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Preparing for AI-enabled cyberattacks

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Preparing for AI-enabled cyberattacks


MIT Technology Review Insights, in association with AI cybersecurity company Darktrace, surveyed more than 300 C-level executives, directors, and managers worldwide to understand how they’re addressing the cyberthreats they’re up against—and how to use AI to help fight against them.

As it is, 60% of respondents report that human-driven responses to cyberattacks are failing to keep up with automated attacks, and as organizations gear up for a greater challenge, more sophisticated technologies are critical. In fact, an overwhelming majority of respondents—96%—report they’ve already begun to guard against AI-powered attacks, with some enabling AI defenses.

Offensive AI cyberattacks are daunting, and the technology is fast and smart. Consider deepfakes, one type of weaponized AI tool, which are fabricated images or videos depicting scenes or people that were never present, or even existed.

In January 2020, the FBI warned that deepfake technology had already reached the point where artificial personas could be created that could pass biometric tests. At the rate that AI neural networks are evolving, an FBI official said at the time, national security could be undermined by high-definition, fake videos created to mimic public figures so that they appear to be saying whatever words the video creators put in their manipulated mouths.

This is just one example of the technology being used for nefarious purposes. AI could, at some point, conduct cyberattacks autonomously, disguising their operations and blending in with regular activity. The technology is out there for anyone to use, including threat actors.

Offensive AI risks and developments in the cyberthreat landscape are redefining enterprise security, as humans already struggle to keep pace with advanced attacks. In particular, survey respondents reported that email and phishing attacks cause them the most angst, with nearly three quarters reporting that email threats are the most worrisome. That breaks down to 40% of respondents who report finding email and phishing attacks “very concerning,” while 34% call them “somewhat concerning.” It’s not surprising, as 94% of detected malware is still delivered by email. The traditional methods of stopping email-delivered threats rely on historical indicators—namely, previously seen attacks—as well as the ability of the recipient to spot the signs, both of which can be bypassed by sophisticated phishing incursions.

When offensive AI is thrown into the mix, “fake email” will be almost indistinguishable from genuine communications from trusted contacts.

How attackers exploit the headlines

The coronavirus pandemic presented a lucrative opportunity for cybercriminals. Email attackers in particular followed a long-established pattern: take advantage of the headlines of the day—along with the fear, uncertainty, greed, and curiosity they incite—to lure victims in what has become known as “fearware” attacks. With employees working remotely, without the security protocols of the office in place, organizations saw successful phishing attempts skyrocket. Max Heinemeyer, director of threat hunting for Darktrace, notes that when the pandemic hit, his team saw an immediate evolution of phishing emails. “We saw a lot of emails saying things like, ‘Click here to see which people in your area are infected,’” he says. When offices and universities started reopening last year, new scams emerged in lockstep, with emails offering “cheap or free covid-19 cleaning programs and tests,” says Heinemeyer.

There has also been an increase in ransomware, which has coincided with the surge in remote and hybrid work environments. “The bad guys know that now that everybody relies on remote work. If you get hit now, and you can’t provide remote access to your employee anymore, it’s game over,” he says. “Whereas maybe a year ago, people could still come into work, could work offline more, but it hurts much more now. And we see that the criminals have started to exploit that.”

What’s the common theme? Change, rapid change, and—in the case of the global shift to working from home—complexity. And that illustrates the problem with traditional cybersecurity, which relies on traditional, signature-based approaches: static defenses aren’t very good at adapting to change. Those approaches extrapolate from yesterday’s attacks to determine what tomorrow’s will look like. “How could you anticipate tomorrow’s phishing wave? It just doesn’t work,” Heinemeyer says.

Download the full report.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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