© 2020 Dimitri Percia David

© 2020 Dimitri Percia David

To promote research and education in cyber-defence, EPFL and the Cyber-Defence (CYD) Campus launched jointly in spring 2020 the first call for the CYD Fellowships – A Talent Program for Cyber-Defence Research. In June 2020, the first three CYD fellowships were awarded.

This month we will introduce you to Dimitri Percia David, the recipient of the first CYD Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship. Dimitri is in the first year of his postdoctoral research in the Information Science Institute of the Geneva School of Economics and Management at the University of Geneva (UNIGE).

1. How did you find out about the CYD Fellowships and what motivated you to apply?

The CYD Campus is – among other things – a cyber-defence research institute attached to the Swiss Department of Defence. Consequently, the CYD Campus merges two aspects of my life: my role as a company commander of the Swiss Armed Forces and my PhD in Information Systems. So, one could say that my interest in national security matters – coupled with the research focus of my PhD, which was related to the development of cyber-defence capabilities – prompted me to pay particular attention to the development of the cyber-defence capabilities of the Swiss Confederation. Thus, the CYD Campus has been on my radar since the Swiss administration began debating the modalities of the CYD Campus creation in early 2019.

Applying for a research position at the CYD Campus was particularly appealing as such position would give me the opportunity to apply my two fields of expertise within a single effort. Also, as an officer of the active reserve of the Swiss Armed Forces and a Swiss citizen, I value the possibility of contributing to the cyber-defence of my country by finding relevant, sound, timely, and valuable insights.

2. What is your CYD Fellowship project about?

My goal is to provide quantitative technology-forecasting models and market-monitoring tools for cyber-defence. Starting from a socio-technical perspective of information systems, I apply econophysics, quantitative analysis (data science techniques such as predictive analytics and statistical learning), and network science to the field of cyber-defence. With such an approach, I aim to provide a data-driven dashboard to monitor how technologies: (i) emerge, (ii) attract broader attention (i.e., hype), (iii) develop and mature incrementally or disruptively, and (iv) become progressively investable, in particular from the perspective of cyber-defence. These four aspects involve: 1. analysing the production-capability networks, the innovation structures, and the dynamics underlying the technology lifecycle (complex-systems analysis of cascading processes, network analysis of collective intelligence, graph analysis of hidden patterns related to stochastic percolation processes associated with networks of collective intelligence that shape the development of technological innovations); 2. modelling portfolios of emerging and/or disruptive technologies related to cyber-defence (real-options analysis, TRL analysis); 3. applying real-option models to capture the net-present value of uncertain innovation portfolios for cyber-defence (financial viability of investments).

The first results of my research were disseminated to the general public on 3 November 2020 at a conference organised by the CYD Campus at the EPFL SwissTech convention center. In addition, as co-chair of the programme of the sixteenth International Conference on Critical Infrastructure Security (CRITIS 2021), I am putting together a three-day programme at the EPFL SwissTech on the early identification of emerging technologies and technology monitoring applied to Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP).

3. What are the advantages of conducting your post-doctoral project at the CYD Campus?

I would say that the main advantage is the proximity to top experts of cross-border fields that are related to my research projects, should it be within armasuisse or within the ecosystem of top labs and researchers that you can find at EPFL and ETH. In addition, the proximity to the industry sector at the EPFL Innovation Park is a real advantage that can help to produce real “applied science” projects involving relevant proofs-of-concept and directly applicable artifacts. Thus, in a nutshell, the CYD Campus ecosystem, which brings together the Swiss Department of Defence, the academic sector (top labs and researchers) and the private sector (innovative companies and state-of-the-art applied science artifacts), provides a truly unique research ecosystem. Approaching these entities is quite difficult if you are not already very well established in those circles. With the CYD Campus as a brand, and also the CYD campus as a sponsor, the collaboration is really facilitated. This helps for developing sound and grounded research projects between and within entities – which, at the end of the day, leads to scientific publications. And of course, a researcher works in order to publish significant research papers.

4. Did you as a child dream of working in cyber-defence?

Not at all. As the majority of (male) children, I wanted to become an astronaut (thank you Star Wars) or a palaeontologist (thank you Jurassic Park). But you know, life trajectories are much more related to a random walk led by Markov chains, stochastic processes, and chaotic patterns than to checking every box of your planned goals. Today I am quite happy to be evolving in my research field (thank you Mr Robot)!

5. What is driving you to pursue research in cyber-defence?

As emphasized by the National strategy for the protection of Switzerland against cyber-risks (NCS, 2018-2022), the early identification of emerging and/or disruptive technologies constitutes a key strategic component of the Swiss cyber-defence. Providing empirically tested dynamic models for technology scouting, monitoring, and forecasting is necessary in order to leverage investment opportunities and to anticipate risks of fast-evolving innovations for cyber-defence. Beyond the hype associated with the excitement of their development, emerging and/or disruptive technologies carry uncertain future benefits and risks for society as a whole and, more specifically, for the cyber-defence of critical infrastructures. Here, it is important to acknowledge that there is a dearth of knowledge regarding the quantitative understanding of risks-adjusted benefits of emerging and/or disruptive technologies. Given the current and future continuous flow of novel technologies, a quantitative framework for a systematic and continuous monitoring of their perceived and achieved risk-adjusted benefits is needed.

The cyber-space is a complex system per se. For instance, analysing the structure dynamics of technological innovations can be done through the investigation of non-trivial patterns of collective intelligence networks that obey to stochastic percolation processes that shape the development of technological innovations. Those technological innovations are, in turn, elements that could significantly impact cyber-defence. In this respect, the recent advances in network science (especially when it comes to investigating the high-order architecture of complex systems) helps in enhancing the modelling capacities and thus in shedding some light on the dynamic behaviour of such a complex system (i.e., the innovation dynamics of the cyber-space).

What is really exiting is the fact that quantitative methods related to statistical learning and predictive analytics have been largely unapplied to the technology forecasting field. This means that there are significant research gaps that are worth exploring!

6. What is the most important lesson you have learned in your scientific career so far?

Doing a little bit of scientometrics helps to see that good research is not necessarily always correlated to impact factors and all those indexes that are imposed by scientific publishers (even though, at the end of the day, this is what will be retained by the community). Good research is about following your own creativity in order to find research topics that drive you, and then employ solid methodologies in order to test your ideas. Interestingly – and somehow ironically – to me, the scientific process is much more related to creativity than cartesian planification.

7. What are you most proud of in your career to date?

I am most proud of my ambition and what I aim to deliver. I prefer focusing on what is ahead, instead of laying back on what has been accomplished.

8. Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?

I am an alpinist. Mountaineering is my passion. I practice 15 to 30 hours of climbing and mountaineering per week. For me, the mountains represent a place of physical and spiritual elevation. We think we are going to “do” some mountaineering, but in reality, it is often the mountains that “do” us, or "undo" us. Ice climbing and modern high-altitude mixed climbing are my favourite disciplines. I am also particularly interested in demanding alpine crossings and long and harsh climbs on big north faces. When I am not working as a researcher, I am almost always in the mountains. Evolving in such an environment represents the quintessence of my personal perception of elevation. Also, I love to write about my mountaineering experiences. For those who might be interested, you can visit my website:

9. What are your expectations about the CYD Fellowships?

I think that I should expect things from myself instead of expecting things from the CYD Fellowships. I mean, they already accomplished their part: they are paying me. Now, it is my turn to deliver by producing valuable and relevant research papers.

10. Could you share some tips with future applicants who are considering applying for the CYD Fellowships?

If you want to have an edge on the other applicants, be sure to contact a CYD Campus mentor even before the first stage of selection. Because at the end of the day, it all boils to the alignment that your project will have with an already ongoing project of the CYD Campus. If you shape and/or adapt your research proposal based on what is already attracting the attention of scientific project managers, then you will start with an obvious advantage! It sounds like very basic advice, but I can tell I would not have been selected if I had not adapted my research proposal to one of the main research projects of the CYD Campus. Because let’s be realistic: there are always better applicants than you. There are always more qualified and more skilled people. So, how does one outrace them? Simple: adapt yourself to what is needed or asked from you, even before this is asked!