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Preparing for the worst

Cyberwar threats are all too real, E&T investigates.

The Futurist magazine listed ‘Ten critical trends for cybersecurity’, compiled by Marvin J Citron and Owen Davies after interviews with futurists and security experts. It is a disturbing article, mainly because the threats are all too plausible. There is no suggestion that conventional warfare will cease, just that there will be more ways to cause equivalent suffering using an increasing range of cyber-attacks. Terrorism will continue to increase and will become more problematic as extremists use IT to exploit our vulnerabilities.

The key problem is that technology increasingly dominates both the economy and society, and this domination is the ultimate foundation for cyberwar. Positive feedback in technology development has put us on an accelerating path towards advanced technology that may ultimately be beyond human comprehension. Disruption of computer systems can now cause enormous harm, but we are still making systems more complex, more fragile, with more scope for disruption, by an increasingly large number of capable enemies. Well coordinated attacks could now knock out anything from car engines to power grids to defence threats

Many things that enrich our lives, such as better socialisation tools and improved connectivity, are also sources of threats. New ways of improving efficiency often open opportunities for disruption. For example, cloud computing is singled out as a major hole in security and by introducing better links between customers and suppliers we also create new routes for attacks. Integration of business systems around the world adds greatly to the problem. We can’t switch off these networks without causing major damage, but keeping them going enables cyber-attacks. We seem to be stuck unless we can develop secure new systems. But, designing secure systems without knowing the purposes for which they will eventually be used, would be near impossible.

The pace of change allows little scope for security concerns to keep up. Eighty per cent of the scientists and engineers who have ever lived are still alive, still learning and exchanging ideas in real-time across the net. With increasing leverage from artificial knowledge creation technology, progress will continue to accelerate. But this knowledge production is no longer centred on the USA or Europe – it is migrating to other countries, especially China and Russia. Of course, the decline in our relative position in R&D is then echoed in the capability to withstand cyber-attacks. On the other hand, not all attacks come from countries or terrorist groups. Attacks from individuals will become more powerful as technology (particularly due to the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology and AI) allows rogue scientists to do more without being discovered. The Unabomber’s successors will have access to much more powerful tools.

Although war is still very much between people, autonomous vehicles are already being used for surveillance, and remote-controlled planes for missile attacks. This trend will continue to grow, with technology and cyber-enhanced engagements rapidly becoming the norm. With machines at the sharp end and human combatants large distances apart, technological superiority can be used as leverage to decrease the number of casualties. But this technological superiority brings increased dependence which creates an asymmetric vulnerability. As both sides become more technological, this kind of warfare evolves into cyber-systems engaging with other cyber-systems. As AI improves, cyberwar will become more fierce and the level of casualties will increase.

We may see telecoms or electrical distribution networks being crashed, causing massive disruption, especially to the ability to work, and even deaths through malfunctioning of emergency services. AI-based attacks will cause severe damage and suffering. Even defending against such attacks might be severely disrupting, making it more difficult to work efficiently and effectively as firewall, authentication and encryption systems become cumbersome. A very significant difference between this kind of warfare and the conventional one is that the focus of attention moves away from the military and spreads to the whole population.

Militant religion is a particular problem, but there are ‘groups with grudges’ and the Internet is enabling them to coordinate attacks better.

IT Terrorists

The level of terrorism will increase as terrorists become IT literate. Population growth is also highlighted as a threat, mainly because a larger number of well-educated people makes a stronger adversary. Since population growth is highest in the poorest countries, with potentially the strongest grievances, this is a problem. Education may remain poor for the majority in these countries, but large numbers of people will acquire the ability to engage in cyber-warfare, while keeping the feelings of alienation that drive them.

The final stages of cyber-warfare are more disturbing still. The report talks about singularity engagement. This is a well discussed topic at the Lifeboat Foundation. Powerful AI systems can design their own offspring and these might even develop their own ideologies. It is possible that mankind could find itself in a battle against the offspring of its own creations, the Terminator scenario. Although some computer scientists refuse to accept that machines could ever be smarter than humans, this stance is in decline, and while there is no reason to assume that smart machines will be nasty to us, there is also no reason to assume they will forever remain benign.

The Terminator series of sci-fi films featured a number of increasingly sophisticated cyborgs. The potential reality is much more frightening – a smart yogurt! This obviously requires a degree of explanation, since we are unaccustomed to seeing yogurt as a threat. Take two existing trends in R&D: neuroscience and synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is already with us. We are already redesigning and rebuilding virus and bacteria to do specific tasks, such as fabricating or breaking down compounds or transporting genes between organisms.

Neuroscience is accelerating quickly as advancing nanotechnology and IT enable more knowledge to be extracted on how neurons work together to yield cognitive processes.

We are already reverse-engineering the brain to some degree. In IT, driven by the need for ever more processing power, but with the limits of ongoing component miniaturisation, we are seeing multi-core processors with more and more cores. It makes sense to start breaking up the processors and allow thousands or millions of them to be suspended in gel, using free-space optics to connect them up. Conventional digital electronics might be used, but we may also mix in a good measure of synthetic neurons and adaptive analog circuitry. If optical neural inputs are used, we may use light beams as a computer equivalent to human emotions biasing the input weightings of synthetic neurons. And then, given the ability to dynamically re-route optical connections, start using hardware evolution as a design process taking a processor to the limits of its potential. A computer in 2025 might well use such processing gel. Having taken an evolutionary design route, it is likely that we will not fully understand all the structures, but be happy to accept the resultant firepower.

All the while, progress in synthetic biology will continue, and it is likely that many of the molecular components in the processing gel will be built by synthetic bacteria. In production plants, the bacteria will make various components, then be dissolved away. The obvious next stage is to use the bacteria to make more sophisticated circuitry and then ultimately to use them as the power supply. It should be possible to build smart bacteria, with their own electronics, linking them into electronic processors while allowing them to continue living as biological organisms, a hybrid organism potentially spanning the entire virtual and physical worlds. And so, we end up with smart yogurt, a pot which could in principle provide as much processing power as all the human brains in Europe.

Climate science

But the threat doesn’t end there. Bacteria from the yogurt might easily survive in the air, on surfaces and even in our bodies. They might design their own offspring with sensory and networking capabilities. They might live on every surface, such as keyboards, where they can intercept keystrokes long before they get to any security software. And eventually, these bacteria might evolve the ability to enter our brains depositing components for intercepting and relaying thought processes at the raw signal stage. They might execute the same thoughts, analyse them, decide how to modify them and then create modified signals in our brains. They could intercept, edit, censor and control our thoughts.

And that’s what makes smart yogurt so terrifying. We could be engaged and beaten in warfare without even knowing it, willingly enslaved. Having had such ideas explored in sci-fi does not make them any less plausible in reality.

Another area of concern arises from climate science. As one of the tools of high altitude atmospheric research , scientists can use radio antennas or lasers to heat up small regions of the ionosphere and bounce test signals off it. Energising the ionosphere to make reflective layer makes an interesting potential weapon technology. If a region can be made reflective in such a way, then under advanced computer control, perhaps a steered beam could heat up a shaped region to act as a lens or reflector for the incoming solar wind. Deflecting even a small amount of it, perhaps a larger reflecting region could be made and this could manipulate a larger share of the solar wind, creating an even larger region. No easy task, but it offers a new angle on the space ray gun scenarios, and given the enormous energy in the solar wind about 12TW, it could be a significant threat to electronic systems, especially satellites, since the particles would have to travel through much less atmosphere.

And this represents the key aspect of cyberwar threats. For a relatively small risk, anyone with a grudge can now cause potentially serious harm thanks to the increased vulnerability afforded by our modern dependence on high technology. As the WFS report acknowledges, there seems to be very little doubt that the worst is yet to come.

Ian Pearson is a freelance technology journalist and futurologist who used to work for BT.

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