In an amazing heist, thieves in Hong Kong used AI to convince a man to transfer millions of dollars to them from the company he worked at.
They did this by posing as his superior, using not only audio but also visual deep fakes to present themselves to him electronically. As a result, his company has taken quite the hit and this man has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the very first victims of such a madcap adventure.
Reading the online chatter, I noticed that people in the West, and Americans in particular, were having trouble understanding why the victim was so gullible and obedient as to shift huge amounts of money on the strength of a verbal instruction.
A cultural blind spot, as it were. Asia and Africa share a certain patriarchal reverence for bosses. To question is to imperil one’s job in our societies and, while this varies in intensity, it is a way of life we are all too familiar with.
In Tanzania, we wryly say “ndiyo, bosi” or “ndiyo, mzee” to highlight this propensity to kowtow to authority. It has deeply problematic effects for politics, for civil liberties and social equity, for youth, for anti-corruption.
As I imagine the effects that AI will have on our lives, I am interested in the sociological aspects more than anything else. It was obvious that we would be deeply vulnerable to AI in many ways, I have written about this before with respect to Tanzania.
But I have a bias and I thought that the biggest problem would be our credulousness, our lack of tech savvy and the way even our government doesn’t respect any reasonable rules of engagement when it comes to information during general elections.
I figured that the main danger would be political deep fakes deployed during the lead-up to the elections. The Hong Kong money heist has got me worried about whole new worlds of psychological and cultural vulnerability.
While I doubt it will ever be so easy to use AI to deep fake Tanzanian financial officers into transferring large sums of money without physical verification with the bosses, I do suspect these same financial officers might be susceptible to the endless scams we receive via SMS.
Or, worse, to photorealistic “proof” by religious scammers about the miracles they can perform for their flock if their flock is so good as to give them all their worldly possessions.
Actually, I don’t even have the imagination to consider just how varied and creative we will be in our predatory uses of AI, though the main non-political problems would be weird porn addictions and fake girlfriends. But it has raised an issue that I have been low-key thinking about for years: “Toxic” obedience.
The tension between individual autonomy and fitting in with the collective is one of humanity’s inbuilt dichotomies.
An excess of obedience doesn’t look too hot in the aftermath of the Hong Kong heist. It was a beautiful white-collar crime, to be fair: Clean and non-violent, downright elegant. And, ultimately, instructive.
As Africans, the utility of raising young people to embrace their intrinsic scepticism has always been in question. I think the time has come for us to rethink this aspect of our lives, for the good of us all.
Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email [email protected]