US now trains more drone operators than pilots

24/08/2009

As part of an expanding programme of battlefield automation, the American air force has said it is now training more drone operators than fighter and bomber pilots.

In a controversial shift in military thinking – one encouraged by the confirmed death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone-strike on 5 August – the air force is looking to hugely expand its fleet of unmanned aircraft by 2047.

Three years ago, the service was able to fly just 12 drones at a time; now it can fly more than 50. At a trade conference outside Washington last week, military contractors presented a future vision in which pilotless drones serve as fighters, bombers and transports, even automatic mini-drones which attack in swarms.

Five thousand robotic vehicles and drones are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2015, the Pentagon’s $230bn (£140bn) arms procurement programme Future Combat Systems expects 15% of America’s armed forces to be robotic.

A recent study ‘The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan 2020-2047’ predicted a boom in drone funding to $55bn by 2020 with the greatest changes coming in the 2040s.

“The capability provided by the unmanned aircraft is game-changing,” said General Norton Schwartz, the air force chief of staff. “We can have eyes 24/7 on our adversaries.”

Read the full story on the Observer website.

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Who will be responsible for autonomous machines?

20/08/2009

Within a decade, we could be routinely interacting with machines that are truly autonomous – systems that can adapt, learn from their experience and make decisions for themselves. Free from fatigue and emotion, they would perform better than humans in tasks that are dull, dangerous or stressful.

Already, the systems we rely on in our daily lives are being given the capacity to operate autonomously. On the London Underground, Victoria line trains drive themselves between stations, with the human “driver” responsible only for spotting obstacles and closing the doors. Trains on the Copenhagen Metro run without any driver at all.

While our cars can’t yet drive themselves, more and more functions are being given over to the vehicle, from anti-lock brakes to cruise control. Automatic lighting and temperature control are commonplace in homes and offices.

The areas of human existence in which fully autonomous machines might be useful – and the potential benefits – are almost limitless. Within a decade, robotic surgeons may be able to perform operations much more reliably than any human.

Smart homes could keep an eye on elderly people and allow them to be more independent. Self-driving cars could reduce congestion, improve fuel efficiency and minimise the number of road accidents.

But automation can create hazards as well as removing them. How reliable does a robot have to be before we trust it to do a human’s job? What happens when something goes wrong? Can a machine be held responsible for its actions?

Read the full story on the Guardian website.


Palm Pre snoops on users by phoning data home

14/08/2009

Palm Pre users watch out. Palm may know a lot more about you than you would like to share.

Programmer Joey Hess found that Palm Pre’s operating system webOS sends his GPS location back to Palm every day. Hess also found code that sends Palm data on which webOS apps he has used each day, and for how long he used each one.

“I was surprised by this,” Hess, who bought the Pre about a month ago, told Wired.com. “I had location services turned off though I had GPS still on because I wanted it to geotag photos. Still I didn’t expect Palm to collect this level of information.”

In its defense, Palm says the data is used to offer better results to users. For instance, when location-based services are used, the Pre collects information to give users relevant local results in Google Maps, says Palm.

“Palm takes privacy very seriously and offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off,” says Palm in a statement. “Our privacy policy is like many policies in the industry and includes very detailed language about potential scenarios in which we might use a customer’s information, all toward a goal of offering a great user experience.”

Palm’s actions trigger questions about consumer privacy and the extent to which handset makers and developers are gathering and using data about buyers’ behavior.

Read the full story on the Wired website.


Call for debate on killer robots

04/08/2009

An international debate is needed on the use of autonomous military robots, a leading academic has said. Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield said that a push toward more robotic technology used in warfare would put civilian life at grave risk.

Technology capable of distinguishing friend from foe reliably was at least 50 years away, he added. However, he said that for the first time, US forces mentioned resolving such ethical concerns in their plans.

“Robots that can decide where to kill, who to kill and when to kill is high on all the military agendas,” Professor Sharkey said at a meeting in London. “The problem is that this is all based on artificial intelligence, and the military have a strange view of artificial intelligence based on science fiction.”

Professor Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics, has long drawn attention to the psychological distance from the horrors of war that is maintained by operators who pilot unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often from thousands of miles away.

“These guys who are driving them sit there all day… they go home and eat dinner with their families at night,” he said. “It’s kind of a very odd way of fighting a war – it’s changing the character of war dramatically.”

Read the full story on the BBC News website.


Smartphones open to SMS attacks

31/07/2009

Mobile handsets including iPhones and those using Windows Mobile or Google’s Android operating system are vulnerable to text-based attacks, say experts.

Software code that arrives in a text message can hijack the phones, said Charlie Miller and Collin Mulliner at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. The malware could knock phones off the network or access data and programs.

The team say that hackers could develop programs to exploit the weakness in as little as two weeks. The pair said that publicising the means of attack was necessary to ensure the problem was addressed.

“If we don’t talk about it, somebody is going to do it silently. The bad guys are going to do it no matter what,” Mr Mulliner, an independent security expert, said.

The hack works by slightly modifying the data that arrives with an SMS message. The system that processes such messages is similar across different operating systems and can, once compromised, gain access across a range of applications including a phone’s address book or camera.

The approach is particularly dangerous because messages are delivered automatically, and users cannot tell that they have received the malicious code.

Read the full story on the BBC News website.


Vodafone signals interest in iPhone for UK

26/07/2009

Vodafone has added to speculation that O2’s exclusive deal to supply the iPhone in the UK may soon be up for grabs by suggesting that it would like to offer Apple’s smartphone to more of its own customers.

Andy Halford, chief financial officer of the world’s largest mobile phone operator, told reporters this morning that Vodafone was keen to supply the iPhone across more of its empire. It currently sells the device in 11 countries but not in the key European markets of Germany, where it is stocked exclusively by T-Mobile, or the UK.

“It’s a good product and we would love to have it in the portfolio in more countries,” said Halford, speaking after Vodafone published first-quarter results that showed the continuing impact of the recession and intense competition in its core European markets.

There has been intense speculation in recent weeks that T-Mobile, Orange and Vodafone are trying to muscle in on O2’s exclusive deal with Apple in the UK. T-Mobile is going so far as to buy the device in other markets where it is freely available without being tied to one operator and shipping it back to the UK in order to sell it to customers who are considering defecting to O2.

Read the full story on the Guardian website.


Organised crime targets waste recycling

12/07/2009

Organised crime has moved into the recycling industry – a development that has become clear over the past few months after a series of raids to enforce the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive.

In a raid at the start of June, police and officials from the Environment Agency targeted two east London locations – a farm at Upminster and an industrial site at Rainham – and forced open around 500 containers full of old computers, monitors, fridges and assorted electrical waste destined for illegal export to Africa, where it would be stripped down for raw materials.

“Our investigations have found that the majority of this equipment is beyond repair and is being stripped down under appalling conditions in Africa. But the law is clear – electrical waste must be recycled in the UK, not sent to developing countries in Africa where unsafe dismantling puts human health and the environment at risk,” said the Environment Agency’s national enforcement service project manager, Chris Smith.

“The Environment Agency has created a national team to stamp out this illegal trade and strong intelligence work has resulted in today’s operation – the most significant action to date in investigating suspected electrical waste being shipped to Africa.”

Read the full story on the Guardian website.