Many dream of making the world a safer, better, more positively interconnected place.
Dr. Patrick Lincoln and his team of experts at SRI International are turning that dream into a reality.
They’re doing so by pioneering some of the world’s most sophisticated advancements in everything from cyber security, digital privacy, and computational biology to scalable distributed systems, nanoelectronics and more.
It’s all part of the exciting, groundbreaking work that Lincoln, an SRI Fellow and vice president, leads as director of the SRI’s Computer Science Laboratory.
“We’re working on long-term solutions, creating the tools that will help make life more secure as the world becomes much more programmable,” says Lincoln, referring in particular to the team’s work on cyber security.
For sure, privacy in the digital age is a sharp focus for Lincoln, who’s also executive director of SRI’s program for the Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Security Research and Development Center. He additionally serves as director of the SRI Center for Computational Biology.
It’s an impressive breadth of work and responsibility. What follows is a peek into the innovations Lincoln is leading — as well as insight into the ingenious scientist himself.
Finding a fit at SRI
Lincoln is an SRI lifer. “I just arrived here 30 years ago,” he jokes.
Kidding aside, there are good reasons he’s remained with the leading scientific research organization for several decades, when his ample talents could have written him a ticket to most any position he would have desired in his field.
“The number one reason I’m still here is the people,” says Lincoln. “There’s an amazing set of brilliant, creative and frankly nice researchers here in many disciplines. Second, I’m at SRI because here we have the ability to work across teams, divisions and disciplines to create solutions. A third reason I’ve remained is because SRI does a great job of teaming up with companies, organizations, universities, government officials and more. Because we’re nonprofit, we’re not competing with them, and that opens the door to a fruitful collaboration.”
Certainly, Lincoln’s career at SRI has born technological fruit, so to speak. The MIT grad, who earned a PhD. in computer science from Stanford University, has led multidisciplinary groups conducting high-impact research projects (in fields ranging from game theory and scalable anomaly detection to privacy-preserving data sharing), published several hundred scientific papers, obtained more than 40 patents, and served on scientific advisory boards for private and public companies, nonprofits, and government agencies/departments.
In 2013, Lincoln and collaborators received the Best Paper Award at The 19th IEEE Pacific Rim International Symposium on Dependable Computing. Both the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and PBS’s Nova documentary series have featured him on programs focused on cyber security.
Don’t think the achievements have swelled his head, though. Lincoln adamantly maintains that collaboration is essential to the success. “When we look to bring in new people, we’re looking for individuals with mathematical sophistication, critical thinking skills and a great personality who can work in a team,” says Lincoln, whose teams have worked on systems biology projects aimed at generating computational models that help doctors better serve patients to improve human health. “Every critical problem we’re working on is solved faster, better and stronger with the right team.”
Building a secure digital world
Anyone joining Lincoln’s outfit now would have the opportunity to work on some of the most advanced technological challenges of the 21st Century.
Cyber security, in particular, is at the heart of the research.
For all the daily miracles they work in our lives, our computers, mobile phones and smart devices/systems make us vulnerable to digital ne’er-do-wells bent on doing us wrong. The ability of these machines and systems to interact means that each is a potential pathway into our private world for “hackers” who may desire to do everything from spy on us and filch our identities, to drain our bank accounts. Yes, protections exist. But, as Lincoln explains, those protections aren’t yet adequate enough to ward off all threats. They provide bulwarks, but lack the sophistication required to snuff out attacks at all weak points.
Lincoln and his team are working on changing that.
Partnering closely with government and private businesses, SRI’s computer scientists are creating the technical tools that facilitate building, for instance, software that is inherently resistant to cyber attacks — systems powered by cyber security and privacy principles that, of their own hyper-intelligent accord, intrinsically eliminate threats.
“SRI is experimenting with many Internet of Things devices, their software and hardware platforms, so that we can help build tools that make it easier for manufacturers to build more secure and more private systems,” says Lincoln. “That is, we’re building tools that make it easy to build secure software, building tools to make it easier to build software that provides data privacy for consumers, specifically related to Internet of Things devices. The aim is to create a world where every device, at every level, is truly private and secure.”
The practical upshot of all that is incredible.
When implemented correctly, for example, it would block access to the camera on your laptop or phone to spy on you and your family. It would mean your Alexa, smart home systems and the computers in your vehicle can’t be compromised.
Furthermore, the secure world Lincoln and SRI are trying to help construct could mean the data your devices store about you could be used to feed you advertising that would help you, say, shop more efficiently, but without violating your privacy.
“The data would only be made in a way that will not reveal anything that would be viewed by the consumer as a negative impact on their privacy,” says Lincoln. “That is, there are ways to share data and allow the consumer and retailer relationship to continually add value for the consumer and the retailer without revealing other private information to others outside that chain.”
Making a more secure programmable world
In the years ahead, robust digital security measures will become even more important. That’s because the programmability of practically everything is likely to increase. “Having things be programmable is a great advantage,” says Lincoln. “However, it’s also a potential threat.”
Nonetheless, with the right security measures that SRI is helping to establish those threats can largely be nullified, allowing people to benefit from a pervasively programmed world.
What might those benefits look like? Lincoln gives a few basic examples.
Think a shirt with an RFID tag that communicates to a smart washing machine just the right temperature to use in cleaning the shirt. Imagine refrigerators outfitted with computers that can easily set different temperatures for different shelves in the fridges. Consider programmed shoes that act as a Fitbit on overdrive, doing everything from tracking steps to information about one’s stride and the orientation of one’s feet to help maximize athletic performance. All this sophistication would come backed by technology so intelligent that users will be able — to significant degrees — to easily program/customize the devices themselves, using the language of the domain they’re operating in, be that in a consumer setting or in a professional realm, such as healthcare.
“When you start to include more and more data and communication in everyday devices, it starts to raise the potential for violations of security and privacy,” says Lincoln. “So again, that’s why our research is focusing on ways to build tools for manufacturers of software and hardware associated with the Internet of Things to provide better security and privacy. With this, the programmable world becomes one where people can truly lead happier, more pleasant lives. You’ll have more access, to more information, more reliably, more often, more securely.”