Dr Ragib Hasan is associate professor of Computer Science, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is the director of UAB SECRETLab, CS, Ph.D. Program at the university. Besides teaching, the computer scientist is also a popular author. His books motivate the young generation to join the world of research.
TBS: What is the future of Internet? Internet has transformed the world very quickly in the last few decades. How will it transform the world in the coming years?
RH: The world will definitely change for the better in the coming years, leveraging off the revolution brought by the Internet and information technology.
However, the biggest change will occur in the developing world. The digital divide has started to become narrow with the proliferation of the Internet to the farthest corners of the world. With mobile Internet becoming popular, a huge percentage of the world population are now getting connected. This will grow further in future.
For example, Elon Musk's company Starlink has launched hundreds of satellites to bring the remote corners of the world to the Internet. Such technology will change the lives of the poorest people – for example, mobile payments, banking, Fintech, mobile healthcare – all these will bring the benefits of modern technology and healthcare to the remotest of places.
Another revolution will happen in e-learning and the globalisation of gig economy. During the pandemic, we have seen that education and learning do not have to be limited to in-person schools only. A lot of learning in future will be Internet based.
Also, this opens the possibility for teachers and creative people in, say, Bangladesh, to serve people all over the world. Already, I see ads for India based music teachers who teach American kids. The Internet has made the whole world a true global village. It will get connected much better in future.
TBS: What is your take on the fight over net neutrality? Why should we care about these fights between the tech giants?
RH: Net neutrality is a must in order to have a free and thriving Internet. Think of it as having open and free roads. If every road in the country were paid toll roads, then it would make traveling very difficult and costly for poor and middle income people.
In the same way, Internet is a public utility. To keep it accessible to people, we must ensure net neutrality. Otherwise, there is a huge risk of increasing the digital divide. This is not just a fight between the tech giants, but rather it is about our right to access information in a free way. Freedom can't be priced --- it's invaluable and it's a basic human right. Net neutrality is essential to our freedom.
TBS: We all admit to the role of Internet in connecting diverse parts of world. But at the same time, some hackers are now a click from robbing billions of dollars from our banks. The more security we adopt to, more efficient the evil grows. The analogue world had risks, but the risks of the digital world looks more mysterious.
RH: This is not really an issue with the Internet. The security issues are as old as humanity itself. I tell people that security is not a computer or technical problem, rather it is a human problem.
The arms-race between security researchers and cyber criminals will never stop. However, that doesn't mean we should shun technology. With any technology, the benefits would often outweigh the risks.
The main reason behind our recent problems and worries are two-fold – first, we were very quickly thrust into this world of Information technology within just 20 years. This means that there are several generations of people, especially the older generations, who do not have a clear understanding of the rapidly changing technologies. As a result, they face issues that could be solved by simple technical education.
Second, the technology designers often, if not always, think about security as an afterthought. Computer Science and Information Technology are young sectors compared to, say, civil engineering. That's why the focus is often to make it work first before thinking of security, which leaves huge security holes in many essential products.
As computer science matures, this mindset has to change. Think of constructing a building or a bridge – would a civil engineer ignore to calculate the factor of safety in the building design? No way! But often, many software designers ignore security issues. This needs to change and security must become a core design consideration.
TBS: What are the dark and deep webs? Is there or should there be a way for the government to control them? Are these webs dangerous?
RH: A huge part of the web is not directly accessible. There are many websites hidden inside the Tor network. These websites can only be accessed by using special browsers, and the servers cannot be traced.
Behind the cloak of anonymity, many illegal activities take place. Sure, there are legitimate uses of the dark web, such as censorship circumvention or political activism. However, many illicit criminal activities happen on the dark web, including credit card fraud, extortion, drug sales, exploitation of minors, etc. It is extremely hard for government entities to control these sites.
The deep web, on the other hand, is the extremely rich sources of information that are not directly accessible, but contains islands of databases or information collections. One has to log into these websites, and they are not indexed by search engines like Google, which means they are not available with a web search.
These are not necessarily bad websites – an example is Facebook itself – it contains a huge amount of information but it is not directly accessible by web search, rather one has to log in to Facebook. There are millions of forums or other databases like that.
TBS: Various countries around the world impose restrictions on Internet, China for example. How free is Internet?
RH: The Internet is gradually becoming less free, unfortunately. China is the biggest example of Internet monitoring and control, using the so called Great Firewall of China. But many other countries are doing the same thing by using Application level gateway monitoring and social media monitoring.
Such activities are designed to throttle free speech and persecute dissidents. There are many technical efforts to create censorship circumventing technologies, but most Governments are against this. It's an endless debate and tradeoff between Government sovereignty and free speech.
TBS: Cyber-harassment, cyber bullying, and other crimes born in the Internet are alarming. So are the oppressive laws that some governments impose that eventually restrict the freedom of speech. What is the best way to counter cybercrimes?
RH: The best way to counter cybercrimes is to treat it like any other crime and get the police and law enforcement officials trained in handing such crimes. Many issues of cybercrime and harassment can be prevented by having zero tolerance against such behaviour and strict enforcement of anti-bullying statutes.
The people must also become aware – it's not just laws that prevent such bullying, but rather it's community awareness that's more effective. If we make such bullying or harassment considered abhorrent acts in our society, many cyberbullies will be discouraged to act as such. That's the best defense.
TBS: Tell us about you. You are a computer scientist who is also writing books on career development. What is your story?
RH: I was trained as a computer scientist, and I am a professor of Computer Science by profession. I have a passion to teach – not just my own subject, but everything related to science and technology that benefits the society.
That's why over the last twenty years, even before the rise of social media, I have written extensively to spread my knowledge of science, research, and motivation. My first book, গবেষণায় হাতে খড়ি, (Gobeshonay Hate khari), was published in 2014 and it was the first book in Bangla to explain how to do research in a systematic way. My goal was to motivate the young generation to the world of research so that Bangladesh can get hundreds of new researchers who will lead the country in science and technology in this brave new world. To my surprise, my book became a best seller.
I later wrote books on motivation, on how to become a good student, and my three-part series on amazing stories of scientists. This came out of the bedtime stories I told my kids – I thought I should share these with the kids of Bangladesh who will be motivated towards science through them.
My most recent book – আমেরিকায় উচ্চশিক্ষা (Americay Ucchoshikkha) is written based on my experience with Academia in the United States. The USA has the best universities and research centers in the world. But the number of Bangladeshi students and researchers here is comparatively lower.
A major reason is that many students do not know how to apply to such great universities for their MS and PhDs. I wanted to explain the process based on my experience both as a grad student and as a professor in the US.
I believe that knowledge is invaluable and the best way to improve a society is to spread the knowledge. I strive towards spreading the light of my knowledge and my love for science and education in order the change the world of tomorrow.