April 9, 2024 at 7:28 PM
Courtesy of Amazon

Hello and welcome to Eye on AI.

Beware, cybersecurity professionals, AI is coming for your jobs—or so the theory goes.

The rationale is something like this: AI tools will eventually handle a lot of the grunt work involved in protecting computer systems, like automatically scanning files for suspicious behavior and writing summaries of its findings. Therefore, there will be less work for humans and possibly layoffs.

But Steve Schmidt, Amazon’s chief security officer, disputed the jobs-killing argument and said there’s more than enough cybersecurity work to go around.

“I would be astonished if AI drives layoffs in the security industry,” he told Fortune.

That’s because of the big gap in available talent and the number of open jobs in the security industry right now, said Schmidt, one of Amazon’s famous “s-team” executives—or senior leaders—who reports directly to CEO Andy Jassy.

The global cybersecurity workforce headcount of 5.5 million is at a record high, according to ISC2, a nonprofit that trains security professionals. But even that’s insufficient to meet industry demands. Companies worldwide need 4 million additional cyber professionals to secure their systems, a number that has grown annually since 2021 when ISC2 estimated the shortage at 2.7 million.

It’s not just Amazon that is unlikely to cut cybersecurity jobs due to AI. Other chief security officers Schmidt has spoken with told him they won’t cut their staff either because of the technology, according to Schmidt. They will just get more done with AI’s help, he said.

The optimism comes as layoffs have plagued the security industry over the last year, hitting both cyber companies and cyber teams within businesses. Five U.S. security giants—Secureworks, Rapid7, Proofpoint, Splunk, and Okta—have cut 1,880 workers combined since August. Most cited cost reduction as the reason for the layoffs. None of them pointed the finger at AI.

In the larger tech world, Meta’s layoffs of 21,000 employees since late 2022—part of an effort to make the company more efficient—included some workers focused on website security, though the exact number is unclear. Microsoft also cut “hundreds” of U.S.-based security employees last year due to the economic downturn, Business Insider reported.

Whether or not AI played a role in these layoffs, the fear about the technology taking over cybersecurity jobs has some basis. Human labor is expensive, and the salaries of security engineers have increased in recent years due to the shortage of talent, said Unal Tatar, assistant professor of cybersecurity at the State University of New York at Albany who has worked in the field for two decades.

“The major budget line is people,” he told Fortune. “AI never gets sick. It doesn’t take time off, and it can run 24/7.”

That’s not a problem at Amazon, though, according to Schmidt. Speaking about AI tools, he said, “I don’t see them replacing the really skilled security engineers that I have.”

Cyber security is playing chess on a unicycle

Schmidt described his job as solving a puzzle, playing chess, and practicing psychology at the same time. AI tools can lighten the load for security engineers, but as hackers also get their hands on the technology, it can mean adding a new level of difficulty—unicycling or knitting, for example—to Schmidt’s juggling.

Just as engineers can use AI to do their jobs better, adversaries can use AI to quickly and more efficiently hack into computer systems. Large language models can help write more persuasive phishing emails, for example. Hackers can also use AI to invent new ways to take advantage of people, like cloning the voice of a loved one and asking for money over the phone.

“Our industry is one where there is no lack of opportunity to improve,” Schmidt said. “It is always a race.”

The biggest beneficiaries of AI will be small- and medium-sized businesses that can’t afford big teams to create and maintain sophisticated defenses. For example, companies creating their own software can use AI products to review their code and suggest ways to make it more secure.

“Where we will see some phenomenal jumps in the not-so-distant future is empowering people who don’t have the security teams that I do, who don’t have the level of expertise that my team has,” he said.

Amazon has a generative AI assistant that helps clients write code, among its many AI products. It also sells Bedrock, a service that helps companies build custom generative AI based on existing large language models. And Amazon, of course, benefits when companies buy its services.

Tatar agreed that AI won’t cause any significant layoffs in the security industry, at least in the short term. The technology isn’t ready yet, he said, but even when it is, it will take time for customers and investors to support its adoption.

Where AI tools could have an impact on the workforce, however, is with entry-level jobs, Tatar said. Even now, early-career roles are few and far between because many open jobs require years of experience. If AI begins to take on the job responsibilities of early career security analysts, he said, it could become harder for new college graduates to find work.

Please let me know what you think about the future of cybersecurity careers.

With that, here’s more AI news.

Rachyl Jones
[email protected]

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com