Security aspects of Fourth Industrial Revolution

(File pix) Robot: A one-man bomb detection squad? Pix courtesy of Police
By Cung Vu - June 13, 2018 @ 10:16am

THE term ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (FIR) is a buzzword introduced by Klaus Schwab during the World Economic Forum in 2016. It is defined as the convergence of technologies to blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It is also used interchangeably with the more popular term ‘Industry 4.0’ coined by the German government in 2011.

In fact, it is the convergence of underlying technology domains of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology and cognitive science where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The security implications of the FIR are too complex to fully grasp. These technological waves are coming fast and leaders, whether in the private sector or in public service, need to be prepared. The major concern is what happens to the economy and job distribution. However, there are security implications leaders need to be aware of to develop informed policies and strategies.

Let’s peel off each layer of the FIR “onion” one by one. As the security implications are both deep and wide, the following are only highlights of the security aspects of the underlying technology domains.

Nanotechnology: A technology conducted at the nanoscale (one nanometre is equal to one billionth of a metre), materials at these dimensions behave differently from bulk properties. Nanotechnology is used to produce nanomaterials, smart materials, nanoelectronics, nanosensors, nanodevices, nanomedicine and so on.

Nanotechnology has numerous homeland security and defence applications. It is used for detecting potentially harmful materials, finding pathogens in water supply systems, or for early warning and detoxification of harmful airborne agents. Nanomaterials are used to build lighter and stronger armour and parts for vehicles, equipment, and aircraft. Nanomaterials also allow building of smaller, more powerful rockets, bombs, and other explosive devices.

Biotechnology: Biotechnology is a broad discipline in which biological processes, organisms and cells are exploited to develop new technologies and products that help improve our lives.

Biotechnology has advanced so much that personalised drugs could be developed based on individual DNA. We are now not only able to sequence and synthesise DNA, but also edit it.This has very grave implications as potential new viruses could be created from the laboratory.

Information and Computing Technology (ICT): It seems that almost all aspects of our life now depend on ICT. The Internet-of-Things allows endless connectivity to improve how we work and live. Our dependency on the digital world has made us more vulnerable. Cyber attackers could exploit such vulnerability to serve their purposes.

Cognitive Science: This is the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind and its processes. Advances in the development of human-machine interfaces, algorithms, and power sources as well as other components are making robots readily available for personal and industrial use.

Brain stimulation drugs have been used as cognitive enhancement to keep soldiers alert for days without sleep. Amphetamine and fenethylline are known to be taken by terrorists in suicide bombing missions or to allow them to go into battle not caring if they live or die.

Technology Convergence: The security impacts of technology convergence are virtually limitless.

One of the technology intersections which receives a lot of attention is artificial intelligence (AI) where “intelligent machine” could be created to operate and react like a human being. That means a machine can see, hear, talk, learn and reason.

This leads to the fear that human jobs, both blue and white-collar, would be lost to robots or even the human race could eventually be taken over by robots. Only time will tell. In the near term, as machines get smarter and smarter, the potential threats are also gradually increased.

China is incorporating AI in autonomous unmanned aerial systems. Their drone swarms could utilise neural networks to deny the US the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The US also leverages AI to develop cutting-edge technology for military and intelligence purposes.

In the homeland security front, attackers are using AI to study the target, and identify vulnerabilities to generate hacks.

Let’s take a look at a few areas of AI:

In speech recognition, a startup company named Lyrebird has developed an algorithm that can mimic anybody’s voice after analysing a few pre-recorded audio clips. It can read text with intonation and punctuation.

In visual recognition, computer scientists were able to exploit AI to modify or synthesise images to impersonate people online. When both audio and video technologies combined, they could be used to generate fake news to persuade public opinions or to fabricate terrorist propaganda.

In machine learning, scientists have demonstrated that AI-generated malicious links outperform human competitors in terms of composing phishing tweets, distributing them over cyber space and victimising more users.

In another area of machine learning, researchers have pointed out that many pattern recognition algorithms are easy to manipulate to trick computers, and the implications are scary.

By Cung Vu.

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