In the past year, Apple, Sony, and Home Depot were targeted in notorious criminal hacks. But not all hackers are bad. Pablos Holman, an inventor and hacker at patent firm Intellectual Ventures’ (IV) Laboratory, breaks electronics every day—and he thinks more people should be doing the same.
Popular Science: You’ve worked on spaceships with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, 3-D printers at Makerbot, and now at IV, you’re working on a vaccine storage device. What’s the common thread?
Pablos Holman: Everything I’ve done in my career has been about taking computers and putting them to use in places they weren’t used before. In my mind, I’ve always had a grand vision of that. I’ve always thought it was important to use computers to solve big problems.
PS: What exactly do you mean?
PH: Pretty simply, more people should be focused on finding new applications for computers. Adding a computer to something is the easiest way to give it features and make it more reliable. Of course, when you do that—to a car, plane, or anything else—you also inherit some of the security problems of a PC.
PS: Should we be alarmed at the increasing cyber security threats?
PH: Yes. Whether you’re talking about a computer, phone, car, or plane—they’re all using the same kinds of operating systems and chips, so they’re all susceptible to the same types of attacks. And we don’t really know how to fix this. I worked in computer security for a long time before I realized [security experts] were never going to win.
PS: Can you be proud to call yourself a hacker if most people associate the term with criminal activity?
PH: I don’t think it’s particularly weird or audacious. Hacking is just a learning style or methodology. Rather than relying on the instructions, we’ll just try everything. We’ll take something apart, break it into a lot of little pieces, and figure out what we can build from it. Now that computers are in everything, hackers are more relevant than ever.
PS: Should we worry about unfettered anonymity online?
PH: No. I worked on tools in the past to try to preserve anonymity on the Internet. The model user for those tools is not a criminal. It’s a human rights worker who is trying to document atrocities. And you get some risk with that. The bad guys can use the tools, too. But fundamentally, anonymity online is unstoppable.
PS: Is the world better or worse because of hackers?
PH: You don’t find a lot of people whose business card says inventor or hacker. They’re not legitimate career choices, and I just think that’s really sad. It only seems unusual to be a hacker or inventor because we don’t have enough competition. Hopefully, [IV] will see enough success that more people will think it makes sense to do it.
This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Pablos Holman Wants You To Break Your Gadgets.”