Michal Pechoucek, a professor at the Czech Technical University in Prague for more than 20 years, and chief technical officer (CTO) at Avast, was a key part of making CyberSec & AI 2019 such a success. In this blog, we caught up
Avast Blog: What does the CTO of a cybersecurity company do?
Michal Pechoucek: There are many CTOs of many security companies. They approach the role in different ways. My charter is to understand the future. I’m an AI scientist by training and in my heart. I believe the biggest threat and the biggest opportunity for cybersecurity is AI.
AB: In what way is AI a threat to cybersecurity and the world?
MP: Well, not in the way we see in the movies. The robotics part of AI is exciting and dramatic, but the dangerous part is the data that algorithms predict. The whole segment of tech that makes our lives more convenient can also lock us into online echo chambers that make us easier to manipulate.
AB: In what way?
MP: It is super dangerous to be insulated within your own world of ideas and preferences calibrated to suit you. Those predictions seem so right and can be very convenient, but they can also cut you off from opposing ideas, and hurt your ability to think critically. Many current AI programs show you what you have previously liked or clicked on, so you go deeper down that silo. It doesn’t have to be that way. AI could actually be trained to show you opposing viewpoints that have merit. It could broaden your view. We just have to welcome and value those opposing viewpoints.
AB: How would that work?
MP: In cybersecurity, AI doesn’t show us what we want to see. It seeks out and finds vulnerabilities and makes your system stronger. We can use AI to make us better, not just to suit our preferences and make life more convenient. For instance, social media algorithms have been manipulated in elections to cut people off from a balanced view of issues. The electorate can be split into two very opposed halves, 50-50, and then certain small segments of the population can be manipulated to sway an election. AI could do the opposite. It could be used to show you a complete view of issues, what the opposing party believes and sees, and nuanced approaches to tough issues.
AB: Is it a failure of technology that we have been isolated in echo chambers that alienate us?
MP: Nothing is a failure of technology. We, as human beings, have a responsibility not to fall into the trap of convenience. People need to be interested in what they are not seeing. And they need to lead a more anonymous life online, to take their privacy back.
AB: Take their privacy back how?
MP: We haven’t paid enough attention to privacy. I’m passionate about it as a human right. We willingly gave our privacy to companies like social media companies and search engines that used that information to serve us. But that also sacrificed our freedom. There is a tyranny of convenience that steals our options and seduces our aesthetic. We think we’re getting what we want, but actually we’re just getting what we know. We stop growing and learning. Like a species that stops evolving, we become much more vulnerable.
AB: How can we change that?
MP: As companies we have to provide people with tools, insight, and guidance on how to protect their privacy and be aware of when it is being invaded. We can protect people online from specific threats and also from a culture of dangerous convenience and familiarity. As consumers of products and ideas, we have to compensate by trading some convenience for more anonymity and curiosity.
AB: What else would you like to say as the new CTO of Avast?
MP: Just that I am very excited about the customer-centric focus of the company. I have a passion to understand consumers, and how we can help them protect their independence, privacy and freedom. We have a new CEO, CTO, and CISO (chief information security officer), and I think a new opportunity to help every human being be safe online. It’s a beautiful mission.
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