Anonymous emblemWith each book I write, I usually create an accompanying blog post about the technology in the story: what’s real, what’s on the horizon, and what’s totally made up.

My previous Singularity series extrapolated out from current day technology by ten year intervals, which turned the books into a series of predictions about the future. Kill Process is different because it’s a current day novel. A few of the ideas are a handful of years out, but not by much.

Haven’t read Kill Process yet? Then stop here, go buy the book, and come back after you’ve read it. 🙂

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

The technology of Kill Process can be divided into three categories:

  1. General hacking: profiling people, getting into computers and online accounts, and accessing data feeds, such as video cameras.
  2. Remotely controlling hardware to kill people.
  3. The distributed social network Tapestry.

General Hacking and Profiling

JENOPTIK DIGITAL CAMERA

The inside of an Apple IIe. To host a Diversi-Dial, one would install a modem in every slot. Because one slot was needed to connect the disk drives, it was necessary to load the software from a *cassette tape* to support 7 phone lines simultaneously!

In the mid-1980s, Angie is running a multiline dial-up chat system called a Diversi-Dial (real). An enemy hacker shuts off her phone service. Angie calls the phone company on an internal number, and talks to an employee, and tricks them into reconnecting her phone service in such a way that she doesn’t get billed for it. All aspects of this are real, including the chat system and the disconnect/reconnect.

As an older teenager, Angie wins a Corvette ZR1 by rerouting phone calls into a radio station. Real. This is the exact hack that Kevin Poulsen used to win a Porsche.

In the current day, Angie regularly determines where people are. They’re running a smartphone application (Tomo) that regularly checks in with Tomo servers to see if there are any new notifications. Each time they check in, their smartphone determines their current geolocation, and uploads their coordinates. Angie gets access to this information not through hacking, but by exploiting her employee access at Tomo. All of this is completely feasible, and it’s how virtually all social media applications work. The granularity of geocoordinates can vary, depending on whether the GPS is currently turned on, but even without GPS, the location can be determined via cell phone tower triangulation to within a few thousand feet. If you want to mask your location from social media apps, you can use the two smartphone approach: One smartphone has no identifying applications or accounts on it, and is used to act as a wireless hotspot. A second smartphone has no SIM card and/or is placed in airplane mode so that it has no cellular connection, and GPS functionality is turned off. It connects to the Internet via the wireless hotspot functionality of the first phone. This doesn’t hide you completely (because the IP address of the first phone can be tracked), but it will mask your location from typical social media applications. While Angie can see everyone, because of her employee access, even regular folks can stalk their “friends”: stalking people via Facebook location data.

Angie determines if people are happy, depressed, or isolated based on patterns of social media usage as well as the specific words they use. Feasible. Studies have been done using sentiment analysis to determine depression.

Computer hackers and lock picking. One handed lock picking (video). Teflon-coated lock picks to avoid evidenceReal.

Angie profiles domestic abusers through their social media activity. Quasi-feasible. Most abusers seek to isolate their victims, and that will include keeping their victims off social media. That would make it hard for Angie to profile them, because it’s difficult to profile what’s not there. On the other hand, many abusers stalk their victims through their smartphones, which actually opens up more opportunities to detect when such abuse happens.

Angie builds a private onion routing network using solar-powered Raspberry Pi computers. This is very feasible, and multiple crowd sourced projects for onion routers have launched.

Angie seamlessly navigates between user’s payment data (the Tomo app handles NFC payments), social media profiles, search data, and web history. This is real. Data from multiple sources is routinely combined, even across accounts that you think are not connected, because you used different email addresses to sign up. There are many ways information can leak to connect accounts: a website has both email addresses, a friend has both email addresses listed under one contact, attempting to log in under one email address and then logging under a different across. But the most common is web browser cookies from advertisers that tracking you across multiple websites and multiple experiences. They know all of your browser activity is “you”. Even if you never sign up for Facebook or other social media accounts, they are aggregating information about who you are, who your connections are. Future Crimes by Marc Goodman has one of the best descriptions of this. But I’ll warn you that this book is so terrifying that I had to consume it in small bits, because I couldn’t stomach reading it all at once.

Compromising a computer via a USB drive. Real.

Angie hacks a database that she can’t access by provisioning an extra database server into a cluster, making modifications to that server (which she has compromised), and waiting for the changes to synchronize. Likely feasible, but I don’t have a ton of experience here. The implication is that she has access to change the configuration of the cluster, even though she doesn’t have access to modify the database. This is plausible. An IT organization could give an ops engineers rights to do things related to provisioning without giving them access to change the data itself.

Angie did a stint in Ops to give herself backdoors into the provisioning layer. Feasible. It’s implausible that Angie could do everything she does by herself unless I gave her some advantages, simply because it’s too time consuming to do everything via brute force attacks. By giving Angie employee access, and letting her install backdoors into the software, it makes her much more powerful, and enables her to do things that might otherwise take a large group of hackers much longer periods of time to achieve.

Angie manipulates the bitcoin market by forcing Tomo to buy exponentially larger and larger amounts of bitcoin. This is somewhat feasible, although bitcoin probably has too much money invested in it now to be manipulated by one company’s purchases. Such manipulation would be more plausible with one of the smaller, less popular alternative currencies, but I was afraid that general readers wouldn’t be familiar with the other currencies. The way she does this is somewhat clever, I think. Rather than change the source code, which would get the closest level of inspection, she does it by changing the behavior of the database so that it returns different data than expected: in one case returning the reverse of a number, and in another case, returning a list of accounts from which to draw funds. Since access to application code and application servers is often managed separately from access to database servers, attacking the database server fits with Angie’s skills and previous role as database architect.

Angie is in her office when Igloo detects ultrasonic sounds. Ultrasonic communication between a computer and smartphone to get around airgaps is real. Basics of ultrasonic communication. Malware using ultrasonic to get around air gaps of up to 60 feet.

Remotely Controlling Hardware

In the recent past, most devices with embedded electronics ran custom firmware that implemented a very limited set of functionality: exactly what was needed for the function of the device, no more and no less. It ran on very limited hardware, with just exactly the functionality that was needed.

But the trend of decreasing electronics cost, increasing functionality, and connectivity has driven many devices towards using general-purpose operating systems running on general purpose computers. By doing so, they get benefits such as a complete network stack for doing TCP/IP communication, APIs for commodity storage devices, and libraries that implement higher levels functions. Unfortunately, all of this standard software may have bugs in it. If your furnace moves to a Raspberry Pi controller, for example, you now have a furnace vulnerable to any bug or security exploit in any aspect of the Linux variant that’s running, as well as any bugs or exploits in the application written by the furnace manufacturer.

Angie has a car execute a pre-determined set of maneuvers based on an incoming signal. Feasible in the near future. This particular scenario hasn’t happened, but hackers are making many inroads: Hackers remote take control of a Jeep. Remotely disable brakes. Unlock VW cars.

Killing someone via their pacemaker. Feasible: Hackers Kill a Mannequin.

Controlling an elevator. Not feasible yet, but will be feasible in the future when building elevators implement general internet or wireless connectivity for diagnostics and/or elevator coordination.

Software defined radios can communicate at a wide range of frequencies and be programmed to use any wireless protocol. Real.

handgun-drone

Yes, that is a handgun mounted on a quadcopter.

Angie hacks smoke and carbon monoxide alarms to disable the alarm prior to killing someone. Unfortunately, hacking smoke alarms is real, as is hacking connected appliances. Appliances typically have very weak security. It’s feasible in the near future that Angie could adjust combustion settings and reroute airflow for a home furnace. Setting a house on fire is very possible.

There’s a scene involving a robot and a gun. I won’t say much more about the scene, but people have put guns on drones. Real.

Tapestry / Distributed Social Networks

Angie defined a function to predict the adoption of a social network. This was my own creation, modeled on the Drake Equation. It received some input from others, and while I’m not aware of anyone using it, it probably can be used as a thought exercise for evaluating social network ideas.

IndieWeb is completely real and totally awesome. If you’re a programmer, get involved.

The protocols for how Tapestry works are all feasible. I architected everything that was in the book to make sure it could be done, to the point of creating interaction diagrams and figuring out message payloads. Some of this stuff I kept, but most was just a series of whiteboard drawings.

Igloo designs chatbots to alleviate social isolation. Plausible. This is an active area of development: With Bots Like These, Who Needs Friends? Is there an app for loneliness?

Conclusion

I haven’t exhaustively covered everything in the book, but what I have listed should help demonstrate that essentially all the technology in Kill Process is known to be real, or is plausible today, or will be feasible within the next few years.

For more reading, I recommend:

 

Advanced Platform Building

Jane Friedman

  • The right message + the right words + the right audience = massive success
  • Owned media
    • Your website, your blog, email newsletter, any content you host yourself
    • You don’t own social media, you don’t have people’s names, you can’t control it.
  • You must have a website
    • Critical tool for long-term decision making: Google Analytics
    • It’s free, and even if you don’t think you need it now, put it on anyway, so you can have the data in the future.
  • Google Mobile Usability
    • Google Webmaster Tools – Mobile Usability
    • You must fix this, because it affects how your site is scored and ranked
  • Design unity and repetition
    • Images, colors, fonts, headers/banners, icon or illustration style
    • Look at all touchpoints: Website/blog, email newsletter, business crds, social media cover images: should all echo the same design elements.
    • How does your website name and description and top links appear in google search results
      • The metadata appears in many different places
      • Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress
  • Email lists
    • Number one way to reach most important fans.
    • At least once a month so people don’t forget who you are, but not more than once per week.
    • Content
      • Media consumption list: all the cool stuff you used/read/consumed
      • Funny stuff
      • Q&A
      • Behind the scenes
      • Giveaways, discounts, competitions
      • Book launch campaigns
    • Make it consistent and sustainable
    • List building: your website
      • Highly trafficked pages
      • Homepage
      • End-of-page call to action
      • And social media
      • Mailmunch: popup survey that is not too annoying
      • Sumome: popup survey alternative
      • Both of above integrate with mailchimp
      • Doubled mailing list in six months
      • Use a custom subject line à more effective than
      • Consider convertkit email mailing list
  • Marketing Funnels
    • Marketing communications
      • Objectives: Sales-focused, message-focused
    • Message impact sequence:
      • (1) Awareness, (2) comprehension, (3) conviction, (4) action (the sale)
    • Funnel works best when you know what the call-to-action is for someone at each stage of the funnel
  • Common calls to actions
    • Buy my latest book.
    • Sign up for my email newsletter.
    • Download this free excerpt or guide.
    • Take this quiz.
    • Sign up for my class.
    • Follow me on X social media network.
    • Language matters:
      • “Be the Smartest Author: Stay informed about the best digital media tools and meaningful publishing industry news (2-3x month).”
    • What do you give people that’s free that attracts new people?
    • What do you give people that are fans?
    • To attract new readers or fans: Consider things people can easily say yes to
      • Giveaways, discounts, free first book in a series, free workshop or course, free downloadable guide
    • Existing readers and fans
      • Use social media to generate excitement about upcoming work (cover reveals questions)
  • The more books or content you have, the more options you have.
    • Lead magnets: the thing you give away for free to get customers.
  • Facebook ads: work with a consultant who helps you set up Facebook ads.
  • Facebook Pixel: You add something to your website, and then Facebook allows you to create ads targeting people who have visiting your website.
  • Working with influencers:
    • What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on?
    • What’s the most challenging thing you’re working on?
    • These can open up possibilities to help someone.
    • You can do it strategically, but you have to do it from a good place, not a manipulative place.
  • Working with VIPs
    • Avoid asking for book launch favors on social media.
    • Personal email should be used for important requests.
      • Be specific.
      • VIPs may want to help, but they don’t have the attention span or mental space to figure out what is best.
  • Content
    • What different ways can content be used? Use all the different formats, not just one.
      • Example: VQRTrueStory
        • Instagram photo with story as caption
        • Story as article on blog
        • Best story over 3 months goes into the print journal
    • Do image overlays: Images get far more engagements and clicks than just a link.
    • For an article, do a photo with a pull quote overlaid on it, then share that for different networks
    • Flowcharts are very popular on Tumblr…so Jane created one.
    • Consider a series or challenge that solicits participation
      • They often get saved, shared, and forwarded.
      • User generated content
      • Example: “30 day poetry challenge”
      • Simplegreensmoothies: challenge people to drink 1 green smoothie a day.
      • Posted different recipes every day for 30 days
    • Harness power of images and videos
      • Images vastly more shared than just text or text and links (10x)
      • Canva.com, will help you create the images for social media
    • Where to get an easy start with video
      • Facebook Live (video): can only be done with phone or tablet, so quality can be low
      • Snapchat
      • Instagram
  • Private Facebook Groups
  • User-Generated Content
    • Very task-oriented, or people won’t do it.
    • Must be monitored in some way to keep on topic
    • Built-in reward: must be tangible benefits to everyone
    • Focuses on relevant topics and keywords
    • Does not necessarily mean unedited
  • Tapas app: https://tapas.io/
    • Serialize books and make much
  • Use Google Trends to look up search terms and relate search terms…it tells you what people are searching for, which tells you which words to use it in your posts and post titles
  • Soovle is a tool that searches multiple sites at once to tell you what people are searching for
  • Also use “Searches related to <searchterm>” at the bottom of the search results page
  • Google Search Console: How are you being found now?
  • After you do this analysis, go back and look at your titles: make sure they are clear, literal, and related to your books
  • Goodreads and LibraryThing
  • FollowerWonk: to analyze twitter followers, type of tweets, etc.
    • MozTools : SEO Moz, open site explorer
    • Make every marketing effort trackable
  • Tools for Tracking
    • ly
    • Google Analystics
    • Amazon Affiliate

 

Kill Process Cover

I’m excited to announce that my new novel, Kill Process, is now available!

Here’s where you can get it right now:

More storefronts, such as iBooks and Barnes & Noble, will be available in the coming days. I’m also very happy to announce that, thanks to in part to fast work from Brick Shop Audio, the audio book edition is already available!

The concept:

By day, Angie, a twenty-year veteran of the tech industry, is a data analyst at Tomo, the world’s largest social networking company; by night, she exploits her database access to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them. She can’t change her own traumatic past, but she can save other women.

When Tomo introduces a deceptive new product that preys on users’ fears to drive up its own revenue, Angie sees Tomo for what it really is—another evil abuser. Using her coding and hacking expertise, she decides to destroy Tomo by building a new social network that is completely distributed, compartmentalized, and unstoppable. If she succeeds, it will be the end of all centralized power in the Internet.

But how can an anti-social, one-armed programmer with too many dark secrets succeed when the world’s largest tech company is out to crush her and a no-name government black ops agency sets a psychopath to look into her growing digital footprint?

A few of the early endorsements:

“Awesome, thrilling, and creepy: a fast-paced portrayal of the startup world, and the perils of our personal data and technical infrastructure in the wrong hands.”
Brad Feld, managing director of Foundry Group

“His most ambitious work yet. A murder thriller about high tech surveillance and espionage in the startup world. Like the best of Tom Clancy and Barry Eisner.”
Gene Kim, author of The Phoenix Project

“Explores the creation and effects of the templated self, the rise of structured identity and one-size-fits-all media culture, and feasible alternatives.”
Amber Case, author of Calm Technology

I hope you have a blast reading Kill Process. I certainly enjoyed writing it.
— Will

ChildrenOfArkadiaI read Children of Arkadia, by Darusha Wehm, over the weekend. This was a fascinating book. The setting is a classic of science fiction: a bunch of idealistic settlers embark on creating an idealized society in a space station colony. There are two unique twists: the artificial general intelligences that accompany them have, in theory, equal rights and free will as the humans. There are no antagonists: no one is out to sabotage society, there’s no evil villain. Just circumstances.

Darusha does an excellent job exploring some of the obvious and not-so-obvious conflicts that emerge. Can an all-knowing, super intelligence AI ever really be on equal footing with humans? How does work get done in a post-scarcity economy? Can even the best-intentioned people armed with powerful and helpful technology ever create a true utopia?

Children of Arkadia manages to explore all this and give us interesting and diverse characters in a compact, fun to read story. Recommended.

 

My editor is working on Kill Process right now. I’ll receive the marked up manuscript next week and will process all the changes and comments before turning it over to my proofreader. They’ll work on it for about a week, then return it to me, and I’ll process all those corrections. Then the book goes out for formatting to two different people: one for ebook and one for print. When they’re done, everything gets proofed one last time, and if it all looks good, I’ll fulfill Patreon awards to backers.

After that, I’ll upload files to the various vendors, and a week or so after that, the books are live and available for sale. While all that’s happening, there will also be final tweaks to the covers, coordination with the audiobook narrators, and more.

Even as close to the end as this, it’s still hard to predict whenever Kill Process will be available. Do I get a file back right at the start of a long weekend when I can be completely focused on it? Or do I receive it as I’m entering a long stretch with my kids and my day job? It’s hard to say.

If things go well and there are no major issues, I hope to fulfill Patreon rewards by late May, and have the book for sale by mid-June. I’d like the audiobook to be available by July. If I can get anything out earlier, I will.

Here’s a look at the covers for Kill Process. The black and red cover will be the regular edition, available for sale through all the usual outlets. The hooded-hacker cover will be a signed, limited edition available to Patreon backers.

KillProcessSaleCover

Trade paperback and ebook cover

KillProcessLimitedEditionCover

Signed, limited-edition cover

 

Here’s the working description for Kill Process:

By day, Angie, a twenty-year veteran of the tech industry, is a data analyst at Tomo, the world’s largest social networking company; by night, she exploits her database access to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them. She can’t change her own traumatic past, but she can save other women.

But when Tomo introduces a deceptive new product that preys on users’ fears to drive up its own revenue, Angie sees Tomo for what it really is–another evil abuser. Using her coding and hacking expertise, she decides to destroy Tomo by building a new social network that is completely distributed, compartmentalized, and unstoppable. If she succeeds, it will be the end of all centralized power in the Internet.

But how can an anti-social, one-armed programmer with too many dark secrets succeed when the world’s largest tech company is out to crush her and a no-name government black ops agency sets a psychopath to look into her growing digital footprint?

Mark Zuckerberg wrote about how he plans to personally work on artificial intelligence in the next year. It’s a nice article that lays out the landscape of AI developments. But he ends with a statement that misrepresents the relevance of Moore’s Law to future AI development. He wrote (with my added bold for emphasis):

Since no one understands how general unsupervised learning actually works, we’re quite a ways off from building the general AIs you see in movies. Some people claim this is just a matter of getting more computing power — and that as Moore’s law continues and computing becomes cheaper we’ll naturally have AIs that surpass human intelligence. This is incorrect. We fundamentally do not understand how general learning works. This is an unsolved problem — maybe the most important problem of this century or even millennium. Until we solve this problem, throwing all the machine power in the world at it cannot create an AI that can do everything a person can.

I don’t believe anyone knowledge about AI argues that Moore’s Law is going to spontaneously create AI. I’ll give Mark the benefit of the doubt, and assume he was trying to be succinct. But it’s important to understand exactly why Moore’s Law is important to AI.

We don’t understand how general unsupervised learning works, nor do we understand how much of human intelligence works. But we do have working examples in the form of human brains. We do not today have the computer parts necessary to simulate a human brain. The best brain simulations by the largest supercomputing clusters have been able to approximate 1% of the brain at 1/10,000th of the normal cognitive speeds. In other words, current computer processors are 1,000,000 times too slow to simulate a human brain.

The Wright Brothers succeeded in making the first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight not because of some massive breakthrough in the principles of aerodynamics (which were well understood at the time), but because engines were growing more powerful, and powered flight was feasible for the first time around the point at which they were working. They made some breakthroughs in aircraft controls, but even if the Wright Brothers had never flown, someone else would have within a period of a few years. It was breakthroughs in engine technology, specifically, the power-to-weight ratio, that enabled powered flight around the turn of the century.

AI proponents who talk about Moore’s Law are not saying AI will spontaneously erupt from nowhere, but that increasing computing processing power will make AI possible, in the same way that more powerful engines made flight possible.

Those same AI proponents who believe in the significance of Moore’s Law can be subdivided into two categories. One group argues we’ll never understand intelligence fully. Our best hope of creating it is with a brute force biological simulation. In other words, recreate the human brain structure, and tweak it to make it better or faster. The second group argues we may invent our own techniques for implementing intelligence (just as we implemented our own approach to flight that differs from birds), but the underlying computational needs will be roughly equal: certainly, we won’t be able to do it when we’re a million times deficient in processing power.

Moore’s Law gives us an important cadence to the progress in AI development. When naysayers argue AI can’t be created, they’re looking at historical progress in AI, which is a bit like looking at powered flight prior to 1850: pretty laughable. The rate of AI progress will increase as computer processing speeds approach that of the human brain. When other groups argue we should already have AI, they’re being hopelessly optimistic about our ability to recreate intelligence a million times more efficiently than nature was able to evolve.

The increasing speed of computer processors as predicted by Moore’s Law, and the crossover point where processing power aligns with the complexity of the human brain tells us a great deal about the timing of when we’ll see advanced AI on par with human intelligence.

In my day job as a software developer, we’ve recently resurrected a two year old project and started using it again. I’m fairly proud of the application because when we developed it, we really took the time to do everything right. The REST interfaces are logical and consistent, there is good object oriented design, great test coverage, a full set of integration tests that can also perform load testing, and it’s scalable and fault tolerant.

When we first built it, we had only a small team of developers, but we also ensured that we automated everything, tested everything, and kept everything DRY and efficient, so that even though the team was small, we were able to accomplish a lot.

When we resurrected the project, we weren’t sure how many people would be working on it or for how long. In our rush to demo something to management, we abandoned our principles of “do it right” and settled for “get something done fast”. But a few weeks later, we were mired in a morass, unable to reliably get a dev stack working, or get two new components reliably integrated, or even to have repeatable results of any kind. Pressure was mounting as we were overdue to demo to management.

Finally I came into work this past Tuesday (with the big demo scheduled for the next day). I’d completely had it with the ongoing game of whack-a-mole that we were playing with new bugs cropping up. I decided that I wouldn’t try to fix any bugs at all. Instead, I would spend the day DRYing up our error handling code so that all errors were captured and logged in a consistent way. I didn’t even care about whether we made the demo or not, I was just so sick of how we were working.

A couple of hours later, the error handling code was vastly improved with just a little work, and suddenly all of the errors we were facing were abundantly obvious and easy to trace back to their origin within a few minutes. I was able to fix those errors before we left for the day, and we were back on track to deliver our demo to management on Wednesday.

It was a great reminder that even when you think you’ve just got a couple of short term deliverables, maybe with pressure to get them done fast, that it’s almost always faster to do it the right way than to take shortcuts.

It turns out that Abraham Lincoln didn’t utter the famous quote about spending four of six hours sharpening an ax. That turns out to be from an anonymous woodsman, and the unit of measurement is minutes, not hours. But the general concept goes back about 150 years.

A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

 

The Turing Exception, book four in the Singularity series, is now available from Audible and iTunes. Narrated by Jane Cramer, this unabridged audio version of The Turing Exception completes the Singularity series.

In the year 2043, humans and AI coexist in a precarious balance of power enforced by a rigid caste reputation system designed to ensure that only those AI who are trustworthy and contribute to human society increase in power.

Everything changes when a runaway nanotech event leads to the destruction of Miami. In the grim aftermath, a powerful underground collective known as XOR concludes that AI can no longer coexist with humanity.

AI pioneers Catherine Matthews, Leon Tsarev, and Mike Williams believe that mere months are left before XOR starts an extermination war. Can they find a solution before time runs out?

I hope you enjoy it!

Google announced a new analytical AI that analyzes emails to determine their content, then proposes a list of short likely replies for the user to pick from. It’s not exactly ELOPe, but definitely getting closer all the time.

smartreply2

 

Hertling_AVOGADRO_CORP_EbookAvogadro Corp, book one of my Singularity series about artificial intelligence, is on sale for 99 cents in the US from all retailers. Similar sale prices apply in UK, Canada, and India. This is for the ebook, obviously.

If you know someone who might enjoy the book that Wired called “chilling and compelling” and Brad Feld called “a tremendous book that every single person needs to read”, please let them know! Here are US links to the major online retailers where it is already on sale:

These will take effect on November 1st:

It’s on sale through November 7th, 2015.

Thanks,
Will