| by Jake Lopata

News Stories

Club for cybersecurity
Student members of the Cyber Security Working Group meet up for hands-on learning.  (Credit: Brett Simison )

When it comes to fast-moving technology like artificial intelligence (AI), the textbook written today is out of date by tomorrow.

“There’s no better way to learn about the latest in cybersecurity than by talking directly with experts working at the leading edge,” said Jake Lopata, with the Middlebury Institute’s student-led Cyber Security Working Group (CSWG).

In April, they hosted Gary Wright, CEO and chief technology officer at FRIDAY AI by Cluster Networks, to explore AI-enabled cyber threats. Wright oversees the world’s first artificial intelligence-driven solution for automating IT operations, monitoring, and troubleshooting.

Students first met him at a daylong war-game exercise hosted on campus, where students joined technical and defense experts to explore firsthand the role AI might play in a national security crisis of exceptional consequence. The event was co-sponsored by the Institute’s Cyber Collaborative and James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

These conversations are what spark innovation within the next generation of leaders in the cyber and AI fields.

— Gary Wright, CEO and Chief Technology Officer at FRIDAY AI

“What jumped out at us was that Gary always brought a different perspective than everyone else. It highlighted a critical gap between technical experts and the policymakers and practitioners with AI-enabled tools at their fingertips,” said Lopata. “Without a deep understanding of AI functions, nontechnical folks can’t conceptualize the right questions. How do we account for consequences that are beyond our comprehension?”

Students asked him to come back for a deeper conversation about hot topics in the field and opportunities in the industry.

Wright appreciated students’ interdisciplinary perspectives and sharp skills.

“The nature of the Institute’s programs, mixing technical skills with policy understanding and cultural fluency, offers an interesting ground for collaboration,” said Wright. “MIIS students are especially suited for roles that require bridging technical know-how with strategic policy development, such as in strategic policy advising, risk analysis, and cybersecurity consulting.” 

AI Is a Force Multiplier

The gap between the technical and policy crowds is one of many topics the group explored, as well as the ethical and appropriate use of AI-enabled systems. AI is a force multiplier—when applied effectively it optimizes tasks and processes. However, as with most things nonproliferation and terrorism studies students encounter, there is a dual-use dilemma requiring rigorous interrogation. 

For instance, Wright’s technology optimizes his clients’ ability to discover, monitor, triage, and resolve cyber threats, automating security operation center analytical skills for businesses whose scale may not support a security operations center itself. At the same time, AI is increasing the threats these businesses might face as threat actors use the tech to identify and exploit novel vulnerabilities and weaponize information for social engineering or to influence campaigns. 

Attendees found integrating Wright’s technical insights with their education in asymmetric national security challenges enabled them to understand threat vectors and typologies better. A multidisciplinary approach is critical to learning about this emerging field—it is impossible to untangle these problems without deep and enduring collaboration. “These conversations are what spark innovation within the next generation of leaders in the cyber and AI fields,” said Wright. 

Faculty member Philipp Bleek, who serves as coordinator of the Cyber Collaborative and faculty mentor of the Cyber Security Working Group, joined the conversation with Wright. 

“I’ve been thrilled to watch the initiative students, and especially Giovana Rodrigues Manfrin and Jake Lopata, have taken to bolster both more and less formal cyber-related activities on our campus,” said Bleek. “This meeting is just one of many great examples.”

Institute Is Expanding Its Cybersecurity Programs

Cybersecurity offers a broad array of paths to pursue and skills to cultivate. The Middlebury Institute integrates cybersecurity into many classes across its MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies and also offers related electives each semester. Institute students are also eligible to take courses at the nearby Naval Postgraduate School.

Major program expansions are planned. In fall 2024, Dr. Karen Nershi, whose research focuses on cybersecurity, will be joining the faculty. The Institute is also launching an online MS in Cybersecurity starting in fall 2025.

The Cyber Security Working Group, the student cyber club, will continue to supplement those offerings with a wide range of opportunities to learn and connect. Over the past year, they have fielded multiple teams to compete in the Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge, attended the RSA conference, and worked to build a beginner-friendly learning environment for cyber-interested students.   

”Our conversation with Gary could have easily lasted several more hours,” said Lopata. “This certainly indicates how valuable connections to experts like Gary are as Institute students work to conceptualize and address challenges in this space.”