Self-aware Internet……woah!

We had a debate at work today on whether we think the Internet would become self-aware at some point in the near future.  While it was mostly conjecture that resulted in us ribbing each other for stupid ideas, it did start me thinking down a path that I hadn’t thought about for several years.  A former professor of mine posed a single quote, author unknown, that we debated for over four hours.  I might have brought this up before in a previous post and I’m just too lazy to go looking for it, but here goes.

“The computer is the network.”

Obviously it can be interpreted as “The network is the computer” but for the sake of keeping things semi-short, I will stick with the original quote.  Putting some logic behind it, one is able to determine that it is true and false at the same time.  What I mean is its a modern “Chicken or Egg” discussion in that its easy to see if from both sides.  Would networks, as we know them as electrical signals that are on or off, have existed if there weren’t any computers?  Would computers, as we know them as smart thinking boxes, have existed if there were no networks?  You can answer yes to both questions, but you can also answer no depending on your point of view.  Does that make sense?

The theory behind artificial intelligence is that with enough data, or input, an electrical circuit can and will become aware of its environment.  Simple machines, the size of matchbox cars, have been built with simple circuits that didn’t have memory or storage capacity and have learned their environment well enough to not repeat past mistakes, such as run into an obstacle.  Provided everything remains constant, they don’t go back to the place they ran into a wall or a table leg.

Now, take into account that the Internet has reached a level where you hypothetically measure its contents in exabytes, as in 1 exabyte is the same as 1,024 terabytes, or for the non-technical people, 1,024 terabytes is the same as 1,048,576 gigabytes.  I used a calculator so I know my math is correct, lol.  Moving on, that information is served up and transported by the most advanced and cutting edge computers in the world.  It’s not a stretch to hypothesize someone out there creating a very simple “learning” malware application that anticipates the end-users removal techniques and effectively counteracts said techniques long enough to spread to several hundred computers.  There is documented proof on the speed that malware or a virus spreads around the internet.

Straight out of a science fiction book, that malware, learning all the way along, infects the largest and most powerful computers in the world.  Quicker than we can comprehend, it now has access to the entire digital footprint of the human race and learns at an exponential rate until we realize what is going on all too late.  What we had created as a simple network back in the 1970’s has now become an enemy that has control over utilities, electricity, warheads, planes, ships, and any computer in the world connected to it.  A technical life form by definition, but without any physical presence to attack.

How would you use a laptop that has now become aware of you, and will protect itself at all costs to keep you from unplugging it, removing its battery, etc.?  A scary thought that is, as previously mentioned, right out of a science fiction book.  There are theorists all over the internet talking about this sort of thing, which in my opinion is making things easier for the the Internet (would we call it Lord Internet when it makes us slaves?) to one up us.  Make us obsolete and alter the world to suit its needs….

I for one could, at a moments notice, disconnect and exist off the grid in some mountain cabin in the middle of Montana!

SCADA – supervisory control and data acquisition

I doubt most people heard about the water treatment facility that had their SCADA system hacked a few days ago that ultimately led to the facility to shutdown for several hours in Illinois.  Most Americans don’t even know what this system does for us or just how critical it is to our daily lives until its too late and the systems are offline.

As the title suggests, SCADA stands for supervisory control and data acquisition.  In simple terms, it is a networked systems of switches, monitoring devices, control systems, and primary computer systems.  All of these together make it possible to run a facility, like a water treatment plant, without people physically having to be on-site.  The following industries have used or are currently using SCADA systems in their facilities:

  • electricity
  • water treatment
  • nuclear power
  • natural gas
  • petroleum
  • chemical

Now, hold on, I haven’t even gotten to the scary part yet.  Most of these industries have one thing in common.  They are in whole or part regulated by the Federal Government that use their own set of SCADA systems that, you guessed it, monitor the industrial SCADA systems on-site.  Sort of like a watchdog for the watchdogs.  Here is the really scary part……  they’re online!  As in, most of these systems with exception for most nuclear plants and chemical plants, can be accessed remotely from any computer with a network connection and credentials to enter the system.  The systems that can’t be accessed online are accessible if onsite, which for anyone determined enough is, in theory, possible.  Live Free or Die Hard was about just this very topic, but veiled under what they called a “Firesale” that enabled them to steal credit information.

Finally, the horrific part of this whole thing.  Gaining access to the main SCADA system could potentially allow a single hacker to take down every other SCADA system in its network.  This would mean, in simple terms, that you would be without electricity, water, natural gas, gasoline, or any petro-chemical that goes into literally hundreds of consumer products.  The entire system, although speculation, is decades old and in need of major upgrading and fortification from modern threats.  In fact, most of the IT systems used by the Federal Government are decades old and archaic when compared to modern entry-level standards.  Did you know that the military is STILL using a hardened version of Windows XP on all of their computer systems?  Windows XP is 12 years old!!

We know how to use these systems for damage.  The StuxNet virus the United States released on Iran SCADA systems sabotaged the centrifuges in their Uranium Enrichment Facilities to prevent them from building nuclear weapons.  The only reason it got out that it was even developed was that it affected SCADA systems outside of Iran in several neighboring countries through the Internet.

The Internet.  I’ve been aware of the fact that we don’t know what we’ve created or how it will develop.  I truly believe that artificial intelligence will be born out of the Internet.  Whether it takes over the world, wipes out the human race, or turns into a Terminator style future is anyone’s guess.

Technical details for this post were obtained from the below source:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCADA