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  Houston, TX, Oct. 08, 2015 - Houston Chronicle
Q&A: 'Scorpion' inspiration sees high-tech peril in the real world
Andrea Rumbaugh | October 8, 2015 | Updated: October 8, 2015 10:54pm

Walter O'Brien is a computer expert who claims to have hacked into NASA's computers and who founded a company, Scorpion Computer Services, at age 13. He's also the real-life inspiration for the television series "Scorpion," now in its second season.

During a keynote presentation to technology entrepreneurs in Houston this week, O'Brien discussed his company, which is based in Los Angeles, and the TV show. He also gave advice to the high-tech exhibitors at the Houston Technology Center's Innovation Conference & Showcase 2015 at the Hyatt Regency downtown.

He spoke with the Chronicle afterward. Following are edited excerpts.

Q: What are the biggest cybersecurity threats today?

A: We now know (hackers) have 21 million people's top-secret clearance applications. We can cross-reference that with their health records and know who has an embarrassing health history. Cross-reference that with American Airlines' travel plans, so we know who traveled after 9/11 and where they went, so now you know who the more important ones are. Cross-reference that with Ashley Madison, and you know which of them are cheating on their wives. So now you can reach out to someone with clearance and go, "I'm going to destroy your life, or you feed me secrets." That's leverage and blackmail material right there. Our infrastructure, from our electric grid to water, gas and power, is all controlled by technology. So you shut down a city's water, power and gas, and you have absolute havoc within 48 hours. We haven't seen large-scale versions of this hit yet, but we're wide open for it. And the reason why is all the hacks that have happened so far. Who's been fired? Who went to jail? Who's been indicted? Nobody.

Q: Your company invented and applied artificial intelligence engines to protect U.S. fighters in Afghanistan. What do you think is the future of artificial intelligence?

A: I think almost every blue-collar worker's job right now, fully loaded with HR and benefits, will cost around $30,000 a year. The robot capable of doing that job with enough artificial intelligence is worth about $250,000 a year. But that robot can do three shifts without needing rest and has no union and has no health care costs and doesn't need lunch breaks or anything else. So as soon as that $250,000 . gets down to about $100,000, suddenly it's cheaper than human. And that's going to flip a switch that makes a mass amount of unemployment happen quickly. I think true AGI, artificial general intelligence, we're still far away from that, a system that has common sense and learning. But building a system that can sweep a floor, vacuum something, build, put sushi together, make a coffee, replace drivers for Uber - a little bit of money, and those things are entirely doable now.

Q: Where do you think artificial intelligence is going in the long term? In your keynote speech, you said this could be humans' downfall. Will you elaborate?

A: In any aspect of ecology, when an animal introduces a superior being to their ecosystem, the first thing that being does is secure its survival by killing off the animal who introduced them. So if I create something smarter than me, it's the last thing I'll do. And maybe that's OK if I believe in evolution. I'm not championing the Terminator structure, and I don't think we're going to be there for a while. Artificial intelligence will one day be prevalent. Which day it is, I don't know. But it could easily happen in our lifetime, considering our lifetime will be extended anyway based on the medical research from the AI.

Q: Generally, how are hackers portrayed in the media? Are TV shows more or less accurate in their portrayals, or are hackers enhanced to make good TV?

A: The Catch-22 here is if we made my TV show completely technically accurate, at best it would be a documentary on the Discovery Channel. Whereas now we had 26 million people watch the pilot because it's fun. So in "Scorpion," we try to walk that line where everything we talk about is technically, feasibly possible. These are electric locks. Electric locks are centrally controlled by a security system that is in a computer that is inside the security guard's office that is on the Internet. And yes, if we get him to open a PDF document, a PDF can have a virus in it that takes over that machine. Can you do it all in two minutes? No. But we've got 43 minutes to save the world, so we've got to fit it in there.

Q: In "Scorpion," how close are the fictional characters to real characters? Are they based on real people?

A: All the characters are actually inspired by guys who are still working with me at the company. So the interactions, the genius nature, the ribbing of each other, the low EQ (emotional intelligence), not seeing the forest for the trees, being OCD, being a little germaphobic, etc., that is all real. That is every day of my life in the office, and I wouldn't trade it for anything because these people are honest to a fault and usually loyal to each other. So if they're a little quirky, so be it. Now, the other parts of the show where we're toting guns and doing high-speed chases every other day . IT is not quite that exciting.

Q: With all the media attention on data breaches, do you think hackers will become more prominent TV characters? Have they captured our fascination the way, say, detectives have?

A: I think they will. That's why I wanted "Scorpion" to be the new "CSI." "CSI" has influenced kids for the last 12 years to study chemistry and biology. I'm hoping I'll do the exact same thing and get kids to study computer science and artificial intelligence.