Danny Hillis: The Internet could crash. We need a Plan B


Danny Hillis is an inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While completing his doctorate at MIT, he pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID array.


Danny was one of the first users of the internet – back in 1982 when everyone’s email address and contact details were printed large print in a thin phone book. All users trusted each other, taking only what they needed (domain names) and passing messages on each other’s behalf when bandwidth was low. He jokes that it is remarkable such communist ideals underwrote the US defense department’s efforts during the cold war.

Trust is much lower nowadays, and we are dealing with this by making smaller walled networks: VPNs and subnetworks – that imitate the internet on a smaller scale. The internet protocols are still vulnerable to attack and silly mistakes – for example Youtube was blocked in all of Asia because of an error in Pakistan’s protocols. Recently a mistake was made by Chinese telecom where a large proportion of US internet traffic (including defence networks) went through China – whether or not this action was a mistake it is easy to see how this can be abused by someone doing it intentionally. Industrial control networks can be crippled – these systems do not think of themselves as part of the internet, but they can be made vulnerable for example an Iranian nuclear plant’s centrifuges destroyed themselves in a cyber-attack.

Internet security tends to focus on the target’s computers, and not on the internet itself. An early bug in ARPAnet caused one router to claim it could deliver a packet in negative time, and other routers looking for quickest delivery sent everything through it. To fix this bug they had to reset the whole internet: a process which would be impossible now with so many other systems reliant on it. The internet protocols and building blocks are now being used in ways and systems that it wasn’t designed for, such as mobile phone networks, rocket ship communications, petrol pumps. It has become a system where people understand the individual components, but noone can understand the scale of the system and how it fits together. It was a small system originally built on trust, and now expanded well beyond how it was intended.

Danny proposes we need a separate system independent of the internet as a ‘backup’ if the internet is taken down by an attack. It needn’t be as big and wouldn’t be complicated to design, just something to allow emergency services to keep communication going. It is one of the easiest TED ideas to implement, we just need to convince people that it is worth doing.

My Thoughts

Danny’s discussion of the internet in its early days is fascinating, however I’m not entirely sure what he is asking us to do now. He mentions police need to talk to fire services – is he just advocating that phone networks or radios stay independent of the internet? How does independence work anyway: he said himself that industrial / military networks are designed to be separate from the internet but are vulnerable to attack regardless.

He mentions the technical details are easy to design – perhaps he should put a proposal forward with a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy, so we can clearly see what he is proposing and what functionality it would give. Until then it is hard to imagine what we need from a ‘backup internet’.

Pia Mancini: How to upgrade democracy for the Internet era


Using software to inspire public debate and enable voter engagement, Pia Mancini hopes to upgrade modern democracy in Argentina and beyond.


Democracy as a system is rooted in thinking and constraints from 500 years ago. Every few years it represents a few to make decisions on behalf of everyone else. It has high thresholds of entry: you need either a lot of resources or to devote your life to politics. The language is also complicated, so we can choose the authorities but are left out of how the decisions are made. The political system is 200 years old, and expects us to be passive recipients of the monologue. This attitude itself alienates citizens – giving them no opportunities to intervene except by protest’. People want their seat at the table.

The current generation has been good at using technology to organise protests, that have overthrown totalitarian governments and changed unpopular laws. However we have not yet used the technology to change the system itself. If the internet is the new printing press, then what is democracy for the internet era? Pia asks what institutions we need to build for the 21st century, and doesn’t know the answer.

Pia and some friends in Argentina were left thinking about how we can use technology to solve current political problems, rather than relying on the tools of the past. She developed an open source app ‘DemocracyOS’, which translates issues into easy-to-understand language and allows people to informally vote on them. They could compare citizen’s votes with the votes of their representatives to see the discrepancies. When she tried to get politicians on board with the idea of a 2 way conversation with voters, she failed. Reflecting, she says she was naieve to expect the political elite to go along with this – the problems are cultural and not purely technical.

Pia took a leap of faith and ran a politcal party in Buenos Aires, with the idea that they would always vote along the same lines as the voters from DemocracyOS. To change the system, they needed a seat at the table, which meant playing by the political rules. While they did not win a seat, they did pick up 1.2% of the vote and have used their influence to have 3 bills to be voted on by DemocracyOS. Congress would not be bound by the vote, but they are at least showing willingness to consider the results.

My Thoughts

It’s a brave product, but asking everyone to vote on a smartphone app has some issues of representation. It makes things expensive for the poor – effectively dealing them out of the issues. It also may not be trusted – security concerns could undermine the authority of the product. And a vote could still be hijacked by a small but committed group. It also may not be the best way to make complex, or unpopular but necessary decisions – eg reducing spending in some areas.

However, as time goes on and if such a product became ubiquitous, I think it could be a good system. Certainly on pure ‘conscience’ or social issues it could work. I still think for some more complicated issues it should be experts picking which way to go (which still isn’t done properly by the current system).

Sally Kohn: Don’t like clickbait? Don’t click


Sally Kohn is a liberal political commentator, community organizer, and founder and chief education officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots think tank. Kohn was a contributor for the Fox News Channel.


The internet can be a nasty place, and has been shown to be much worse if you are gay, a woman, or a person of colour. Sally herself has found a fake twitter account which accuses her of being a bull dike, a man hater, and someone who only talks to spread her ‘perverse sexuality’.

However, if everyone hates this, we can change it by making a small sacrifice. People are no longer passive receivers of a media run by elites – no longer is the world divided into media creators and media consumers. By reading twitter or posting to a blog we are making a public act. We decide what gets attention by clicking on something – algorithms will decide that is what you need to see more of.

60% of Americans think America is becoming incivil, but they also click these the same ridiculously worded rumour-mongering articles. In an increasingly noisy media landscape, there are more incentives to make as much noise as possible. The tyranny of the loud encourages the nastiest comments. We need to change the incentives.

When you see someone abused, do something – drown out the negative with the positive. And don’t click on nasty and inane stories – it only encourages more of them. Clicking on them will force more stories of the same to appear.

My Thoughts

Good advice to all – however I disagree with her about ‘doing something’ to online trolls. By ‘being a hero’ and fighting nasty comments, you are giving them merit. By responding to a nasty article or a nasty person, you are triggering another incentive in both the article and the trolls. The articles are nasty because that generates controversy – by responding to an article you are feeding that controversy.

Beyond that – spread the word to others. Don’t click on garbage – it only encourages more garbage.

Anant Agarwal: Why massively open online courses (still) matter


Anant Agarwal is president of edX, a partnership of MIT and Harvard to provide MOOCs. He is also a professor of MIT with background in electrical engineering and computer science.


Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are taking off, able to teach millions of people at a time using online interactive technologies. 155,000 people enrolled in edX’s first MOOC, with 7,157 students passing. But in this course, Anant looks at what we can learn from MOOCs to apply in more conventional university courses.

University lectures have not changed significantly in the last 50 years. Anant claims the last big leap in education was textbooks and the printing press, hundreds of years ago. Modern teenagers interact and learn very differently to how they learnt decades ago – they are more comfortable in the online world. Education needs to embrace technology to better engage students.

  • Online Lecture, blended physical approach – let them watch videos at their own pace, wherever they are most comfortable. They can pause, rewind, skip, mute – letting them control the information flow better. Then they can meet physically to interact, discuss their learning, and do practical exercises in a classroom with other students. By adopting a blended approach in this way, San Jose university’s circuits and electronics course went from a 41% fail rate to 9%.
  • Active Learning – instead of traditional lectures, they are replaced with online ‘lessons’. A lesson includes an 8 minute video and then some exercises – and this lets people interact with the material more.
  • Instant feedback – exercises can be marked instantly, rather than submitting work and getting feedback weeks later. This lets people instantly know whether they are correct.
  • Gamification – Use computer simulations to build online labs – for example building a circuit using an online lab.
  • Peer learning – using forums and discussions to let students talk about the subject matter. Originally Anant was going to answer all questions himself, but after a while he realised that students would respond to each other. They could talk and get to the answer without any input from himself – the students were learning by teaching each other.


Markham Nolan: How to separate fact and fiction online


Markham Nolan – managing editor of Storyful.com, Markham Nolan has watched journalism evolve from the pursuit of finding facts to the act of verifying those floating in the ether.


Markham has been a journalist since he was 17, but the way people access news is changing, and the people who write news is changing. In the modern age, readers access news in real-time, with journalists playing catchup to collect news from their readers. For example an earthquake in Costa Rica was reported by a citizen on Twitter within 30seconds of it occurring – meaning anyone in the world could know about it within 30 seconds. However, massive amounts of data are uploaded to the internet every second so how do you filter it and work out what is true?

During Hurricane Sandy real photos were posted alongside jokes and fakes, leaving journalists to filter through to find the truth. Instead of the old model of finding the story, their job was to hold back the untrue stories. One tool to identify truth was to identify who was telling it. They followed a conversation by looking at re-tweets, and identified the most influential people. These could then be investigated further to build up a contact directory of genuine sources.

Markham discusses a Youtube video of a violent storm and an unseen woman filming it. It was an amazing clip – journalistic gold, but it needed verification first. The username was Rita Krill, with only a single video uploaded. First they used free tools to identify Rita Krills in a number of cities, then cross-checked with wolfram-alpha to find which cities had violent weather on the day of uploading. Then White pages for addresses, and Google maps to find a swimming pool featured in the video. They could then call her and verified it was true.

Sometimes verifying truth in Youtube videos is extremely important – when they depict war crimes. A video allegedly of Muslim Brotherhood members tossing bloodied bodies off a bridge near Hamah for example. To verify, they looked for details of the bridge itself – the shape of railings or direction of shadows (to identify it is an East-West bridge). They used Google Maps to find East-West bridges around Hamah, then photos of the bridge to check the railings and other features from the video, successfully identifying a bridge near Hamah that matched the one in the video. They verified the location a video was filmed using free tools within 20minutes, from an office in Dublin thousands of kilometers away from the video’s origin.

Although the web is a torrent of information, with a few clues you can work out amazing things. We have amazing tools and algorithms to filter the info, but these tend to be binary (in or out). However truth is not binary, it is a variable, it is emotional and fluid. No matter how good computers get, humans cannot be removed from the truth-finding, because truth is such a human trait.

Richard Ledgett: The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk

Speakers: Richard Ledgett – deputy director of the National Security Administration (NSA).

Interviewed by Chris Anderson – curator and current owner of TED talks with a background in journalism.


Chris Anderson interviews Richard Ledgett of NSA, in response to Ed Snowden’s talk https://tedsummaries.com/2014/03/30/edward-snowden-heres-how-we-take-back-the-internet/. I have tried to summarise, with Chris’ questions in bold, and Richard’s response afterwards.

What did you make of Snowden’s original talk?

There were some kernels of truth in Snowden’s talk, but plenty of untruths. The openness concerns raised are an important conversation being made at the moment.

Did Snowden have other avenues to reveal his concerns?

He could have talked to his supervisor, or the inspector-generals. Richard disputes that Snowden was a whistleblower in the conventional sense. However, Chris responds that contractors are not as protected, nor were previous whistleblowers treated well by the NSA.

How did Snowden put lives at risk?

Snowden revealed NSA’s capabilities, in a way that caused caused criminals and terrorists to change their communication channels, closing off some of NSA’s intelligence & response capability.

Chris speaks of Bullrun program: which weakened the security of the internet.

Some people use the internet to work against the US and it’s allies. The NSA needs an ability to respond to this, and it is impossible to differentiate between ‘bad guys’ internet and others. The NSA also has a second role to advise security protocols which it stands behind.

Chris summarises the last statement as if anything is justifiable to protect national security. 

Richard talks about balance between privacy and national security. The NSA needs to be more transparent about how it acquires and uses its information, but he believes they don’t need to be transparent about their operational capabilities.

Is this doing a disservice to the companies that the NSA forces to disclose data?

All countries have similar disclosure laws available to them, in the same way as the USA.

The US constitution allows freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. How do you categorise US citizens right to privacy?

NSA puts significant time and effort into protecting US citizen’s privacy. Richard says he has an email account on the number 1 site used by terrorists, so he is invested in protecting ‘innocents’. He says there are shredding protocols to ignore the data of innocents. Foreigners are also protected by the same ideas. People should only be targetted if they are associated with a counter-terrorism investigation.

Is terrorism still a threat?

It is still the number 1 issue. There are places where Americans and Western foreigners are joining international organisations to “learn Jihad”. Cyberterrorism is another issue, where companies / citizens’ data is used against them, to steal technology or use commercial information to outbid.

Approximately 500 American’s have died over recent decades of Terrorism, and most have been home grown. People don’t believe that terrorism is still the #1 issue.

NSA’s programs have greatly reduced the risk of terrorism over recent years – preventing 54 attacks. Also, a single nuclear or biological threat would greatly increase the number of casualties.

Were the electronic interception programs discussed by Snowden responsible for preventing any of these 54 attacks?

People might say there isn’t a single threat where an attack would have occurred “but for” the electronic interception. However, they were one point in the ‘mosaic’ of information available

Is the word terrorism a cover to acquire more powers? Does the NSA discuss what powers are actually needed?

Internal discussion is key. In addition, the powers were approved by 2 different presidents and the full checks and balances of law.

How do you respond to legislators being shocked and surprised by the scale of NSA investigations?

Congress is a large body, with high turnover every 2 yrs. Congress members had the opportunity to make themselves aware, and the ones with direct responsibility over NSA were very clearly aware of the issues.

Regarding Cyber-attacks: is there a balance between offensive and defensive roles? Has the NSA weakened encryption, and made the US more vulnerable to cyberattacks?

Richard: “You said ‘weaken encryption’, I didn’t”. The NSA is heavily biased towards defense, and disclose vulnerabilities to the manufacturers when discovered. They are also working on transparency reports to disclose their releases to companies / manufacturers.

Has Snowden opened a debate that matters?

Richard did not like the way he did it – by risking the operations and lives of US and it’s allies. However he is glad he started the conversation.

Is it possible to broker an amnesty deal with Snowden, if he surrenders all his remaining documents?

It is always possible to talk about, if the government could get something out of it.

What is your idea worth spreading?

Learn the facts, this is an important conversation about privacy and personal data. Don’t rely on headlines, soundbites or one sided conversations.

Edward Snowden: Here’s how we take back the Internet

Speakers: Ed Snowden – a CIA & NSA computer specialist who came to notoriety when he released internal documents to the public, which showed evidence of spying on USA citizens and foreigners. Currently in exile in Russia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden

Interviewed by Chris Anderson – curator and current owner of TED talks with a background in journalism.


Ed Snowden, currently exiled to Russia for releasing many documents showing evidence of NSA spying on citizens and foreign governments, appears by webcam robot to discuss his decisions to release the documents. An interview style of ‘talk’, rather than the more conventional lecture. Recommended for it’s thought-provoking style and discussion of the ideas of privacy vs security.

Ed as a sysadmin in Hawaii was uncomfortable with the sort of data he discovered, which was being taken in secret without oversight. He released this data to the journalists to encourage the freedom of the press to analyse and release it responsibly. The NSA says most of the things held are ‘metadata’, however PRISM program includes true content as well. When corporate America resisted handing over the content, they were taken to a secret court without oversight or coverage. Most of the main tech giants have given data to PRISM via warrants, but Ed also accuses the NSA of ‘hacking’ into Google’s internal servers to intercept data. For this reason, Ed wants the tech giants to enable encrypted browsing to prevent intelligence services from intercepting your browsing habits.

He talks about an NSA program called ‘Boundless Intelligence’, which intercepts more data from within USA than Russians intercept within Russia – a claim the US should not like to make. The chairman of the senate intelligence committee has minimal oversight of these interceptions, having not even seen audit reports before the Washington Post wanted comment on them.

Chris asked Ed why people should be scared if they have nothing to hide. Ed said this came to the rights of the individual – you shouldn’t give them up just because you might not need them. He said it is too much of an invasion of privacy to give access to all human interaction to all governments.

They then discussed Dick Cheney and some other government comments about this being the worse betrayal in US history, about the dire consequences. Ed countered that they are conflating public interest and national interest – that going to war in places that are no threat to the US does not serve the public interest. He also said that after a year we have seen no dire impacts from his releases.

Bullrush is a program where NSA influences companies to adopt standards which allow them (and other governments) backdoors to access the data. The goal is to weaken security of these companies. This will also weaken USA’s defence against foreign agents. NSA says the goal of these programs is to counter terrorism, but the government has said it has no value. Terrorism is an emotive word, and September 11 attacks were used as a secret justification to begin programs like Bullrush which were previously discussed and believed to be of minimal value.

The talk ends with introducing Tim Berners-Lee to the stage – the inventor of the internet. They discuss a magna carta for the internet- to encode the values of the digital generation into the internet. The ask whether the internet has increased the power of ‘Big Brother’ and their ease of surveillance, or of the public for fighting unlawful invasion of privacy.

When asked whether he would return to the US, he said he’d like to, but not if it would involve betraying his journalistic sources or watering down his message. The last year has been a reminder that democracy may die behind closed doors, but individuals are also born behind those doors. We don’t have to give up our privacy to have good government. We don’t need to give up our liberty to have security.