Thomas Rid on the Rise of The Machines

by Nico Seidman, 2nd year War Studies student and North America editor of IR Today, and Millie Radovic, 3rd year International Relations student and Chief Editor of IR Today.


Last week, we sat down with Professor Thomas Rid of the War Studies Department to discuss his new book, The Rise of the Machines: a Cybernetics History. Professor Rid’s insightful book begins in the 1940s and provides us with a history of cybernetics, and of development of machines in relation to human thought. Given the topical nature of cyber, be it ‘space’, ‘war’, ‘espionage’ or ‘crime’, we had some questions for Professor Rid who kindly lent us his time and provided us with some insight into how things have worked, and how they work now within the realm of cyber.


Here is an excerpt of our interview:


Q: You’ve published significantly on the subject of cyber, most notably your work on attribution and the so-called concept of ‘cyberwar’. The Rise of the Machines is somewhat of a departure from this work, so what encouraged you to write it?


T.R: It’s a departure in some ways. I often got this question of what cyber is and what cyber means, that word – where it even comes from? So I decided to write a book about it, to look at the history of this idea and dig deeper than just this superficial origins story of William Gibson, an author from the 1908s. And what I found was remarkable because there is such a long history that really touches human/machine interaction. Everything from how we deal with self-driving cars to our mobile phones, so I found that quite exciting.


Q: So do you think then that The Rise of the Machines is an important read then, not only for those interested in cyber, but for policymakers and professionals within cyber security?


T.R: The problem is, [that] when you write a technology book… often when I read a book I think “oh wow, this is already half outdated” after, you know, six months or a year. And I tried very hard not to write a book that would date that quickly. That’s hard to do in technology, so that’s why the book goes way back to the Second World War, and it actually stops in the late nineties. So it’s a long view of the deep historical background of our relationship to computer technology.


Q: For the less technologically adept of us, [given that] the Rise of the Machines is a history of cybernetics, can you explain what cybernetics is?


T.R: Cybernetics was an idea that was in the late 1940s as super hot and interesting as today artificial intelligence and, you know, machine learning perhaps is. Everybody was talking about it. What people were talking about is machines, computers – this is the time when computers, large factory sized computers, first came out. So very few people had ever seen or touched a computer and cybernetics was the theory of machines, of thinking machines, of learning machines. So there was this idea that machines through feedback – the word feedback itself comes from cybernetics, we all use it all the time: that’s where it comes from – so through feedback these machines, even machines that aren’t computers were able to learn and improve their behaviour. And people at the time found that fascinating.


We also chatted to Professor Rid about Artificial Intelligence:


Q: Recently, Elon Musk has come out with comments on artificial intelligence… [He] came out and said that “artificial intelligence is the greatest threat to human kind”…


T.R:  Whenever I get these questions about the future, and you know, I can’t write books about the future. Many students often want to write about the next security threat, to which my response is always the same: “How do you know what the next threat is?” because we can only study what already happened. So I’m not in the business of predicting the future like Elon Musk is… The historical track record is very clear. Every time somebody comes along like Elon Musk, or even Stephen Hawking, or Bill Gates, even if they are very accomplished and they want to predict the far out future, they most of the time turn out to be completely wrong.


We then moved onto cyber and politics:


Q: How do you think that the development of cybernetics has influenced the way we understand freedom?


T.R: When we look at the, again in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we have this ideology that slowly emerges of people who consider the internet a space of freedom – the new frontier, this a very American ideology reaching back to the Wild West. And, of course, online, [on] the internet, everybody can reinvent themselves. This ideology got even more powerful when we added encryption to the narrative, because now the individual could protect themselves against the state by using, by using encryption. Encryption empowered the individual in a very libertarian freedom loving way. “Crypto = guns”, is one of those slogans from back in the day. It empowered individuals against the state, or against the FBI, or whoever the state is represented by. And, Snowden very much embodies that ideology, that crypto-anarchy, [as] was the term at the time, ideology. I think that’s an overstatement, just like cyber war is an overstatement and the post-Snowed discussion today is very much is coming to terms [with that], with a reality check


Q: You end your incredibly insightful book, with the first detailed account of the Moonlight Maze, and what you call the “biggest, most sophisticated made against the United States in history”, executed by Russia. What impact do you think it has had on clandestine operations since and what impact do you see it having still?


T.R: Moonlight Maze first started in late 1996, when it was first discovered, [as an] individual case, but nobody was connecting the dots yet. That only happened two years later, in 1998. But the Moonlight Maze is not the most sophisticated one that ever happened, but only back in the day. It is important I think to see that Moonlight Maze, this vast operation against hundreds of targets in the US already by 2000 had taken… the amount of data three times as high as the Washington monument. This was an operation that was only a sign of what was to come. And it was not cyber war, which is what people thought, it was cyber espionage, if you like, or just espionage without cyber. The future of spying. What we see today I think is a lot of that and small evolutions of it. One of the things that’s actually not in the book, but absolutely fascinates me is the first time the internet was used for Kompromat operations, compromising materials, [for] publishing dirt on politicians. In a way we are seeing this with WikiLeaks and John Podesta. The first time this was done was in 1999, in Moscow during elections, in late 1999 and there’s actually a link between what is going on in Moscow at the time and the Moonlight Maze, so it’s all coming together.


Q: How would you link that to the most recent, alleged, hacks of the Democratic National Committee by Russia, and the most recent remarks made by both Foreign Minister Lavrov, and President Putin?


T.R:  I think it’s important that you used the word alleged here. If we look at the actual evidence that we have of the hack of the Democratic National Committee as a party organisation, and the hack of individual email accounts belonging to Collin Powell, John Podesta, we see that now on WikiLeaks, and others. [With] all these hacks, if we look at the available evidence, publicly available evidence, can be linked back to very specific actors in Russia with a very high level of certainty. So sometimes you hear a statement, from Lavrov for instance, or from people who seem to refuse to look at the evidence that there is no evidence, that the evidence isn’t good. At this point in time there are only two reasons for not accepting this attribution, or at least considering it very seriously. One is to be lazy and actually not look at the evidence, or to simply not understand it.



Q: So expanding on just beyond information war, you mention cyber espionage, in terms of cyber attacks of critical infrastructure or DDOS attacks, what dangers do you see of critical infrastructure being connected to networks, and danger do you see from the internet of things in relation to these attacks?


T.R: Historically the debate has been very much focused on critical infrastructure, and coming from this, again 1980s idea, and early 1990s idea of cyberwar we always expected plates and the planes to fall out of the sky and I literally have the Sun cover, talking about “fight cyber war before planes start falling out of the sky”. I picked this up the day of my job interview, by the way, here at King’s. Anyway, who knows it may happen, but the point is that this is a distraction from the actual operations that are already shaping, and again right now the campaign to shape the election outcome in the United States is spectacularly successful. Let’s be blunt, the Russian intelligence, whoever took the initative for it, is really extraordinarily impressive. It’s very a cost efficient and a highly effective operation that they’re running there. Whenever Trump mentions WikiLeaks, and says ‘I love WikiLeaks’, and recommends it to his base of supporters, that is even one more success point on their scale, and they’re doing very well.



Q: So in response to this, if you had to suggest one thing that policy makers in the UK and in the US should do to protect their infrastructure from these threats, what would you recommend?


T.R: John Podesta, one of HC’s closest advisers – his email got hacekd and dumped on Wikileaks by APT28, that will become public in a few days. Podesta, after this happened to him, did not properly secure his apple accounts, so what happened next is that some idiot, from 4Chan, the anonymus linked platform, basically erased both his iPhone and his iPad because they could, because the credentials were available on Wikileaks. Now you could say this is really mean on their part, and that is probably true, but it’s also not very clever on his part to be so incredibly sloppy with his email account. He even discussed proper intelligence sensitive material on an opened email account that he did not even secure with two-factor identification. And it’s open on Wikileaks, I’m not going to point to it right away. That’s just unacceptable. Everybody should use two-factor authentication, never reuse passwords and use two-factor authentication… everybody should use this, certainly people who have something to lose.


To hear the full interview, look out for it being released in podcast form on Wonk Bridge ( Founded by a former War Studies student, Yuji Develle, now across the road at the LSE pursuing his Masters, Wonk Bridge is the first student-led tech publication on Medium. They seek to bring new perspectives on technology by engaging wonks everywhere into fruitful dialogue. 


A hardcover of Professor Rid’s book is now available on Amazon, in Waterstones, and for King’s students at the Maughan library. 





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