'Killer robots' hype detracts from real cybersecurity issue

Protecting digital infrastructure is more pressing than the supposed AI arms race, says LBS expert

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Hype about artificial intelligence (AI) and “killer robots” is masking the more urgent threat of cyberattacks, said Michael Davies, who teaches Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School (LBS).

Tesla’s Elon Musk called AI a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation”, when speaking in July 2017. He then tweeted in August 2017: “If you're not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk than North Korea.”

But Davies said that businesses should focus more on protecting digital assets from cyberattacks than on a physical arms race. 

“Here's why I think Elon Musk is wrong [about the killer robots]. At the moment, our digital infrastructure is remarkably fragile and insecure. So you want to know my real worry? It's not about the robots taking over and shooting us. It’s that the next war will be fought in cyberspace against civilian assets [such as online bank accounts and email],” he said. 

In December 2016, the UN began talks about the future of weapons, including tanks, drones and automated machine guns. To date, 19 out of 123 member states have called for an outright ban on autonomous weapons.

Davies, who attended a NASA workshop exploring the future of aerospace and AI earlier this year, said we shouldn’t focus solely on physical weapons such as drones. 

“Physical disruption to our way of life is nothing relative to digital disruption to our way of life. And at the moment, digital civilian infrastructure is incredibly vulnerable and poorly protected.

“Mostly, businesses and people have no idea of how to take good care of their personal details. We are all wondering around leaving our homes and offices completely unlocked.” 

Davies’ comments echo the results of a LBS 2017 poll of US alumni, EMBA-Global executives and Executive Education past participants. Despite 93% of C-Suite executives believing they were vulnerable to a cyberattack, just 40% believed their company had sufficient cybersecurity resources. 


There are basic security hygiene factors that will make your personal details safer, according to Davies. “First, add two-factor authentication to your emails and social media accounts.” This is an extra layer of security designed to ensure that you are the only person who can access your account, even if someone knows your password.

“Second, set up intrusion detection on your accounts. Every time someone tries to access a physically remote device that you haven't logged into, you’ll receive an alert.”

Third, make each password for your few key accounts different and difficult to hack, such as a “longish nonsense word or phrase that’s easy for you to remember but hard for anyone else to guess”. “Don’t take a gamble with your personal assets,” he warned. “It’s not worth the potential risk.”