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Matthew Mather's Darknet Shows Reality Is Not Far From Fiction

Mon, Nov 23, 2015 - 3:08pm

Last week, Financial Sense interviewed Matthew Mather, a former tech CEO turned best-selling author of novels such as CyberStorm, Darknet, and most recently Nomad. Mather’s books explore the dark possibilities of new technologies, ranging from cyberwarfare, assassination networks, to “virtual corporations” run by artificial intelligence. Although his plots are fictional in nature, Mather explained that much of the technology he writes about either exists or is currently in development.

In his novel, Darknet, Mather writes about a Wall Street broker, Jake O'Connell, who gets caught up in the invisible world of assassination markets, virtual currencies, and “chatbots” that can fool people into thinking they are real human beings. While Mather invents his dystopian vision of the future in Darknet, the novel is “based on real-world technologies,” says Mather, “whether or not the average person is aware of them.”

When it comes to the financial world, many hedge funds make immense amounts of money with varying types of AI and high-frequency trading technologies, and it appears less and less outlandish to imagine AI systems replacing humans on Wall Street, says Mather, as they have in recent years. Financial Sense host Cris Sheridan points out that just earlier this year, in an extremely rare and candid interview, the founder of one of the world's most profitable investment firms, Renaissance Technologies, credited AI and pattern recognition technology for their phenomenal success.


Mather’s books explore the dark possibilities of new technologies, ranging from cyberwarfare, assassination networks, to “virtual corporations” run by artificial intelligence. Although his plots are fictional in nature, Mather explained that much of the technology he writes about either exists or is currently in development.


As another example of Darknet's not-so-fictional plot, just as his book was being released for publication, Bloomberg reported that the world's largest hedge fund, Bridewater Associates, was in the process of developing a "new, artificial-intelligence unit" led by the same person who helped create IBM's Watson, which defeated Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in 2011.

When it comes to AI and the increasingly automated nature of certain systems, Mather explained a key element in his book which he referred to as "distributed autonomous corporations," and offers Bitcoin as an example of such entities that grow organically on the web with the aid of machines that do not require third party verification for ownership of shares.

As The Economist reported last year:

Imagine a corporation that engages in economic activity without guidance or direction from humans. Programmed with a mission statement—maximize profit for shareholders from the sale of widgets, for example—the corporation could own capital, enter contracts, and employ robots. People could even be hired for more creative tasks. Such an entity would live on the Internet, distributed across thousands or millions of nodes (stakeholders who host the DAC on their computer).

The growth of AI run corporations—with little human oversight—is a major topic of interest for Mather, as are the legal and ethical challenges arising from these new entities. Beginning with the Dartmouth College decision of 1819, the Supreme Court of the United States has viewed corporations as possessing similar rights to people. Some have argued whether or not an AI is a person, but, for Mather, “if AI comes to embody a corporation they sidestep that because now the AI would already be a legal person under the definition as set up by our own courts.” Of course the downside arises when an AI-like corporation kills someone: people will have “a much more difficult time with our legal system deciding what to do with that legal entity,” Mather says, regarding culpability.

This issue also plays out with the difficulty countries or other entities have in determining what laws apply to cybersecurity attacks—or whom to even prosecute in the event of one. Law enforcement and state entities often have not caught up to the technology currently at the disposal of criminals. Many of these issues are addressed in Mather’s earlier book, Cyberstormwhich will likely be made into a film by 20th Century Fox. In Cyberstorm, a family navigates the horrors of a chaotic New York when that city suffers a cyberattack set—oddly enough—during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2015.

For Mather, technology moves faster than most realize. One area where this is true for Mather is with “conscious machines.” Last year, for the first time ever, a machine beat the test that Alan Turing put forward as evidence that a machine exhibits some level of human intelligence. Though there were some tricks involved and some still debate the importance of this event, Mather believes we have already crossed an important threshold.

“We are really at an interesting time,” said Mather, when you consider “the amount of power that we give these autonomous intelligence systems over ourselves, it sounds like science fiction… but then again it is happening all around us.”

Subscribers can listen to this full broadcast with best-selling author and tech expert Matthew Mather by clicking here. For a complete archive of our broadcasts and podcast interviews on finance, economics, and the market, visit our Newshour page here or iTunes page here. Subscribe to our weekly premium podcast by clicking here.

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