The Internet of Things Could Kill You, Or At Least Jab You With A Screwdriver

 

2017 08 21 18 25 05

Lucas and his killer robots. Photo: JW

(This is the transcript of my BBC World Service piece which ran today. The original Reuters story is here.) 

I’m sure you’ve seen those cute little humanoid robots around? They’re either half size, or quarter size, they look like R2D2, and if you believe the ads, they could play with your kids or hold a screwdriver while you fix something under the sink. Some of them under $1,000. Nice, right?

Well, maybe not. The problem with these robots is that, a lot like everything else connected to the internet, they’re vulnerable to hackers. Lucas Apa, a researcher from ioactive, brought a couple into my office recently to show just how easy it is. These robots connect through wifi so you can control them, but that connection is really easy to hack, he showed. He says there’s very little if any security involved at all. In short, a bad guy could take over control of the robots and make them move, or monitor you — what you’re saying, what you’re doing — and send that back out to people. Or attack you. 

To prove it he made one of the robots wander around as if he were drunk, while another, mimicking the ad, jabbed a screwdriver viciously while reciting lines from horror movie doll Chucky. These things, frankly, are scary enough with their unblinking eyes and the way they tilt their head to face you, even if you move.  But Chucky’s voice and the screwdriver really freaked me out. 

Lucas’ demonstration was just that: this is what could happen, he says, if we allow these things into our home and let kids play with them. He says there’s no evidence so far anyone has actually done this. The scariest thing, though, was that he’d been in touch with the half-dozen manufacturers of these things, some based in the US, some in Asia, for months and for the most part they’d either ignored him or said it wasn’t a problem. I got back to him recently and asked him whether things had improved when he’d gone public . No, he says; the companies that say they’ve addressed the problems haven’t. 

For those of us watching the internet of things this is a familiar refrain. There are so many things connecting to the internet these days it’s not surprising that there are problems.  There are dozens of devices in a home connecting, or trying to connect, to the wifi network. A senior cybersecurity guy told me he had found a bug in his wifi-connected barbeque that could theoretically have allowed someone to start a fire remotely. 
In short. the people making these devices do not treat security as a priority, and indeed may not understand it.

The irony is that these are physical devices, not just computers, and so they could actually do more real-world damage, if not cause us physical harm, than a computer sitting in the corner. Sure, the latter contains credit cards and personal data, but we rely on these connected devices to feed us, carry us, clean us, protect us from intruders. 

As Lucas showed with his Chucky-esque robot, this is not something we should be doing without a) thinking hard about how useful this is and b) quizzing the companies — hard — about how secure their devices are.  I’m not convinced we’ve really thought this all the way through.

Going Soft On Robots

Snake on a plane! Don’t panic, it’s probably just a (soft) robot

My piece on soft material robots for Reuters. Original story here: I’ve added links in this piece.

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Robots are getting softer.

Borrowing from nature, some machines now have arms that curl and grip like an octopus, others wriggle their way inside an airplane engine or forage underwater to create their own energy.

This is technology that challenges how we think of, and interact with, the robots of the not-too-distant future.

Robots are big business: by 2020, the industry will have more than doubled to $188 billion, predicts IDC, a consultancy. But there’s still a lot that today’s models can’t do, partly because they are mostly made of rigid metal or plastic.

Softer, lighter and less reliant on external power, future robots could interact more safely and predictably with humans, go where humans can’t, and do some of the robotic jobs that other robots still can’t manage.

A recent academic conference in Singapore showcased the latest advances in soft robotics, highlighting how far they are moving away from what we see as traditional robots.

“The theme here,” says Nikolaus Correll of Colorado University, “is a departure from gears, joints and links.”

One robot on display was made of origami paper; another resembled a rolling colostomy bag. They are more likely to move via muscles that expand and contract through heat or hydraulics than by electricity. Some combine sensing and movement into the same component – just as our fingertips react to touch without needing our brain to make a decision.

These ideas are already escaping from the lab.

SMALL, AGILE

Rolls-Royce, for example, is testing a snake-like robot that can worm its way inside an aircraft engine mounted on the wing, saving the days it can take to remove the engine, inspect it and put it back.

Of all the technologies Rolls-Royce is exploring to solve this bottleneck, “this is the killer one,” says Oliver Walker-Jones, head of communications.

The snake, says its creator, Arnau Garriga Casanovas, is made largely of pressurized silicone chambers, allowing the controller to propel and bend it through the engine with bursts of air. Using soft materials, he says, means it can be small and agile.

For now, much of the commercial action for softer robots is in logistics, replacing production-line jobs that can’t yet be handled by hard robots.

Food preparation companies and growers like Blue Apron, Plated and HelloFresh already use soft robotics for handling produce, says Mike Rocky, of recruiter PrincetonOne.

“This is an area robots traditionally can’t do, but where (soft robots) are on the cusp of being able to,” said Nathan Wrench of Cambridge Consultants.

MARINE INSPIRATION

Investors are excited, says Leif Jentoft, co-founder of RightHand Robotics, because it addresses a major pain point in the logistics industry. “Ecommerce is growing rapidly and warehouses are struggling to find enough labor, especially in remote areas where warehouses tend to be located.”

Some hope to ditch the idea that robots need hands. German automation company Festo and China’s Beihang University have built a prototype OctopusGripper, which has a pneumatic tentacle made of silicone that gently wraps itself around an object, while air is pumped in or out of suction cups to grasp it.

OctopusGripper (photo: festo.com)

A soft robot fish from China’s Zhejiang University swims by ditching the usual rigid motors and propellers for an artificial muscle which flexes. It’s lifelike enough, says creator Tiefeng Li, to fool other fish into embracing it as one of their own, and is being tested to explore or monitor water salinity.

And Bristol University in the UK is working on underwater robots that generate electrical energy by foraging for biomatter to feed a chain of microbial fuel-cell stomachs. Hemma Philamore says her team is talking to companies and environmental organizations about using its soft robots to decontaminate polluted waterways and monitor industrial infrastructure.

This doesn’t mean the end of hard-shelled robots.

Part of the problem, says Mark Freudenberg, executive technology director at frog, a design company, is that soft materials break easily, noting that most animatronic dolls like Teddy Ruxpin and Furby have rigid motors and plastic casings beneath their fur exteriors.

To be sure, the nascent soft robot industry lacks an ecosystem of software, hardware components and standards – and some companies have already failed. Empire Robotics, one of the first soft robot gripper companies, closed last year.

RightHand’s Jentoft says the problem is that customers don’t just want a robot, but the whole package, including computer vision and machine learning. “It’s hard to be a standalone gripper company,” he says.

And even if soft robots find a niche, chances are they still won’t replace all the jobs done by human or hard-shelled robots.

Wrench, whose Cambridge Consultants has built its own fruit picking robot, says he expects to see soft robots working with humans to harvest fruit like apples and pears which are harder to damage.

Once the robot has passed through, human pickers would follow to grab fruit hidden behind leaves and in hard-to-reach spots.

“It’s a constant race to the bottom, so there’s a pressing business need,” Wrench said.

Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Editing by Ian Geoghegan