A US defence department advisory board has warned of the danger that American war robots scheduled for delivery within a decade might be riddled with malicious code. The kill machines will use software largely written overseas, and it is feared that sinister forces might meddle with it in production, thus gaining control of the future mechanoid military.
The most eye-catching of the equipment mentioned is the lineup of the US Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) programme. FCS was originally supposed to include a wide range of deadly unmanned systems, including a small, possibly rocket-firing flying Dalek, a heavily armed autonomous helicopter gunship, and a robot tank packing guided missiles and cannon. There would also be intelligent sensor minefields, droid-mule transport systems and loads of other stuff; and all of it is supposed to be linked together by a data network.
Some of this has been scratched from the plans of late to save money - fans of Keith Laumer's Bolo novels will be sorry to hear that the robotanks have gone - but FCS remains a big deal, and parts of it are meant to arrive within a few years.
"On the network the strong become stronger," runs the US Army slogan. But now the US Defence Science Board, in a report being analysed by the military press, have started to worry about that network.
"The System of Systems Common Operating Environment (SOSCOE) and the Integrated Computer System/Operating System (ICS/OS) rely predominantly on [Commercial Off The Shelf - COTS] and Open Source software," say the gov advisors.
"The ICS/OS is almost 99 per cent COTS/OS," they add. "The SOSCOE, essentially the 'middleware'... is almost 80 per cent COTS/OS."
Apparently the FCS programme office has admitted that there is a "low to moderate risk that malicious code could be inserted... and exploited."
It seems there is also an "irresistible tendency to replace relatively secure special-purpose communications... with the general purpose Internet Protocol (IP) stack."
If that doesn't boil down to a teenager with a laptop seizing control of robot helicopter gunships, we don't know what does. We'll say that again: ROBOT GUNSHIP HAX0R ARMY MENACE 2 SOCIETY. Aiee! Run! (It won't be any use, but run anyway.)
The soldiery have come up with some cunning plans to deal with this problem, including that of using undercover software buyers so that the vendors wouldn't know they were selling to the US military. There was also a suggestion that "the profit motive will assure clean code in shrink-wrapped consumer software". (They really did say that, apparently.)
The Science Board guys said they were "skeptical" of these thoughts, and concluded that "malicious code is a key concern of the FCS program".
Read the full report in all its hefty pdf glory here.
Still, things might be OK. Apparently the incredibly expensive new F-22 Raptor stealth superjet is pretty secure (it "appears to be at the high end... for secure software development"). So the Raptor finally has a clear and well-defined purpose: saving the taxpayers from the hacker robot army. ®