31/08/2017 10:24 BST | Updated 31/08/2017 10:25 BST

Artificial Attack Versus Artificial Defence

From Westworld to Humans and Black Mirror, we have been gripped by programmes which delve into the dark side of artificial intelligence. The idea of robots taking on humans has caught our imagination because it's not far off our reality, and we're questioning if machines can, one day, become more intelligent and more powerful than us.

Far from being just a scaremongering topic for science fiction entertainment, artificial intelligence and robotics have been identified as the emerging technology with the greatest potential for negative consequences over the next decade. The recent Global Risks Report by the World Economic Forum highlights some of these risks, from job losses to autonomous weapons and - critically - AI's ability to attack online systems.

This is the battle cyber-security experts are fighting every single day. As AI becomes commoditised, attackers are taking advantage of the technology in a similar way to businesses. How can we possibly compete with AI-driven cyber-attacks which are characterised by their ability to learn and get better as they evolve?

We're talking here about ransomware attacks that get smarter and more targeted about what information is held hostage and what to charge for it. AI could also be used to mimic the writing style of friends or colleagues so you immediately trust that it is them and not a cyber-criminal who has taken control of their account. These technological developments could transform the "advanced attack" into the common place, and mean that attacks which were typically reserved for nation-states and criminal syndicates could soon be available on a greater scale.

Of course, security software vendors can also play at this game, and the Global Risks Report states that "whether AI applications are better at learning to attack or defend will determine whether online systems become more secure or more prone to successful cyber-attacks". It will be a tightly-contested race between artificial attack and artificial defence, so the good guys must continually innovate with AI to predict, prevent and stay ahead of the next major cyber-attack.

We're seeing some good progress as the industry develops stronger ways to combine insights gathered from customer data to produce a more complete and immediate understanding of evolving threats. More automation is also being used to complete time-consuming tasks, such as analysing the normal behaviour of privileged users and detecting any anomalies. 

Right now, the threat might not look like the human-like robots we see on TV, but AI remains the top driver of economic, geopolitical and technological risks. The threat of AI-driven cyber-attacks must not get lost in this conversation, and defeating them must be a major focus throughout 2017.