Friday, January 6, 2012

Will robo-wars become a cat-and-mouse game?

I think the current state of "robo-wars" is too imbalanced to be sustainable over the long term. The USA has launched over five times as many drone attacks against Pakistan (which it is not "at war" with) than manned bomber attacks in the Kosovo war 10 years ago, and the US military shows no sign of slowing down their use of semi-autonomous war machines.

It would be difficult for opponents of the US to match their level of spending and technology investment to build or acquire equivalent war-bots. However they might be able to find ways to turn these machines against their masters. This could vary from jamming a drone's control signals to take it down and convert them to the enemy's control, to planting malware inside a drone's control systems.

Drone malware doesn't need to be sophisticated to cause a lot of damage. One of the incidents mentioned in this radio program gives a clue on how this could happen. The malware could wait until the drone meets the conditions that suggest it is inside home base (e.g. a GPS location or receiving a control signal to dock) and then tell the drone to "go squirrely" (i.e. spin around in a circle firing all its weapons).

Autonomous and semi-autonomous war machines are amoral: they have no sense of 'loyalty'. It may be impossible to tell by looking at a robot (i.e. the hardware) that it's programming (i.e. the software) has changed. Soldiers are unlikely to be able to tell if and when one of their robots has been reprogrammed and is no longer 'trustworthy'.

As we have seen from Stuxnet, malware can be implanted at a very low level in embedded systems. When such malware activates, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish their effects from unintended software bugs.

Of course, once such war-bot malware appears, you can be sure that countries like the USA will work on developing countermeasures. A new technology cat-and-mouse game will then join the existing games of virus/antivirus and black-hat/white-hat.

Source: The morality of robo-wars: PW Singer - The Philosopher's Zone - ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation):

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