Can you share some AI developments that you are excited about?
VK: Sure. I am very excited about AI starting to help creative professionals. In a recent experiment, the advertising agency McCann Japan used its AI software to analyse a brief and successfully create a new campaign. While the project didn’t win any award, we should remember that digital technologies develop exponentially and will progress ever faster. More recently, a pop artist, Taryn Southern released a human/AI collaborative album. While the AI did the music composition, Taryn took care of the vocal melodies and lyrics. The result has all the ingredients of a good pop song – a catchy tune, a smooth progression, etc.

Both developments are very different. Yet, they not only hint at the potential of AI to do amazing work in time to come, but also showcase that it is indeed possible for AI and humans to work together hand in hand, side by side.

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Q: So are you looking forward to working alongside AI?
VK: I very much do. Although I should note, this doesn’t mean my work will become easier. It’s actually the opposite. When I first started working in the digital media industry, my job was much simpler. Every week, as part of my routine, I had to do the same three/four tasks. They were technically complex and time consuming, but repetitive. Once I figured them out, I was all set.

Today, there is an algorithm that takes care of these tasks. The good news is I don’t have to do them anymore. The not so good news is that my work has become more complex. Instead of doing these same tasks week after week, now my time is spent working with partners to understand their organisations, strategising how I can help them do better and finding solutions that provide greater value.

Work has become less predictable, more challenging – but also more interesting. I am not afraid of losing my job to an AI but I know for sure that I will have to work harder and learn faster than ever to adapt.

Q: Since AI can bring so much good, why do you think people are apprehensive about its rise?
VK: It is good to be apprehensive. Technology is always a double-edged sword. When used well, it can help us to do more and better. However, if used for the wrong intent, it can be dangerous. It is therefore important that we are aware of both good and bad possibilities – so that we can take proactive actions to prevent negative impact even as we enjoy the benefits AI brings.

It is understandable that people are concerned that AI may displace them. Although my own experience is that AI did change the focus of my work, but it did not replace me. In fact, it has given me the opportunity to dedicate my energy to more value-added work and hone my ability in aspects that truly matter. Similarly, in the example I shared earlier about Taryn Southern and her new album – she could focus on the composition and stories her songs tell while letting AI handle the more minute details.

Q: What is an area that you hope to see more AI developments in?
VK: I look forward to the use of AI in healthcare. Traditionally, we rely a lot on the expertise of individual doctors. This expertise is usually lost when the doctor leaves. By integrating AI with healthcare systems, this problem will be mitigated because the system can objectively analyse a huge library of different cases and identify best practices; it can possibly even suggest preventive measures.

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ABOUT THE MAN
Q: What do you love about working in the technology industry?
VK: History is defined by technology, influencing the rise and fall of great states. They rose because they developed advanced technology, and they fell because they were unable to keep up. As part of the industry, you get to be involved in the process and change the way people live, in the present, and for generations to come.

Q: What drew you to Singapore?
VK: I love the culture, architecture, landscapes and the climate among many other things. The weather makes me forsake my computer for the great outdoors, be it for a get-together with friends or a walk. The eclectic mix of towering skyscrapers and colourful shophouses combines with the many smart city technologies and ethnically rich population to make for a very vibrant place to live, work and play in.

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First published in the IT Society magazine by the Singapore Computer Society.

How science fiction becomes an everyday fact

As mobile supercomputers, intelligent cities, global networks and other wonders of our age become part of the daily routine and office furniture, it is easy to forget how things were once upon a time and the almost magical nature of this everyday tech that we have come to take for granted.

Well, this might very well be for the better – since it is only when these “gadgets” become mundane that we’ll aim for even more incredible breakthroughs. For someone who has lived through these exciting times, every time I pause and look around, I cannot help but marvel at how my yesteryear fantasies have become everyday realities today.

The Impossible is Already Here
As a kid, I liked to read science fiction. I could spend hours sitting under a tree, immersed in the distant worlds of the far future where people carried in their hands tiny but powerful supercomputers that could instantly deliver any information. They would go about their business on fast trains that navigated by themselves without drivers, and in cities with buildings as high as the sky. They could talk to anyone in the world through their video screens and get live news from any country and in any language. I thought: “If I could just go to such a place – I’d be the happiest kid in the world.”

When I read science fiction as a kid, I imagined buildings of the future to look like this.

Now I have grown up. I was scrolling through the live newsfeed from Asia, USA, and Europe with my smartphone in hand when I sipped my cup of coffee this morning. I hopped on the fully automated Downtown MRT Line train to ride to the Singapore downtown where the sight of towering skyscrapers never ceases to take my breath away. Because my phone is always connected to the Internet, along the way, I researched on the latest marketing trends for my client meeting. After work, I had two video chats – one with my mom in Europe, and another with a good friend in South America – as if we were in the same space and time zone.

The Power is in Your Hands
As it stands, the cheapest modern smartphone today is more powerful than the famous Deep Blue, the gigantic supercomputer that won a chess game against the world champion for the first time – big story during my childhood. It is as capable of controlling a spacecraft as the entire room of transistors that sent Apollo 11 to the moon. But if you’d rather stay in your couch, the phone can generate virtual reality experiences that would make the Neuromancer graphics pale in comparison.

An OEM supercomputer, $50 per piece

That is barely the full story of what technology can do too. These days, we can have video calls virtually anytime, anywhere and on any screen. The 4G wireless connection enables video streaming with remarkable quality on our sleek tablets as compared to clunky tethered devices protagonists of futuristic movies from the 90s used. Thanks to technology, people today can even build careers and manage organisations using nothing more than a few online collaboration tools. It is foreseeable that as fast connectivity continues to spread, meeting, working and playing with people even as we move around the globe will become even more seamless.

Tech is in Play Everyday, Everywhere
It may not be immediately apparent, but advanced cities such as Singapore have already implemented fully automated rail systems capable of controlling and coordinating vast train fleets over many kilometers. Not only does the system continually optimise schedule times, braking points, accelerating speeds and other parameters, the trains are also connected to an even wider transport network of thousands of vehicles through sensors that add real-time data and make the city smarter with every passing minute.

Everyone is a Change Agent
Truth is, the modern Metropolis is a living and breathing information system, buzzing with intelligence, always connected, always learning and improving. And each of us contributes to enriching the data – simply by going about our everyday life. I am humbled by the opportunity to build a reality that people of the past couldn’t even dream of.

These days, I no longer need to read science fiction to fuel my imagination – I just grab the latest issue of a science magazine, such as the one you are holding now. And I become again that little kid, staring in awe at the world right in front of my eyes.

First appeared in The IT Society magazine and Infopier: https://www.infopier.sg/blog/-/blogs/how-everyday-tech-has-changed-without-you-realising