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February 26, 2013

Today’s infrastructure is vulnerable

by omohundro

This post is partly excerpted from the preprint to:

Omohundro, Steve (forthcoming 2013) “Autonomous Technology and the Greater Human Good”, Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence (special volume “Impacts and Risks of Artificial General Intelligence”, ed. Vincent C. Müller).

On June 4, 1996, a $500 million Ariane 5 rocket exploded shortly after takeoff due to an overflow error in attempting to convert a 64 bit floating point value to a 16 bit signed value. In November 2000, 28 patients at the Panama City National Cancer Institute were over-irradiated due to miscomputed radiation doses in Multidata Systems International software. At least 8 of the patients died from the error and the physicians were indicted for murder. On August 14, 2003 the largest blackout in U. S. history took place in the northeastern states. It affected 50 million people and cost $6 billion. The cause was a race condition in General Electric’s XA/21 alarm system software.

These are just a few of many recent examples where software bugs have led to disasters in safety-critical situations. They indicate that our current software design methodologies are not up to the task of producing highly reliable software. The TIOBE programming community index found that the top programming language of 2012 was C. C programs are notorious for type errors, memory leaks, buffer overflows, and other bugs and security problems. The next most popular programming paradigms, Java, C++, C#, and PHP are somewhat better in these areas but have also been plagued by errors and security problems.

Bugs are unintended harmful behaviours of programs. Improved development and testing methodologies can help to eliminate them. Security breaches are more challenging because they come from active attackers looking for system vulnerabilities. In recent years, security breaches have become vastly more numerous and sophisticated. The internet is plagued by viruses, worms, bots, keyloggers, hackers, phishing attacks, identify theft, denial of service attacks, etc. One researcher describes the current level of global security breaches as an epidemic.

Autonomous systems have the potential to discover even more sophisticated security holes than human attackers. The poor state of security in today’s human-based environment does not bode well for future security against motivated autonomous systems. If such systems had access to today’s internet they would likely cause enormous damage. Today’s computational systems are mostly decoupled from the physical infrastructure. As robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology become more mature and integrated into society, the consequences of harmful autonomous systems would be much more severe.

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