Robot Hackers Could Be the Future of Cybersecurity – By Larry Greenemeier on August 4, 2016

The final round of DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge pits computers against one another as human programmers watch the future of cybersecurity unfold

At a live event August 4 in Las Vegas at the annual Def Con hacker conference, seven Cyber Grand Challenge finalists are preprogramming their computers to play a digital version of “capture the flag.” Credit: Courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto Thinkstock Images \ Memitina

At a live event August 4 in Las Vegas at the annual Def Con hacker conference, seven Cyber Grand Challenge finalists are preprogramming their computers to play a digital version of “capture the flag.” Credit: Courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto Thinkstock Images \ Memitina

A dozen years ago the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held its first “grand challenge”—to see if autonomous automobiles could cross a 240-kilometer stretch of the Mojave Desert on their own. Mechanical problems and mishaps ended the race before any of the competitors had gone more than 12 kilometers. DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense’s research arm, is looking for a better outcome Thursday in its inaugural Cyber Grand Challenge, where seven autonomous computers battle one another in what the agency claims is the “world’s first all-machine hacking tournament.”

DARPA announced the competition a couple of years ago, challenging computer programmers to create machines that could find and fix flaws in their software without human intervention. At a live event Thursday evening in Las Vegas at the annual Def Con hacker conference, seven Cyber Grand Challenge finalists are preprogramming their computers to play a digital version of “capture the flag.” The key to victory and the $2 million prize is to successfully defend one’s digital “flags”—bits of data written into programs running on the computers—from other teams’ cyber attacks while at the same time attacking competitors’ computers to find their flags.

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DARPA is building a plane that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a jet – March 8 2016

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at Mar 9, 2016 1.38

DARPA just revealed an animation showing the conceptual design and functionality of its unmanned VTOL X-Plane, nicknamed “Lightningstrike.”

VTOL stands for “vertical takeoff and landing.” The aircraft takes off and lands like a helicopter, but flies like an airplane. With a top speed of 460 mph, he X-Plane will be 50 percent faster than any previous VTOL aircraft in history. The first test flights are scheduled for 2018.


Jan Scheuermann uses a mind-controlled robot arm to eat a chocolate bar. UPMC/University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Sheuermann is quadriplegic, unable to move her arms and legs due to a neurodegenerative disease. So when scientists from the military’s future-science arm Darpa and the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories approached her in 2012 about plugging her brain into a robotic arm, the most she hoped for was the ability to serve herself some candy. Two years later, towards the end of her stint as a neuromotor guinea pig, the scientists changed the game. Instead of connecting Sheuermann’s brain interface to a robotic arm, they connected her to a flight simulator. She’d use the same neural connections to pilot an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the military’s next-gen attack jet. And despite the fact that the agency unveiled the flight at a February 24 security conference called “Future of War, Darpa officials insist Sheuermann is not a test pilot for a new generation of mind-controlled drones.

No, this research was conducted under Darpa’s Revolutionizing Prostheticsresearch track, which is geared towards better robotic arms for injured veterans. “We are thinking about exactly how to restore function after injury, how the brain can be used to actuate devices,” says Justin Sanchez, the head of Darpa’s prosthetics research. He says projects like this are helping push the limits of what is possible with artificial neural circuitry.

The idea of a neural interface for computers isn’t new. The first brain-controlled videogames go back to 2006, when a team of scientists at Washington University in St. Louis built an interface that let a teenager with epilepsy control Space Invaders. The idea is that instead of using purpose-specific neurons to control a purpose-specific device—like a cochlear implant, or some prostheses—you could build an interface between the brain and any computer, and then the computer could do a range of tasks—from gripping a candy bar to performing a barrel roll.

Sheuermann’s imaginary fighter jet flight wasn’t her first foray into controlling virtual objects with her mind. She trained to use the robot arm by controlling a virtual one on a computer screen. Her neural activity gets picked up by a four-millimeter-wide sensor embedded in her brain, 96 microelectrodes—Sanchez calls them “pips”—each trained on a different cell. “When you put them on the motor cortex, the pips get very close to the cell body and can record whenever one of those cells fire,” he says. His team simply reprogrammed the output of the electrodes so that instead of controlling the movements of a robotic arm, they controlled the altitude, pitch, and roll of an onscreen fighter jet. “I think what we’re getting to is understanding the processing that goes into the brain,” he says.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Because if Darpa is, hypothetically speaking of course, trying to build squadrons of brain-powered fighter drones, they’ve got a long way to go. The video below shows Sheuermann’s shaky flight skills. If she was in a real combat simulation, she’d be aced by bogies in no time. And there’s no way she’d make it past the mid-air refueling challenge.

Granted, Sheuermann is not a pilot in real life. (She writes mysteries, actually.) But the project faces even bigger technical challenges. Sanchez admits that he and his co-investigators still don’t know exactly how neurons control movement. And even if one day they were to figure our which neurons triggered which motions, these connections rewire themselves day to day, as the brain gets better at new tasks. This matters when using those neurons to control things outside the body, because the microelectrodes on the interface are each  assigned to a specific group of cells.

Practical applications notwithstanding, some in the brain-computer interface field saw more publicity than progress in Sheuermann’s test flight. “I am interested in helping people with neurological disorders become independent and gain control of their own lives. This press item is more in the entertainment and video game sphere, based on what I see,” writes John Donoghue, a pioneer in brain-computer interfaces at Brown University, in an email. Donoghue’s beef is that the Darpa video comes without peer-reviewed research to back it up. But Sheuermann’s doctors say they have a paper in press—it’s just not published yet. Darpa’s announcement surprised the researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, who worry that the government agency’s gun-jumping might compromise the acceptance of their research into the scientific canon. (Academic journals are notoriously touchy over people discussing research before it’s published.)

The real achievement here is reprogramming the same neuronal wiring that controlled a robotic arm to fly a virtual fighter jet. “Fundamentally it’s demonstrations like this that change the way that we think about the way brain does work in the world,” says Sanchez. It’s an early step, but he says this raises interesting questions about whether humanity could one day outgrow physical interfaces with its machines. This is about more than just video games—it’s about finding a fundamentally new way to interact with the virtual world, and maybe even the real one.

When Robots Can Kill, It’s Unclear Who Will Be To Blame – by STEVE HENN March 21, 2014 5:00 AM

The TALON MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) robot can be transformed from an weaponized robot to one with an arm and gripper by changing out its modules. (PRNewsFoto/Foster-Miller, Inc.)

The TALON MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) robot can be transformed from an weaponized robot to one with an arm and gripper by changing out its modules. (PRNewsFoto/Foster-Miller, Inc.)

Anonymous/PRNewsFoto/Foster-Miller, Inc.

The fast-advancing field of robotics is opening up serious questions about the military-based motivations behind some of the coolest tricks our machines can now be programmed to perform.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, helped create the Internet. But these days, DARPA is probably best known for its robotics contests. Its latest robotics challenge was inspired by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which happened three years ago.

Back then, nuclear engineers rushed to shut down reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but fear of radiation poisoning kept utility workers at the Fukushima plant from shutting off the effectively cooling reactors sooner. Eventually, three of the plants six reactors melted down.

“There is good evidence that if we had been able to send in some kind of robot and had that robot do relatively simple things, simple manual tasks like opening valves, opening doors, getting to control panels, a lot of the following disaster could have been averted, ” says Brian Gerky, of the Open Source Robotics Foundation.

The goal now is to build that robot, one that can open doors, move debris, turn a valve, even drive a conventional car.

In December, 16 teams of roboticists converged in Miami to compete. While the robots moved slowly and some were tripped up by seemingly trivial obstacles, the event pushed humanoid robots to do things they have never done before.

While this may seem like an entirely altruistic enterprise — designing a robot for disaster response — the event also is pushing the field robotics toward goals military planners have long sought.

“At the end of the day people need to remember what the D in DARPA stands for. It stands for Defense,” says Peter Singer. Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.

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Darpa’s Robotic Gladiators Will Battle on This Disaster Course – BY ALLEN MCDUFFEE12.19.136:30 AM

NASA's Johnson Center has entered Valkyrie, a 6' 2" robot with an 80" wingspan, into DAPRA's Robotic Challenge. (Image: NASA JSC/DARPA)

NASA’s Johnson Center has entered Valkyrie, a 6′ 2″ robot with an 80″ wingspan, into DAPRA’s Robotic Challenge. Image: NASA JSC/DARPA

In a robotic twist on American Gladiators, 17 robots and their teams will descend upon Florida this week to see which ones have the greatest superhero potential.

DARPA, the Pentagon’s research wing, is turning to robots to respond alongside humans when there’s a natural or human-made disaster — an initiative that DARPA says was triggered by the 2011 earthquake in Japan that caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

At the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Trials Friday and Saturday at the Homestead Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., robot prototypes will be run through a challenge course consisting of eight tasks to evaluate robots’ perception, autonomous decision-making, mobility, dexterity and strength — all the qualities DARPA expects robots would need to work in disaster scenarios.

Speed, however, is not one of the qualities that will be tested. Robots will be given 30 minutes to perform each of the eight tasks once over the course of the two-day event, although DARPA expects that not all of the teams will be able to complete every task.

“We know the robots are slow and unsteady at this point—they’re much like a one-year-old human in terms of locomotion and grasping abilities and much farther behind that in brainpower,” said Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager, in astatement.

“The robots are taking ‘baby steps’ this year, but their performance will establish a reference point for what we can expect from the teams that return next year for the DRC Finals,” said Pratt. “We want that event to be much more difficult and force the robots to demonstrate useful capabilities in realistic disaster scenarios.”

Teams from MIT, NASA and Boston Dynamics, among 14 others, will compete for as many as eight spots to continue to receive DARPA funding to advance their robot for the DRC Finals scheduled for late 2014.

Here’s a look at the competition course, designed to simulate what robots encounter in disaster zones: