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A new wave of ''cyborg'' firms combine computer power with human expertise, and change the way companies use the Internet.
Economist Staff, The Economist
April 12, 2001
Despite the best efforts of programmers, there are still many things that computers just cannot do. Examples include distinguishing between suspicious and legitimate behaviour on a corporate network, or sorting junk e-mail from genuinely important messages, or providing detailed answers to particular questions. For these tasks, which require judgment, expertise and experience that cannot be easily captured in software, some firms have adopted the unusual tactic of using people as part of their network infrastructure. Such "cyborg" companies use computers as levers for the mind, to make the most of precious human expertise.
Counterpane Internet Security, based in San Jose, California, uses this technique to provide a security-guard service for corporate networks. Its founder, Bruce Schneier, realised after many years of working as a security consultant that no network could ever be made truly secure, no matter how much fancy hardware and software was available. There would always be weak spots, often caused by human failings. The best approach to security, Mr Schneier decided, was to assume that break-ins will occur — and to use people to spot them.
Special software exists to identify network intrusions, but once an attacker has worked out how the software works, it can be circumvented. Human experts, on the other hand, are harder to fool, although software is still needed to enable a single operator to keep watch on dozens of networks simultaneously. Counterpane's approach is to install "sentry" machines on its clients' networks. These relay a stream of status messages to a central secure operations centre. Human operators sitting at consoles monitor the status of around 50 sentries at once, watching for anomalous behaviour. If anything fishy is detected, the alarm is raised and the client's technical staff can take appropriate action.
Using highly trained people to look out for trouble has a number of benefits. For a start, there are economies of scale: since intrusions are rare, each operator can watch many networks at once. This also enables operators to spot trends that would otherwise go unnoticed — such as a hacker using a particular style of attack on several different networks, or aiming at firms in a particular business (such as banking or e-commerce). And operators can make allowances for human foibles, such as recognising the night-shift operator with chubby fingers who tends to mistype his password.
Brightmail, based in San Francisco, also uses people to filter information flowing across the Internet. Its customers are Internet service providers that want to stop junk e-mail, or "spam", and messages infected with computer viruses, before they reach their intended recipients. This process can be automated, up to a point, but spammers and virus-writers quickly find ways to defeat most software filters.
Brightmail's operators monitor decoy e-mail accounts, looking for new examples of spam or viruses that can defeat filters. When an example is found, the operators update the filter, and the new filter is then automatically relayed to Brightmail's customers. Since sending out a million junk e-mails takes quite a while, this rapid response makes it possible to detect and destroy subsequent messages before they do any damage.
The cyborg firm that comes closest to the sci-fi vision of people plugging cables into their heads is Keen, another San Francisco firm. Keen in effect allows experts to rent out their brains over the Internet, charging by the minute. Anybody can register on Keen's website as a "speaker" on a particular subject, such as computer troubleshooting, tax regulations or tarot-card reading. Speakers specify when they are available and set a billing rate, which averages $2 per minute.
Users of Keen who are looking for answers to a particular question choose a speaker and click a "call now" button. Keen then calls both the user and the speaker over the ordinary telephone network. Once the call is over, the user is billed and is also invited to give the speaker a numerical rating, which appears on the website and helps distinguish real experts from charlatans. Speakers pocket 70% of the call revenue; some are earning over $2,000 a week.
According to Karl Jacob, the firm's boss, Keen has been successful — it is one of the 20 most popular Internet merchants, and has more than 2.5m paying customers — because people want answers from people, not computers. Talking to a person is better than reading even the most detailed list of "frequently asked questions", he suggests, because it is easier to assess the trustworthiness of the information provided and to focus on a particular topic of interest. Keen has just launched its service in Britain, where a MORI poll found that nine out of ten people would rather talk to another person when searching for expert advice than scour the Internet. Even in the disembodied world of the web, there is a lot to be said for the human touch.
Copyright © 2001 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.