May 10, 2017

In a visit to SIPA on May 3, Jigsaw CEO Jared Cohen explored the “new digital age” and how this is radically changing the nature of global problems and their solutions. Jigsaw is an incubator within Alphabet—best known as Google's parent company—that builds technology to tackle some of the toughest global security challenges facing the world today.

Cohen began with an illustrated presentation and then joined Dean Merit E. Janow of SIPA for an extended conversation in which he expanded on how Jigsaw is helping to address many of these challenges.

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In his remarks, Cohen described how the next decade will be defined by the ubiquity of technology and data, and suggested that machine learning will define our next generation. Touting inventive artificial intelligence, or AI, as a game-changer, he described humanity’s future as moving from treating machines as assistants to interacting with them as dynamic consultants, where the machines proactively learn to predict needs and solve problems.

Cohen then described how these changes are beginning to affect geopolitics.

“Data is the new oil,” he said, and countries will likely to pursue it with the same “voracious appetite” with which they pursue natural resources.

These technologies have also altered the nature of conflict, Cohen continued.

“The ubiquity of technology now means that all wars will begin as cyberwars, and more often than not they’re not going to spill over into the physical domain,” he said.

In addition, the rise of these ambiguous “cyberskirmishes” are leading to the marriage of traditional hacking with attempts to hack the public discourse.

Cohen detailed three main strategies used to hack the conversation:

     1.       patriotic trolling (the digital assassination of someone’s character)

     2.       digital insurgencies (using fake accounts to move online debate), and

     3.       fake news as a weapon (using it either as a distraction or as a motivator).

He also stressed the absence of rules governing how states engage with each other in the cyber domain. There is no doctrine of proportional response, Cohen said, and as a result there’s no deterrence. Similarly, since a lot of cyber activity is covert, he said, attribution is difficult. The takeaway was that all of us need to take our cyber security seriously because we are getting hit with the equivalent of digital shrapnel.

Cohen also discussed whether the surge of populism today is a mirage, in which we can’t separate the signal from the noise. In the digital age, he said, it’s much easier to start a movement than to finish one. “It’s easy online to get a lot of people to agree to be against something, but literally rebuilding something requires real leadership.” He expressed concern that this accelerated pace is contributing to a lack of leadership development globally.

Despite the chaos and fragmentation of the digital era, however, these technologies offer new opportunities for collaboration and problem-solving. For example, said Cohen, geographically small or isolated countries can now punch far above their weight: recently Estonia played a very important advisory role in the development of China’s electronic health care system.

Cohen also discussed his work at Jigsaw, which focuses on developing technologies to make people safer in the digital age. He talked about one example, in which Jigsaw worked closely with Syrian dissidents who were afraid of accidentally giving their passwords to the opposition. As a result, Gmail now has a feature that locks your account if you type your password anywhere other than where you’re supposed to.

Another problem Jigsaw has been working to solve is toxicity in online discourse, which often spills over into sectarian violence. To address this, they have developed machine learning models that can measure the toxicity in a conversation. Some companies have used this technology to help moderate online comments, and other applications are even using it to help people “spell-check” their own conversations for civility.

— Matt Terry MIA ’17

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