‘Scorpion’ Walter O’Brien warns of sting in the tail of tech

19 Feb 2018

Walter O'Brien, also known as Scorpion. Image: Scorpion Computer Services

The Irish hacker who inspired a hit TV show in the US warns that a universal wage may be only hope for humanity as robots and automation take over.

Walter O’Brien, AKA Scorpion, the Irish hacker who inspired an eponymous TV show now onto its fourth season worldwide, predicts that the future of tech and automation is not going to be very rosy for most people.

He warns that it may not end well for society if machines take jobs and people cannot make ends meet unless they urgently upskill.

‘We should be shaking in our boots about Elon Musk’s predictions on AI or Bill Gates’ call for a robot tax. Unfortunately, the people who get voted into office don’t think like that’

In an interview with Siliconrepublic.com, O’Brien echoed the sentiments of Microsoft founder Bill Gates – that machines that take jobs should be taxed – and opined that the only route for the future of humanity could be a universal wage.

But that, he believes pessimistically, is unlikely to happen.

Who is Scorpion?

O’Brien’s back story – being the 13-year-old who hacked NASA – and the exploits of his business, Scorpion Computer Services, spawned the popular CBS TV show Scorpion, which is airing all over the world.

O’Brien, who was born in Wexford and schooled in Kilkenny, claims to have an IQ of 197 and holds an Extraordinary Ability EB-1-1 Visa, which is awarded to very few people for special endeavours and abilities valued by the US. Previous holders of the visa include Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill.

He is understood to have helped build ScenGen, a scenario simulator used by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Gruman as well as the US Navy’s Command and Control system. It is understood that, following the Boston Marathon bombing, video analysis software developed by Scorpion was used to analyse hours of video to help catch the bombers.

Before we go further, dear reader, any article about O’Brien prompts a backlash from individuals who are sceptical about the veracity of his claims, which have been contested in articles on Techdirt and in a Reddit AMA. The reader is entitled to make up their own mind on O’Brien.

We can confirm that he is Irish, and on TV is played by Elyes Gabel. He is included in the credits of Scorpion as an executive producer, as well as on the most recent Spider-Man movie Spider-Man: Homecoming. His company, along with Stryke Industries, recently announced that it secured a deal with the US Army to deliver the ScenGen AI system to the army’s unmanned aircraft system (UAS) fleet.

Under the new deal, Stryke Industries will license Scorpion technology to the US Army Contracting Command in Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. This will be applied to the universal ground control station (UGCS) and other drone platforms.

ScenGen is also understood to be used by other arms of the US military such as the Navy SEALs to generate possible scenarios and save lives of warfighters and civilians.

Last year, O’Brien became one of the youngest recipients of the Celebrity ICON Humanitarian Lifetime Achievement Award in Hollywood in recognition of his work in philantropy and protecting warfighters.

While the TV show depicts helicopters descending on the O’Brien’s farm in Kilkenny after he apparently hacked NASA, O’Brien admits the reality was more drab and that he got a stern talking to from people in suits.

Rather than being whisked off to save the world, O’Brien stayed around fixing computers in the locality and went on to study computer science at the University of Sussex in the UK. He also participated in the 1993 International Olympiad in Informatics where his team is claimed to have finished sixth out of 250 teams.

O’Brien’s post-college career began in localisation, where he worked with ISOCOR and Oracle’s Worldwide Translation Group in Dublin.

His work with Uniscape to create the Utopia project to enable rapid software localisation for Oracle, HP and Sun led to him establishing Scorpion Computer Services to compete for US government tender requests.

Hollywood genius

Today he says that Scorpion Computer Services and its spin-out, Concierge UP, are focused on what he calls AFN or “any funded need” where, for at least $10,000, he helps people figure out ambitions such as how to run a football team, or solve problems in their lives or businesses.

“We do lots of investigations, court cases where we provide expert witnesses, digital forensics, finding stuff that was meant to be deleted forever, you name it.”

‘Experts are warning that the world could go to 47pc unemployment in the near future’

In terms of his work with CBS, he is credited as an executive producer on Scorpion and works with writers to devise episodes. “We have endless stories and I work with the writers by telling them what I can talk about or, generally, about the technologies.

“They take that and mix in some romance and car chases. At the end of the day it is entertainment and it has to be watchable. Most of what we really do is not the most exciting stuff in the world but if you don’t mix in a bit of Hollywood, people would tune out. We have 26m confirmed viewers in the US and it is broadcast in 188 countries worldwide.

“It is having a massive effect on kids who are saying they are doing better in school and want to be geniuses. We have girls writing in saying that they want to be cyber hackers, which has to be better than them trying to be Kim Kardashian.”

Outside of Hollywood and the work his company does with the military, I ask O’Brien if the technology Scorpion creates can be put to more humanitarian purposes.

“We do a lot of charity and volunteer work. When Houston was hit with the flood disaster we voluntarily helped advise the disaster relief group on everything from how to use our software to track what was happening with their donations along with intelligent surveillance. What was happening was the same people were arriving with the same trucks, pulling up at depots, loading up with aid and storing it to sell later and picking it up again. We helped to cut that out.

“We also helped with ensuring victims and survivors were tracked all the way to getting their homes back and helping donors to see where their money went.”

O’Brien said that his company’s expertise has devised myriad potential solutions to problems from power shortages, future smart grids, financial crises and even solving the world’s clean drinking water problem by converting 600 oil tankers into desalination plants.

“We are aware of all the problems, possibilities and solutions. The trouble is somebody really has to listen, to care and to fund it. We work with insurance companies and mutual funds in the US on things like the smart grid. The trouble with government is, often, no one is really in charge. Whereas, in a commercial company, stockholders are holding CEOs accountable and someone’s butt is on the line if they make the wrong call.”

The robots are coming

Irish computer genius ‘Scorpion’ lands AI drone deal with US Army

Walter O’Brien (centre, in green tie) pictured with US military personnel in Indiana. Image: Scorpion Computer Services

One of the things that occupies his mind right now is how to stop wars. Contrary to the tweets and posturing of president Trump, he believes any military action against North Korea should be surgical and not nuclear.

But he sees even more trouble on the horizon. “Experts are warning that the world could go to 47pc unemployment in the near future. In the US, 10pc of citizens are employed in transportation-based work and yet, if Uber and others succeed in self-driving vehicles, trucks become self-driving, we have self-driving FedEx or UPS trucks, then there will be no need for gas stations, valets, car parks. There could be a huge ripple effect and that is frightening.

“It might not be long before laws are passed that would ban humans from driving on freeways because they would disturb the Uber cars and drive up insurance prices.

“My fear is that the blue collar workers manufacturing goods or folding over tacos and doing repetitive work will be unemployed. Robotic arms that can do the same work in three shifts instead of one, and that don’t have unions or are unlikely to sue and are cheaper than humans, are becoming a reality.

“As we know from Moore’s Law, everything in technology generally gets twice as fast and half as cheap every 18 months. In China there are a bunch of places that have replaced all their workers with machines or 80pc of them with robots and productivity went up 30pc and defect rates were down 90pc. Factories like Tesla are nearly all robots.”

O’Brien’s musings may sound alarmist, but in Trump’s America there are tent cities springing up in once affluent places such as Orange County, California, as the American dream becomes lost to legend.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you have 47pc unemployment then one in every two people can’t feed their family. People lose their civilisation awfully quickly when they can’t feed their kids. We could switch over to the LA riots of 1992 again in less than a week if society lost its civility.

“The US will probably automate quicker and faster than any place else. And when the US catches a cold the rest of the world gets flu. There will be a ripple effect, economically.”

Universal wage

Where the US is particularly exposed, O’Brien believes, is in terms of skills and education.

“There is no particular focus on education, maths, technology, science for the youth growing up. As the world automates, unless you are a programmer, there won’t be a hell of a lot left for you to do. Programmers, people who are creative, entertainers – those things might not be automated. But if you are a truck driver, you better start training very quickly to become something else.

“In the past, if you were a gas lamp lighter and they invented electricity, you were out of business but at least you could train to drive a cab. But if that cab is replaced by a self-driving Uber, the cab driver can’t suddenly learn to be an AI programmer. That’s a heck of a leap.”

So what is the solution? O’Brien believes the only route in the long-term for humanity in a fully automated world is the creation of a universal basic wage.

“Here, if every worker in a factory is replaced by robots, then a robot tax has merit because of the burden it places on society by employing those people. It would also slow the pace of automation.

“Secondly, if that tax money is placed into a universal basic wage, the government pays people a salary for being a citizen. Let’s argue that because robotics and automation makes everything more efficient in terms of food supply, shipping and transportation costs falling four-fold, then a $25,000 salary is possible, or the equivalent of $100,000 if everything is four-times cheaper.

“If there was a peaceful transition to that model – where robots do the work – people could find fulfilment by following their vocation, by being whatever they want to be: a teacher, an artist, a musician, whatever they are interested in.

“This could be a peaceful world where there is nothing to do except what is uniquely human, which is exploring and growing and being philosophical, writing poetry, creating music and art, because labour will be done by robots.

“It frees up society. But right now only the 1pc are free.”

So could a universal wage happen? “No. We are not going to get to that Star Trek society where people worked for free and got their food from a replicator.

“The reality is that there will be a bunch of greedy sods who will take every last penny for themselves and the rest of us will all probably go to war.

“Historically, humans have never, ever, agreed to do the right thing just because it is the right thing. People do the right thing for themselves, not for society.”

O’Brien concluded: “We should be shaking in our boots about Elon Musk’s predictions on AI or Bill Gates’ call for a robot tax. Unfortunately, the people who get voted into office don’t think like that.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years