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First, a word from the sponsor — me:


My second novel, titled Unwitting, Erica Rosen MD Trilogy Book 2, will be released on Oct. 21, 2021. It is available for preorder on the usual sites. If ordered from the publisher, Black Rose Writing, you can receive a 15% discount by using the code PREORDER 2021. You can learn more about the book on another area of my website.


And now for my blog:


The wheels of justice turn slowly, but the trial of Theranos founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is finally about to start. I wrote about Theranos on my first substantive blog in May 2019. By then, the company had fallen apart, the founder disgraced, a best-selling book about it had been published, and the debacle had attracted a whole lot of attention.


Charges were brought up against Holmes, but the story was then quickly relegated to the back pages of most newspapers. After a multitude of delays, the trial is dragging her back into the news. Reasons for postponement of her day of reckoning included (but were not limited to) COVID-19 concerns and Holmes’s pregnancy. Her deferral tactics ran their course, and as I write this, the jury for her trial is being selected.


The defendant has pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, related to her misleading of both patients and investors. It doesn’t appear she will be held accountable for the physical or psychological harm done to people who suffered because of bogus lab results from her company. A handful of affected patients will probably be allowed to share their stories only minimally, as harm to them will not be considered in this trial. Only the financial losses of investors appear to be important in this case.


Some justice for the victims of erroneous lab results may be obtained sometime in the future, as a class action lawsuit has been filed. With the company bankrupt, however, it does not appear likely the plaintiffs will receive significant monetary awards, so the patients harmed by the Theranos con will remain the real losers.


Opening statements in the current legal proceedings are expected soon, and the trial is anticipated to last around three months. If convicted, Holmes could face twenty years in prison and a fine. Strangely, it appears her defense will rely mainly on a claim that she was in an abusive relationship with her onetime partner and boyfriend, Sunny Balwani. Balwani will be separately tried for his part in the fraud, probably early next year.


Holmes is claiming Balwani misled her and somehow forced her to lie about the company, bilking investors and endangering patients who relied on the results. If that is her defense, she will essentially admit to all the lies but claim her participation wasn’t her fault. I can’t help but wonder if she had a baby to garner sympathy from the jurors and intends to perform a sad song on a violin during closing arguments.


I don’t believe in our jury system (that’s a whole other topic for discussion), but I would want to be on this jury if I did. I would likely be disqualified because I’ve already made up my mind regarding her guilt. This trial isn’t likely to gain the attention of the O.J. trial, but it will be interesting. News organizations will be drawn to it like moths to a flame, with a host of well-known people, including Henry Kissinger and General James Mattis, expected to testify.


To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this whole fiasco is why a bunch of supposedly intelligent people invested so heavily in a company without consulting credible clinical scientists or pathologists, the experts in the field (being a pathologist myself, the overt lameness of the whole idea of the company is striking to me). I have little compassion for them, but I do have sympathy for all the patients that were tested using this faulty technology and suffered because of it.


My prediction? She will enter into a plea agreement, possibly one where she avoids any jail time at all. I hope I’m wrong.


If you didn't know it before, you probably know it now. After the recent ransom attacks on a US pipeline and a meatpacking plant, it's clear our economy is at the mercy of rogue cybercriminals. We know individual hospitals and other enterprises have been attacked in the past. Business is booming for these cybercriminals, whether they are working with the cooperation of foreign governments (Russia comes to mind) or not. Trains, planes, electric grids, all things military, medical systems, water, financial systems, you name it—if it's computerized, it's vulnerable.


Financial fraud and ransomware attacks have been around for a while. Individuals have been targeted for years, but ransomware attacks, in particular, are going after bigger and bigger targets nowadays. In such attacks, malicious software is injected into computer systems to steal and/or lock data. The good news is that unless you're Warren Buffet or the like, you don't have enough money to make extorting you worthwhile to the more sophisticated hackers, as long as the multi-million and billion-dollar industries are paying big bucks to cybercriminals.


How do we combat this serious threat? Forbid companies to pay ransoms, as Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm suggests? Easier said than done. When faced with a company shut-down, I believe most company leaders would rather quietly pay the ransom without informing the government rather than risk having their data destroyed or their operations halted.


That's why I ask, WWED? If you don’t know what that means, here’s a hint: What Would Estonia Do? Yes, that country just south of Finland and bordered by Latvia, Russia, and the Baltic Sea appears to be way ahead of the US and most other nations when it comes to protecting themselves against cyberwarfare.


The reason for this expertise dates back to the 2007 Russian cyberattack on Estonia. You can read about the interesting history of Estonia elsewhere, but suffice it to say the Russian government's animosity towards that small country intensified when Estonians moved a monument dedicated to the Soviet Red Army away from the center of the capital, Tallinn, where it was erected by the Soviets in 1947, to the corner of a cemetery on the outskirts of the city.


Some Russian people living in Estonia were offended, and rioting took place in Tallinn. Over one hundred people were injured, and one person killed. The day after the disturbance began, Estonian banks, media outlets, and governmental offices were shut down by botnet cyberattacks that overwhelmed servers with spam and online requests. Estonia was a very digitally advanced country even then, and the attack left the populace without access to cash, online banking, news, or governmental services.


The attack was initiated by the Kremlin and magnified as malicious groups joined in. In the aftermath, Estonians became experts in cyber defense and established the Cyber Defense Unit, in which the country's leading IT experts volunteer to protect the nation's telecommunications infrastructure from cyberattacks. In addition, they work with youth groups and the public to promote best practices.


In 2008, The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) was established as a multinational organization that conducts "cyberdefense research, training and exercises covering the focus areas of technology, strategy, operations and law." The host nation for this organization is—you guessed it (or should have guessed it)—Estonia.


Every year CCDCOE organizes Locked Shields, the largest and most complex international live cyber-defense exercise in the world (won by Sweden in 2021). It is responsible for the Tallinn Manual 2.0, the most comprehensive analysis of how existing international law applies to cyberspace.


What, exactly, has Estonia done to strengthen the country's protection from cybercrimes?


For starters, they promote cybersecurity awareness in their general education. Proper computer "hygiene" is encouraged. This includes password management, use of multifactor authentication, and data backups (I'm feeling negligent just writing this).


They lead the world in encryption of personal data. The national cryptographic identification system is used by the public for virtually every transaction, including voting. Everyone has a smart card linked to two encryption keys: a private key for signatures and a public key for identification. Their encryption standard is very high, at 384-bits, and their national system is continually updated to protect against vulnerabilities.


In Estonia, the public and private sectors cooperate. They have systems in place to detect intrusions and provide protection, making use of blockchain technology and a central monitoring, reporting, and resolution system for cyber incidents. Vital service providers are required to assess and manage their cyber vulnerability.


What's going on in the US?


Digital Service (USDS) was established in 2014 in response to a Chinese government hack of the US government office of personnel management. It is in the executive branch and works across the federal government to bring modern digital solutions to services such as Medicare and veteran's services.


The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) was established in 2018 to defend against cyberattacks. Working under the Department of Homeland Security, CISA is responsible for improving the nation's cybersecurity and communications infrastructure. Legislation allowing data sharing between the US government and technology and manufacturing companies has been criticized by privacy advocates.


In 2020 the US army and Estonian defense ministry signed an agreement enabling the countries to collaborate in cyberdefense.


Currently, there are approximately 300,000 active cybersecurity-related job openings.


Meanwhile, the US encryption standard is 128-bit to 256-bit (security increases exponentially with each bit). We still rely mainly on "wet" signatures. (How good is your signature on an iPad screen? I know mine leaves a lot to be desired.) We have quite a ways to go to catch up with Estonia.


What happened with Colonial Pipeline?


They were attacked by DarkSide, a Russian cybercriminal group that imitates legitimate businesses. DarkSide is one of many for-profit ransomware groups the Russian government allows, as long as they only attack foreign entities. DarkSide uses code resembling that used by REvil, another hacking group that was initially thought to be behind the Colonial Pipeline hack.


As I am writing this, it was announced that some of the money paid by Colonial Pipeline was recovered by federal authorities after the FBI got the private key to the DarkSide bitcoin wallet. How this was accomplished is not yet publicly known. This is the first recovery by the ransomware Justice Dept. task force. That's good news, but the problem is far from solved.

I think I'll back up my data now.







Are you ready for this: “Don’t miss this exciting new thriller, The Mount Rushmore Murders, by r2d2.”


It wasn’t terribly long ago that if you wanted to know something, you had to look it up in a book. Now we’re used to finding tons of information by doing a quick google search. If we’re too lazy for that, we might ask Siri, Alexa, or some other artificial intelligence (AI) creature.


In Project Debater, a computer, armed with a massive wealth of knowledge, went up against a champion debater. The computer clearly had more facts at its disposal than the human. The audience, however, declared the human as the winner, not because he won points on knowledge, but probably because he was able to make statements that were off-point yet seemingly meaningful, a tactic often used by politicians and TV pundits. If the audience had been more thoughtful, perhaps the computer would have won.


According to Moore’s law from 1965 (named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore), computing power doubles every twelve to eighteen months. This sustained increase in computing power has led many people to predict that one day a computer will pass the Turing test.


The Turing test was put forward in 1950 by the computer scientist, cryptanalyst, and mathematician, Alan Turing. He proposed it as a simple way to determine if a computer is truly intelligent, i.e., able to think like a human.


The test has taken on many forms but basically requires a questioner and a responder who are hidden from each other. The questioner interrogates the responder and is subsequently asked to decide whether or not the responder is the computer. This exercise is repeated a number of times. If the questioner thinks the computer is human in at least half of the trials, that computer is considered to have passed the Turing test. Turing had predicted computers would be able to trick humans into thinking they were real by the year 2000.


At first, the test was performed using yes/no questions about a specific subject, and all input and output were typed. The game was upped when output was changed to free-form answers. Now, the test can be performed using spoken language on the part of the interrogator and even, theoretically, the answerer.


A computer named Eugene Goostman is said by some to have passed the Turing test in 2014, using unrestricted conversation. However, the computer masqueraded as a 13-year-old non-native English speaker, so the judges excused some of its poor and/or illogical communication on the basis of the respondent’s immaturity and poor grasp of English. For that reason, not all experts agree that Eugene Goostman passed the test.


One may quibble over whether the Turing test has been passed, but there is no denying that the field of AI has taken off. This has led some, like Elon Musk, to fear where it may lead. While he may be worried about robots taking over our planet, other concerns are on the horizon.


In addition to accessing an enormous amount of information, calculating, making algorithmic decisions, and dominating in jeopardy and chess, computers are making inroads in the creative arts. Since the 1980s, neural networks have been developed to predict next notes (for music) or sketch lines (for art). Already, AI is being used to create original music and art, e.g., Google’s Magenta https://magenta.tensorflow.org/.


This brings me to an area of exploration I personally find disturbing. Computer scientists are now probing AI’s ability to write creatively. Will computers successfully write interesting TV shows, movies, and novels in the future? Will we be reading books created by a distant relative of Eugene Goostman in twenty years? Will there still be a market for fiction penned by mere humans? Are youth taking writing classes in the hope of becoming successful authors wasting their time?


Before all you writers out there start smashing your computers and typewriters, be assured that such a scenario is not just around the corner. But it may be around several corners.


I recently came across an article reprinted from the Los Angeles Review of Books by Patrick House, titled I, Language Robot. In it, the reader gets a glimpse of a language bot being developed by a San Francisco AI research lab. Basically, the computer fills in words according to how likely specific words follow or precede other words (a bit like the predictive wording used in instant messages that gets me in trouble now and then). As a reference, the bot uses about 8 million documents (written by humans, I assume).


Parts of known literary works have been changed by the computer and given to literary experts. They have failed to identify the computer-generated passages. One of the literary works was from Shakespeare’s King Lear. So far, the bot is more of a writing partner than a sole author.


In a 1958 interview, Ernest Hemingway was asked about how he rewrites. He gave the following answer:


“Most of the time I just sit down and write the lines on the piece of paper. If there are any changes I make I usually go back over it and rewrite the line until I get it exact the way I want it.”


When asked about the function of his art, he answered:


“I’m afraid to answer that for fear of being laughed at. To answer that, you have to get at the heart of how a writer creates reality. It is a question I always have to ask myself: ‘Who, exactly, is doing the authoring?’ The answer to that question is usually not me. It’s the readers. It is the readers who author the work, who create the truth.”


Actually, the above are the bot’s answers. Hemingway’s answer were:


“I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped. When it is all finished, naturally you go over it. You get another chance to correct and rewrite. When someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. The last chance is in the proofs. You’re grateful for these different chances.”


and


“Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?”


Did the bot fool you?


If it did, and you’re a writer, perhaps you should be worried. I predict it’s only a question of time before these bots start generating original ideas and plots. Most would agree that computers today cannot actually think. But what about five or ten years from now? Will we be reading novels created by r2d2, Eugene Goostman or some other computer? Stay tuned.

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