Michal Pechoucek, a speaker at CyberSec & AI Prague, believes artificial intelligence can help us break out of a ‘tyranny of convenience’ that limits how we see the world
Michal Pechoucek, a professor at the Czech Technical University in Prague for more than 20 years, joined Avast as chief technical officer last month. He has authored more than 400 research papers, contributed numerous innovative artificial intelligence applications to research in computer science, and co-founded several technology start-ups. Prior to joining Avast, he directed the research and development Center for AI and Computer Security at CISCO Systems. He lives in Prague with his wife and three daughters, and enjoys skiing, running, and cooking. He speaks this week at the CyberSec & AI Prague conference. The Avast Blog sat down with him for this Q&A interview.
Avast Blog: What does the CTO of a cybersecurity company do?
Michal Pechoucek: There are many CTOs of many security companies. They approach the role in different ways. My charter is to understand the future. I’m an AI scientist by training and in my heart. I believe the biggest threat and the biggest opportunity for cybersecurity is AI.
AB: In what way is AI a threat to cybersecurity and the world?
MP: Well, not in the way we see in the movies. The robotics part of AI is exciting and dramatic, but the dangerous part is the data that algorithms predict. The whole segment of tech that makes our lives more convenient can also lock us into online echo chambers that make us easier to manipulate.
AB: In what way?
MP: It is super dangerous to be insulated within your own world of ideas and preferences calibrated to suit you. Those predictions seem so right and can be very convenient, but they can also cut you off from opposing ideas, and hurt your ability to think critically. Many current AI programs show you what you have previously liked or clicked on, so you go deeper down that silo. It doesn’t have to be that way. AI could actually be trained to show you opposing viewpoints that have merit. It could broaden your view. We just have to welcome and value those opposing viewpoints.
"AI could actually be trained to show you opposing viewpoints that have merit."
AB: How would that work?
MP: In cybersecurity, AI doesn’t show us what we want to see. It seeks out and finds vulnerabilities and makes your system stronger. We can use AI to make us better, not just to suit our preferences and make life more convenient. For instance, social media algorithms have been manipulated in elections to cut people off from a balanced view of issues. The electorate can be split into two very opposed halves, 50-50, and then certain small segments of the population can be manipulated to sway an election. AI could do the opposite. It could be used to show you a complete view of issues, what the opposing party believes and sees, and nuanced approaches to tough issues.
AB: Is it a failure of technology that we have been isolated in echo chambers that alienate us?
MP: Nothing is a failure of technology. We, as human beings, have a responsibility not to fall into the trap of convenience. People need to be interested in what they are not seeing. And they need to lead a more anonymous life online, to take their privacy back.
"We haven’t paid enough attention to privacy. I’m passionate about it as a human right."
AB: Take their privacy back how?
MP: We haven’t paid enough attention to privacy. I’m passionate about it as a human right. We willingly gave our privacy to companies like social media companies and search engines that used that information to serve us. But that also sacrificed our freedom. There is a tyranny of convenience that steals our options and seduces our aesthetic. We think we’re getting what we want, but actually we’re just getting what we know. We stop growing and learning. Like a species that stops evolving, we become much more vulnerable.
AB: How can we change that?
MP: As companies we have to provide people with tools, insight, and guidance on how to protect their privacy and be aware of when it is being invaded. We can protect people online from specific threats and also from a culture of dangerous convenience and familiarity. As consumers of products and ideas, we have to compensate by trading some convenience for more anonymity and curiosity.
AB: Let's switch channels a bit. As a CTO, what do you look for in a job candidate?
MP: AI expertise and critical thinking. They have to be willing to challenge the status quo. That impresses me more than anything. As long as someone’s arguments are grounded in data, I highly value counter-arguments. They improve the team.
AB: Where do you like to ski?
MP: I’m a Central European, so we ski in the beautiful mountains of the Austrian Alps. My kids and I ski the steepest slopes and the hardest courses that are open to the public. It’s thrilling and very fun, especially to do with them.
AB: Have you ever imagined skiing the way your ancestors might have, on wooden skis in wool clothing and without goggles?
MP: That doesn’t interest me much, because skiing is a much better sport with the benefit of technology. What I do to get back to basics in nature is to trail run. Then there is no technology. Just a good, quality pair of running shoes.
AB: Have you ever encountered a wild animal or a sudden cliff or a storm that confronted you with the dangers of nature?
MP: I was attacked by a dog, a German shepherd. I surprised him, and he bit me in the butt.
AB: What did you do?
MP: It was Christmas Eve two years ago and I was just getting started on a run, so I was really disappointed that the dog bite could end my run. So I reached down and grabbed a big handful of snow and put it on my butt until it didn’t hurt anymore, and then I finished my run and came home and told my daughters how brave their father was.
AB: Were they impressed?
MP: Not really. My wife got mad because I hadn’t found out if the dog was vaccinated. So we drove around a mountain village on Christmas Eve looking for a dog. We found him and his owners showed us his papers and we went home. So you see, there was no tech in that whole adventure. Just the dog’s vaccination and the car. Everything else could have happened a long time ago.
AB: Why do you like to cook?
MP: It unites me with my family. It’s a nice activity in the evening when I come home from work. I give the kids some veggies to chop and I cook something. We talk and then we eat the meal together.
AB: Imagine your wife and kids are out of town, and you can invite any two people from throughout history to help you make and cook dinner. Who do you hand the knife and cutting board to?
MP: It’s a tough question because there are so many people who would be interesting. I think I would like to spend time with the Dalai Lama. I have huge respect for how he has lived his life for his people, and for all people. I also think he would be interested in AI, and how it can make the world a better place. And to go along with him, I would like to invite Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president and playwright who was the first Western leader to invite the Dalai Lama to make a state visit. They became friends over many visits, and I would like to hang out with them for an evening.
AB: What else would you like to say as the new CTO of Avast?
MP: Just that I am very excited about the customer-centric focus of the company. I have a passion to understand consumers, and how we can help them protect their independence, privacy and freedom. We have a new CEO, CTO, and CISO (chief information security officer), and I think a new opportunity to help every human being be safe online. It’s a beautiful mission.