While we all know this is a wireless industry editorial, sometimes it is just interesting to take a tangential diversion to trends in the wider technology world. In short, wireless technology is a critical component of the larger trend toward automation. If you ignore events in the robotics world, you will miss clues to the future of wireless.
Part One – The Case of the Mysterious Artificial Tongue
The first part is about an artificial tongue. Yes, you read it right. Now, one would think an artificial tongue would have some amazing medical applications, but in this case the application is one that I would not have guessed in a million years. As well, I have to ask the question; “Is this where research is spending its money?”
As the story goes research conducted by engineers and chemists from the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, and funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council lead to the development of an artificial tongue. Not just any artificial tongue, but one that uses two different types of nanoscale metal “tastebuds,” which provides more information about the “taste” of each sample and allows a faster and more accurate response.
Next, the question is, what is it tasting? The answer – whiskey! This is where I have to throw in that there must be way too much money in somebody’s coffer.
But it is an, rather, attention-grabbing case and the technology is interesting. It works by arranging sub-microscopic slices of two metals, gold and aluminum, in a checkerboard pattern. Each of these slices is about 500 times smaller than their human equivalents. When whiskey is poured over this, it analyses very subtle differences in how the metals in the artificial tongue absorb light, referred to as plasmonic resonance. Different whiskies have different plasmonic responses.
The researchers claim greater than 99 percent accuracy. It was capable of picking up on the subtler distinctions between the same whisky aged in different barrels, and tell the difference between the same whisky aged for 12, 15 and 18 years.
While this experiment focused on whisky, it can also be used to “taste” virtually any liquid. This has implications in other areas such as culinary, biometrics, law enforcement, even security (to “taste” different fluids).
Part 2 – Kill Switches
The kill switch is another one of those not so obvious, but it makes sense, applications. And this one is directly related to wireless.
As vehicles become more connected, smart and eventually autonomous, the potential for using vehicles as terrorist weapons also ratchets up. Vehicles could possibly be electronically hijacked via a wireless link.
Sensing that, Consumer Watchdog has released a report that raises the concern of a coordinated cyber-attack on connected cars. They note that such an attack has the potential to create havoc, cause thousands of deaths and cripple the national infrastructure. The report goes as far as to compare the potential impact with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A plausible scenario involving a fleet-wide hack during rush hour in major metropolitan areas could result in approximately 3,000 fatalities, the same death toll as the 9/11 attack, the report notes.
In that vein, Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit advocate for consumers, raises the issue of installing “kill switches” in all vehicles, so vehicular connectivity can be instantly severed in the event of such an attack. Lawmakers need to step in if car makers and telecoms players do not offer ways to secure connected vehicles by the end of 2019, according to the group.
This is a genuine concern. Today, smartphone technology in cars is not designed to protect critical systems.
For example, take the cellular-connected infotainment system. It takes very few resources to compromise that unit and take it over. The system is connected to the vehicle’s controller area network (CAN) buses. These are the arteries that link the vehicle’s critical systems, including engine and brakes. There has been some discussion that the current method of connecting safety-critical components to the internet through a complex information and entertainment device is an open invitation for compromise. If a hacker can access the system (and there have been controlled experiments that show this is possible) they have control of the vehicle’s operation via the internet.
It might be wise to take a page from the recent Boeing MAX 8 debacle. The fact that computer systems can overrule manual control is of concern with vehicles, as well. Virtually all of the vehicles on the road today have systems that can be overridden by computers and software. That is even presented in some of the current car commercials. And, as most of these vehicles are connect to wide-area communications networks, they are just another device on the Internet of Everything/Everyone (IoX).
The kill switch solution is both cheap (around 50 cents) and necessary. It is a way to eliminate the looming possibility of any number of devastating scenarios.
The automotive industry is aware of the risks. However, it appears that they are still flying below the radar. To make matters worse, car companies such as Tesla, Audi, Hyundai and Mercedes use software written by third parties. Much of it is open-source software, such as Android, Linux and FreeRTOS.
We are all aware of the security issues that surround much of the open-source products, especially since this software is comprised of contributions from hundreds or thousands of different authors around the world. It often relies on the integrity of the developers with few requirement for security. As well, again referring back to the MAX 8 discussion, some of this software is minimally tested. There is a parallel that can be drawn to the wolf guarding the henhouse, both with airplanes and ground vehicles. A testament to that is the volume of regular recalls from car companies.
The report notes that “regulators should require automakers to disclose the authorship, certifications and testing of critical software in their vehicles and make chief executives at car companies accept legal liability for the cyber-security status of their cars.” I believe this is an issue that will surface shortly. Unfortunately, like most such scenarios, it will not get traction until a major crisis arises.
What do artificial tongues and autonomous vehicle kill switches have in common? On the surface, not much. But I think they represent a paradigm of engineers attempting to automate even the smallest thing and the need to control that urge before it does more harm to mankind than good.