“Everything is first-class,” says Nerd-in-Chief Steve Wozniak of Dubai, as we sit down to chat on the sidelines of this month’s Gartner Symposium at the Madinat Arena.
“The United States used to talk, when I was growing up, like that’s what we were. The US would look like this if we didn’t spend all our money on the military.”
He tells me he has visited the emirate once before with his wife, Janet, in February, but had little time to properly explore. This time he is absorbing more of the skyline.
“It’s a little bit shocking to see something this beautiful and clean; if a computer were this clean, I would love it as a [piece of] technology,” he enthuses.
In fact, “enthusiastic” is a word that neatly summarises the 64-year-old Apple co-founder. A man who is arguably at the heart of home computing history, naturally inspires a lengthy introduction, but David Willis, Gartner VP and Distinguished Analyst, managed an aptly brief biography when introducing Wozniak to a packed auditorium during the company’s three-day summit.
“Everybody knows, everybody loves Steve Wozniak,” said Willis. “Of course we know him as the co-founder of Apple. He was the principle, sole designer of the Apple I and II. Did you know that before that he used to hack the telephone system, just for fun? Did you also know he founded the first company to market the universal remote control? He also founded an Internet of Things company back in 2001, before anyone was talking about the Internet of Things. He’s a beloved technology personality… We all have Steve to thank for making technology approachable for normal people.”
And “Woz” is equally approachable for normal people. He speaks passionately about everything and does not appear to edit himself. When we start to talk about privacy and I ask him whether he thinks NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero or a villain his answer is prompt and unabashed.
“Total hero to me; total hero,” he gushes. “Not necessarily [for] what he exposed, but the fact that he internally came from his own heart, his own belief in the United States Constitution, what democracy and freedom was about. And now a federal judge has said that NSA data collection was unconstitutional.”
Snowden, who revealed classified NSA documents to reporters in 2013, is a fugitive from US prosecutors, living on a temporary visa in Russia, another nation he has criticised for its approach to privacy. The judgement Wozniak refers to is that of a federal court in New York, which earlier this month found Section 215 of the US Patriot Act, which authorised the mass surveillance programmes exposed by Snowden, to be insufficient grounds for justifying the NSA’s collection of domestic communications data.
“So he’s a hero to me, because he gave up his own life to do it,” says Wozniak. “And he was a young person, to give up his life. But he did it for reasons of trying to help the rest of us and not just mess up a company he didn’t like.”
As stories emerge worldwide of implanted spyware in commercially available hard disks and in SIM cards sold to international telecoms companies, security specialists have incessantly offered solutions to the general public, as to how to shield private activities and data from prying eyes. Wozniak, however, is pessimistic about the prospects of protection, and believes the root cause of the problem extends back to the early years of OS development.
“It’s almost impossible [to protect yourself] because today’s operating systems generally get so huge that they can only come from a few sources, like Microsoft, Google and Apple,” he says. “And those operating systems have so many millions of lines of code in them, built by tens of thousands of engineers over time, that it’s so difficult to go back and detect anything in it that’s spying on you. It’s like having a house with 50,000 doors and windows and you have no idea where there might be a tiny little camera.”
Woz is an ardent privacy advocate and bemoans the lost chances of computing’s fledgling years, where he feels it may have been possible to block future attempts at monitoring.
“There is a type of technology that you can fairly securely today run on your computer and someone else’s computer, [which allows you to] send them a message and it’s private the way it should be,” he says. “I believe that I should be allowed to send a message to my wife and nobody can know it unless they know our passwords.
In 1991, a system named PGP [Pretty Good Privacy] emerged for secure point-to-point data transfer. The data to be sent was encrypted on the machine that sent it and decrypted on the destination machine. Wozniak decries the technology as a lost opportunity for OS vendors.
“At that point in time, if Apple and Microsoft had built [PGP] into their operating system, it would have been a permanent part of email and all email would have been secure,” he says. “Now we’re talking about making laws that you cannot use encryption. It’s almost like you can’t have any secrets anymore. And the modern generation just accepts this as the status quo.
“Companies like Google and Facebook are trying to make money off knowing things about you; they’re trying to funnel things to you and make money that way. Apple is only making good products that you can choose to buy if you want, so I look at Apple as being more the protector of privacy than anyone else.”
But privacy has not been the only casualty of lax security. Increasingly frequent reports by cyber-security companies, regulators and inter-nation co-operatives such as the Organisation of American States (OAS), point to a rise in the number of infiltrations of utilities, telecoms networks, energy companies and other critical infrastructures. Earlier this month, US hacker Chris Roberts told FBI agents that he had hacked into the navigation systems of a commercial US airliner through the plane’s inflight entertainment system, and successfully executed a “climb” command.
Wozniak has been following Robert’s story.
“First of all we have to thank [Roberts] because whatever he did, whether it’s real or made up, it sure brought to our attention how critical this is,” says Wozniak. “Why do people leave out security all the time? It’s just how we are as humans. We grew up with very little security in our homes. Just a lock on the door.
“Every new technology leaves out security and protections; they just want to accomplish something that hasn’t been done before, and then later on, once they get attacked, they have to go back and think out the security. And operating systems are not very good at being preventative. So that is a huge worry to people, but I’m sure that aeroplane companies are going back already making sure that their internal electronics are not reachable.”
Roberts reportedly cracked the control systems through a modified Ethernet cable and default usernames and passwords. This mirrors the shaky security in many home modern routers, which users rarely change. Similar security lapses exist in many small businesses, which may outsource their technology function. Service providers use common credentials for ease of support.
“I have at least 200 different types of account and most of them have different passwords,” says Wozniak. “There’s no way in the world a human being can remember [all] that. If you could have a physical key that has your passwords, and if the key leaves your presence it doesn’t work; that’s a very good system. And two-step authentication is also pretty good because it relies on one physical device.
“There are probably systems that are very secure technically, but will people adapt to them? It’s got to be so natural. Apple has come up with the most natural techniques so far with the iPhone TouchID. And the Watch, where you don’t even have to pull the phone out of your pocket; that’s pretty simple.”
He also makes mention of the Find my iPhone app, which allows owners of lost iPhones to disable their device, as a deterrent to theft. But in this arena, Woz awards the gold to Google.
“There’s an equivalent [of Find my iPhone] in the Google world, [through] Cerberus, where you can not only disable the device, but tell it to take pictures of the user, or if they do certain activities, it automatically takes their picture and sends it to you. Very clever.”
As technology moves into third-platform and Internet-of-Whatever paradigms, it seems only fitting to ask on of the founding fathers of personal computing about what may lie beyond. The discussion inevitably leads to artificial intelligence.
“You used to put questions about the world, to a really smart person,” Wozniak says. “Now you ask Google. So we replaced a very big part of the brain with Google searches. We didn’t ever develop the Internet, Google or personal computers, thinking ‘here’s our goal to replace part of the brain’. It just sort of happened by accident.”
A number of AI projects are making headlines. Japan’s SoftBank demonstrated an emotion-mimicking robot called Pepper; Yahoo invested in a research group that is working on a semantic model to supplant Apple’s Siri; and IBM’s Watson platform was able to outfox humans in the quiz show, Jeopardy. But I put it to Wozniak that projects like these do not emulate true thought. He agrees, but sees a vibrant future in the field of AI.
“I think, as we keep developing finer and finer points of the technology, especially the neural network learning machines that have been demonstrated – and IBM has its SyNAPSE chips now – I think we’re going to stumble on to the formula that learns by itself. And that’s going to be unbeatable for being true intelligence, not simulated intelligence.”
The nature of machine intelligence has been debated by academics and engineers even before 1950, when British mathematician Alan Turing proposed his famed test to determine true artificial thought. In the most basic interpretation, a human subject interacts through a computer with both a machine and a human, both of which are screened from the interrogator. If the subject cannot tell the difference, the machine passes the test.
“You see, we have cases where a machine can pass the Turing Test,” says Wozniak. “Is this a machine or a real person? It seems like a real person to me. But it’s still not as good as you and I talking. What if I were a machine and I’m this good at listening to you and talking to you, and you didn’t know the difference. That’s the fear we have. We can’t do that yet but we’re getting closer and closer.
“I think the key is the Internet. Because the Internet is like a collective consciousness, showing what all the humans of the world are thinking and searching for. Maybe our brains aren’t much more than one step more of analysing the data. I can say words into Siri and it gets the words right, but it doesn’t know the meaning of what I’m really asking, and I’m thinking that if you write software to analyse every one of these cases you’ll get out the real meaning. So here’s the Internet; it’s got as many nodes as we have neurons; as many network connections as we have synapses. So that’s likely going to be a big player… [in] true intelligence.”
I bring up quantum computing, the revolutionary new approach that could potentially lead to processing speeds many orders of magnitude greater than what humans are currently used to. I ask Wozniak if this could this allow AI to take a leap forward.
“I don’t think [processing power is that important],” he says. “I think it just goes along with the development, it’s not critical. Quantum computing has such extreme promise that maybe I could be wrong, but I’ve said all my life that if [a machine] could do a million things a second, if it did a billion, if it did a trillion, it would never solve that problem [of true intelligence]. So raw speed is not a critical factor to help solve problems. Quantum computing is like looking at [a problem] from so many angles at the same time that you can solve things that were unsolvable before, so it does have promise. But I don’t know enough about quantum computing to know if I can trust it.”