Silicon Valley, Meet Berryville, Virginia

By Claire Stuart

The big guys in tech are paying attention to a small research group in Berryville, reports Gary McGraw of Berryville Institute of Machine Learning (BIML). “We are working on stuff at the edge of science — artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).”

In 2019, McGraw, along with computer scientist Richie Bonett, cyber-security expert Harold Figuroa, and research engineer Victor Shepardson, co-founded BIML, a think tank dealing with ML and AI security. McGraw had retired after 23 years of pioneering work with a software security firm.

McGraw holds Ph.Ds. in cognitive and computer science. He is the author of eight books on software security and over 100 peer-reviewed papers in industry publications. ML and AI are at the heart of computer evolution, and computers are an intrinsic part of all facets of modern life. They run energy grids, air and rail traffic, military operations, satellites, food safety, water supplies, government offices and banking. For ordinary people, there are cellphones, home security systems, smart automobiles, connected appliances, video games, virtual assistants, and more.

In ML, computers are programmed to recognize data, automatically learn from it, and use it to improve their own functions. They add to their knowledge so that they can make decisions. When you ask your virtual assistant to play a song, it learns what you like and suggests similar music. It learns your food preferences and offers dining suggestions. But that’s just the “up” side!

Anyone who enjoys science fiction has no doubt seen the classic 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  When “HAL,” the deranged computer, refuses to let the astronaut back into the spaceship, it utters the chilling and unforgettable line, “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that!” Fortunately, that scenario did not come true in 2001, but we are moving a lot closer to meeting HAL now. Bad actors are constantly seeking ways to hack into ML systems, with potentially disastrous results.

McGraw observes that in an effort to quickly produce more and more sophisticated technology, security weaknesses are sometimes overlooked. McGraw mentioned a frequently-cited study illustrating an attack on ML — the alteration of a STOP sign with tape so that a self-driving vehicle sees it as a speed limit sign.

“If security, reliability and trustworthiness of technology itself is called into question, it makes technology companies take notice,” said McGraw. BIML is doing what McGraw defines as “architectural analyses” of ML systems, identifying weaknesses. “Our targets are the engineers designing these systems,” he explained, “We are helping them to do a better job—to build security in, in the first place, not have to go back and plug holes. All I suggest is that let’s build security into AI so hackers can’t get into a system. We’re helping the good guys fighting a war on the 
bad guys.

”McGraw notes that BIML’s architectural risk analyses are unique in the field, helping BIML build its reputation. They offer advice from a scientific viewpoint, identifying risks and determining how to mitigate them. McGraw speaks on cyber security at universities and conferences around the country and is on the advisory boards of a number of tech startups. He recently gave a presentation on taxonomy of attacks on ML at a private Silicon Valley conference, the Security Data Science Colloquium. It was attended by about 150 representatives of tech giants Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others, as well as many universities. He was excited to show how Berryville is directly affecting what’s going on in Silicon Valley!

Earlier this year, BIML received a $150,000 grant from a group called Open Philantrophy, an organization concerned with the effects of technology on people and the planet. BIML will use the grant to further their research as well to provide funds for an intern. They have their first intern, Nikil Shyamsunder, a Handley High student.McGraw moved to Berryville from Loudoun County in 1999. The speed of development there “pushed me over the mountain,” he said. Now he lives in a circa 1760 farmhouse on 10 acres on the banks of the Shenandoah next to Holy Cross Abbey. Of course, he observed that development is increasing in Clarke as well. “The future is going to happen — let’s make it better.”

He cares deeply about his adopted home town and is concerned that there are local people who are homeless and hungry. Grateful that he has been fortunate, he works to give back by helping make Clarke County a place where everyone can live. He personally gives regularly and generously to the Free Medical Clinic, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, local Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits concerned with food, housing, medical care, legal advice and the environment.

Although McGraw describes himself as an “alpha geek” he is certainly not one-dimensional. He says music is supremely important to him and provides balance to his life. He is a classically trained musician, but he specializes in improvisation. Starting as a child with violin, he also plays mandolin, guitar and piano. He is in two bands, Bitter Liberals and Where’s Aubrey, and they have played many benefit concerts. With Covid restrictions ending, he looks forward to performing publicly again.