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Artificial intelligence in cyber security

Opinion

12:00 Sunday, 25 April 2021

UK Cyber Security Council

In the last few years, the terms artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have found their way into common parlance, and into much of the information technology around us. AI and ML are growing particularly quickly in the security field – which should not be a surprise given our desire for security systems that can help us identify previously unrecognised threats and then act on them quickly.

This growth of AI and ML presents a problem, of course: a growth in demand for products using these techniques requires a corresponding increase in supply of those products, and in order to supply something we have to make it first. And to do that, we need people with the right skills and know-how.

A search on the UCAS web site for “artificial intelligence” returns 347 undergraduate degree courses, from 81 establishments. Although this is small change relative to more general subjects like Computer Science (2,931 courses from 245 providers) it is nonetheless a long way from zero. However, we contend that it's also a long way from being enough.

The number of AI/ML start-ups in the security space is growing quickly – in fact this author is a member of the advisory board for one of them , while there are plenty of jobs in these companies for mainstream IT people – developers, database architects and the like – the roles needing the AI/ML-specific skills are difficult to fill. And let's not forget that the demand for AI/ML skills isn’t restricted to start-ups. The established mainstream IT vendors are also now looking at how they can use AI and ML in their product suites too (Cisco is one of the biggest doing so ).

Those 347 courses are unlikely to be churning out enough decent specialists to fill the growing number of roles, then. When skilled people are hard to come by, two things happen: salaries go up in the hope of enticing the best people; and even those who in the “not brilliant, but good enough” category will be able to find interesting and gainful employment in their chosen field.

For students considering their choice of degree, the timing is perfect. AI and ML are now accepted as being “a thing”, and are established in the market unlike, say, quantum computing (we all think it’s about to be a thing, but nobody is quite sure when). But although AI and ML are established, there is a massive way to go.

So don’t worry that when you emerge in three years’ time from university, the world will have moved on and left AI/ML to rot. Because the opposite will be true.