Cyberwars: ACLU and NSA ex-Director to Debate Tomorrow!

keith-alexander-nsa-flickrIn what is sure to be a barn-burner of a debate, the former head of the National Security Agency – General Keith Alexander – will be participating tomorrow in a with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. The televised, surveillance-themed debate, will take place tomorrow –  June 30th, 10:30am Eastern Time – on MSNBC. The subject: whether or not the NSA’s vast surveillance and data mining programs are making American’s safer.

While many would prefer that the current head of the NSA be involved in the debate, General Alexander is a far better spokesperson for the controversial programs that have been the subject of so much controversy. After all, “Emperor Alexander” – as his subordinates called him – is the man most directly responsible for the current disposition of the  NSA’s cyber surveillance and warfare program.Who better to debate their merit with the head of the ACLU – an organization dedicated to the preservation of personal freedom?

Edward-Snowden-660x367And according to classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, General Alexander’s influence and power within the halls of government knew no bounds during his tenure. A four-star Army general with active units under his command, he was also the head of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service, and the commander of the US Cyber Command. It is this last position and the power it wields that has raised the greatest consternation amongst civil-libertarians and privacy advocates.

Keith Alexander is responsible for building this place up between 2005 and 2013, insisting that the US’s inherent vulnerability to digital attacks required that he and those like him assume more authority over the data zipping around the globe. According to Alexander, this threat is so paramount that it only makes sense that all power to control the flow of information should be concentrated in as few hands as possible, namely his.

NSA_fort_meadeIn a recent security conference held in Canada before the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Alexander expressed the threat in the following, cryptic way:

What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks. I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in.

If this alone were not reason enough to put people on edge, there are also voices within the NSA who view Alexander as a quintessential larger-than-life personality. One former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, claimed:

We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets. We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.

And it is because of such freedom to monitor people’s daily activities that movements like the February 11th “The Day We Fight Back” movement – an international cause that embraced 360 organizations in 70 countries that were dedicated to ending mass surveillance – have been mounted, demanding reform.

us_supremecourtIn addition, a series of recent ruling from the US Supreme Court have begun to put the kibosh on the surveillance programs that Alexander spent eight years building up. With everything from cell phone tracking to cell phone taps, a precedent is being set that is likely to outlaw all of the NSA domestic surveillance. But no matter what, the role of Snowden’s testimony in securing this landmark event cannot be underestimated.

In fact, in a recent interview, the ACLU’s Anthony Romero acknowledged a great debt to Snowden and claimed that the debate would not be happening without him. As he put it:

I think Edward Snowden has done this country a service… regardless of whether or not what he did was legal or illegal, whether or not we think the sedition laws or the espionage laws that are being used to possibly prosecute Snowden are too broad, the fact is that he has kick-started a debate that we did not have. This debate was anemic. Everyone was asleep at the switch.

One can only imagine what outcome this debate will have. But we can rest assured that some of the more predictable talking points will include the necessities emerging out of the War on Terror, the rise of the information revolution, and the dangers of Big Brother Government, as well as the NSA’s failure to prevent such attacks as the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Benghazi Embassy bombing, and a slew of other terrorist incidents that took place during Alexander’s tenure.

Do I sound biased? Well perhaps that’s because I am. Go ACLU, stick to Emperor Alexander!

Sources: engadget.com, democracynow.org

The Future is Here: Black Hawk Drones and AI pilots

blackhawk_droneThe US Army’s most iconic helicopter is about to go autonomous for the first time. In their ongoing drive to reduce troops and costs, they are now letting their five-ton helicopter carry out autonomous expeditionary and resupply operations. This began last month when the defense contractor Sikorsky Aircraft, the company that produces the UH-60 Black Hawk – demonstrated the hover and flight capability in an “optionally piloted” version of their craft for the first time.

Sikorsky has been working on the project since 2007 and convinced the Army’s research department to bankroll further development last year. As Chris Van Buiten, Sikorsky’s vice president of Technology and Innovation, said of the demonstration:

Imagine a vehicle that can double the productivity of the Black Hawk in Iraq and Afghanistan by flying with, at times, a single pilot instead of two, decreasing the workload, decreasing the risk, and at times when the mission is really dull and really dangerous, go it all the way to fully unmanned.

blackhawk_drone1The Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) operates under Sikorsky’s Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (MURAL) program, which couples the company’s advanced Matrix aviation software with its man-portable Ground Control Station (GCS) technology. Matrix, introduced a year ago, gives rotary and fixed-wing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft a high level of system intelligence to complete missions with little human oversight.

Mark Miller, Sikorsky’s vice-president of Research and Engineering, explained in a statement:

The autonomous Black Hawk helicopter provides the commander with the flexibility to determine crewed or un-crewed operations, increasing sorties while maintaining crew rest requirements. This allows the crew to focus on the more ‘sensitive’ operations, and leaves the critical resupply missions for autonomous operations without increasing fleet size or mix.

Alias-DarpaThe Optionally Piloted Black Hawk fits into the larger trend of the military finding technological ways of reducing troop numbers. While it can be controlled from a ground control station, it can also make crucial flying decisions without any human input, relying solely on its ‘Matrix’ proprietary artificial intelligence technology. Under the guidance of these systems, it can fly a fully autonomous cargo mission and can operate both ways: unmanned or piloted by a human.

And this is just one of many attempts by military contractors and defense agencies to bring remote and autonomous control to more classes of aerial vehicles. Earlier last month, DARPA announced a new program called Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), the purpose of which is to develop a portable, drop-in autopilot to reduce the number of crew members on board, making a single pilot a “mission supervisor.”

darpa-alias-flight-crew-simulator.siMilitary aircraft have grown increasingly complex over the past few decades, and automated systems have also evolved to the point that some aircraft can’t be flown without them. However, the complex controls and interfaces require intensive training to master and can still overwhelm even experienced flight crews in emergency situations. In addition, many aircraft, especially older ones, require large crews to handle the workload.

According to DARPA, avionics upgrades can help alleviate this problem, but only at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per aircraft type, which makes such a solution slow to implement. This is where the ALIAS program comes in: instead of retrofitting planes with a bespoke automated system, DARPA wants to develop a tailorable, drop‐in, removable kit that takes up the slack and reduces the size of the crew by drawing on both existing work in automated systems and newer developments in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Alias_DARPA1DARPA says that it wants ALIAS to not only be capable of executing a complete mission from takeoff to landing, but also handle emergencies. It would do this through the use of autonomous capabilities that can be programmed for particular missions, as well as constantly monitoring the aircraft’s systems. But according to DARPA, the development of the ALIAS system will require advances in three key areas.

First, because ALIAS will require working with a wide variety of aircraft while controlling their systems, it will need to be portable and confined to the cockpit. Second, the system will need to use existing information about aircraft, procedures, and flight mechanics. And third, ALIAS will need a simple, intuitive, touch and voice interface because the ultimate goal is to turn the pilot into a mission-level supervisor while ALIAS handles the second-to-second flying.

AI'sAt the moment, DARPA is seeking participants to conduct interdisciplinary research aimed at a series of technology demonstrations from ground-based prototypes, to proof of concept, to controlling an entire flight with responses to simulated emergency situations. As Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager, put it:

Our goal is to design and develop a full-time automated assistant that could be rapidly adapted to help operate diverse aircraft through an easy-to-use operator interface. These capabilities could help transform the role of pilot from a systems operator to a mission supervisor directing intermeshed, trusted, reliable systems at a high level.

Given time and the rapid advance of robotics and autonomous systems, we are likely just a decade away from aircraft being controlled by sentient or semi-sentient systems. Alongside killer robots (assuming they are not preemptively made illegal), UAVs, and autonomous hovercraft, it is entirely possible wars will be fought entirely by machines. At which point, the very definition of war will change. And in the meantime, check out this video of the history of unmanned flight:


Sources:
wired.com, motherboard.vice.com, gizmag.com
, darpa.mil

The Future is Here: Driverless Army Trucks

TARDECAs Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army marches on its belly”. And like most tidbits of military wisdom, this is one that has not changed with the ages. Whether it’s leading an army of war elephants and hoplites through the Alps, a Grande Armee across the Steppes, or a mechanized division through Central Asia, the problem of logistics is always there. For an army to remain effective and alive, it needs to be supplied; and those supply trains has to be kept moving and safe.

In the modern world, this consists of ensuring that troop and supply trucks are protected from the hazards of enemy snipers, rockets, and the all-too-prevalent menace of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Until now, this consisted of having armed convoys escort armored trucks through hostile terrain and contested areas. But in an age of unmanned aerial vehicles and robotic exoskeletons, it seems only natural that driverless trucks would be the next big thing.

TARDEC1That’s the thinking behind the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), a program being developed by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in collaboration with major defense contractor Lockheed Martin. This program, which was demonstrated earlier this month at Fort Hood, Texas, gives full autonomy to convoys to operate in urban environments.

In tests, driverless tactical vehicles were able to navigate hazards and obstacles including pedestrians, oncoming traffic, road intersections, traffic circles and stalled and passing vehicles. Similar to the systems used by the first generation of robotized cars, the AMAS program for the Pentagon’s ground troops uses standard-issue vehicles outfitted with a high-performance LIDAR sensor and a second GPS receiver, locked and loaded with a range of algorithms.

TARDEC-ULV-instrument-panelThat gear, Lockheed said, could be used on virtually any military vehicle, but in these tests was affixed to the Army’s M915 tractor-trailer trucks and to Palletized Loading System vehicles. According to Lockheed, AMAS also gives drivers an automated option to alert, stop and adjust, or take full control under user supervision. David Simon, AMAS program manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, described the program in a statement:

The AMAS CAD hardware and software performed exactly as designed, and dealt successfully with all of the real-world obstacles that a real-world convoy would encounter.

Under an initial $11 million contract in 2012, Lockheed Martin developed the multiplatform kit which integrates low-cost sensors and control systems with Army and Marine tactical vehicles to enable autonomous operation in convoys. But not only do driverless convoys add a degree of safety under dangerous conditions, they also move the military closer its apparent goal of nearly total autonomous warfare.

squadmissionsupportsystemAMAS algorithms also are used to control the company’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS), a more distinctive and less conventional six-wheeled unmanned ground vehicle that has been used by soldiers in Afghanistan. Combined with robots, like the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) by Boston Dynamics, the development of driverless trucks is not only a good counter to suicide bombers and IEDs, but part of a larger trend of integrated robotics.

In an age where more and more hardware can be controlled by a remote operator, and grunts are able to rely on robotic equipment to assist them whenever and wherever the 3D’s of hostile territory arise (i.e. dirty, difficult, or dangerous), trucks and armored vehicles that can guide themselves is just the latest in a long line of developments aimed at “unmanning the front lines”.

And of course, there’s a video of the concept in action, courtesy of the U.S. Army and TARDEC:


Sources: wired.com, news.cnet.com, lockheedmartin.com

The Future of Medicine: Injectable Sponges and Foam

xstat-combat-injury-treatment-injectable-spongesMedicine may be advancing by leaps and bounds in certain fields – mind-controlled prosthetics and bioprinting come to mind. But in some respects, we are still very much in the dark ages. Considering gunshot wounds, for example. When it comes to modern warfare, uncontrolled hemorrhaging caused by a bullet is the biggest cause of death. In fact, “bleeding out” is responsible for 80% of deaths caused in battle, more than headshots, chest wounds, or IEDs combined.

This startling statistic doesn’t just apply to soldiers who are wounded in the field, as about the same proportion of those who sustain bullet wounds die after being evacuated to a medical treatment facility as a result of hemorrhaging. In the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 5,000 US troops have been killed, and some 50,000 injured, while combined military and civilian losses are estimated to have been some 500,000 people killed.

xstat-combat-injury-treatment-injectable-sponges-5The immediate cause of death in most of these cases was bleeding out, which is usually associated with deep arterial wounds that simply cannot be treated using tourniquets. As a result, combat medics pack these wound with a special gauze coated with a material that stimulates the clotting process, then applies strong direct pressure over the wound in the hopes that a clot will seal off the artery. If the bleeding is not controlled, the medic has to remove the gauze and try again.

This process is so painful that, according to John Steinbaugh, a former Special Ops medic, the patient’s gun is first taken away so that he will not try to kill the medic or himself to stop the agony. And in the end, people still die, and all because medical science has yet to find an effective way to plug a hole. Luckily, RevMedX, a small Oregon startup, has developed an alternative approach to treat such potentially survivable injuries.

xstat-combat-injury-treatment-injectable-sponges-4That’s Revmedx and its new invention, the XStat, comes into play. Contained within this simple plastic syringe are hundreds of small sponges (1 cm, or 0.4 inches, in diameter) made from wood pulp and coated with chitosan, a derivative of crustacean shells that triggers clot formation and has antimicrobial properties. When they are injected into a deep wound, the sponges expand to fill the cavity, and apply enough pressure to stop arterial bleeding.

And since they adhere to wet surfaces, the sponges counter any tendency for the pressure to push them out of the wound. After conducting tests of early prototypes, the final development was carried under a US$5 million U.S. Army contract. In most cases, an arterial wound treated using XStat stops bleeding within about 15 seconds. The sponges are also marked with an x-ray absorbing material so they can be located and removed from the wound once surgical treatment is available.

????????????XStat is currently awaiting FDA approval, bolstered by a request from the US Army for expedited consideration. Combined with a new Wound Stasis Technology (aka. a medical foam) that earned its inventors a $15.5 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) back in Dec of 2012, army medics will likely be able to save a good many lives which in the past would have been written off as “casualties of war” or the all-too-common “collateral damage”.

Similar to the XStat, the idea for this injectable foam – which consists of two liquids that, when combined, form a solid barrier to stop bleeding – the inspiration for this idea comes from direct experience. As a military doctor in Iraq and Afghanistan, David King – a co-investigator of the foam project and a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital – saw a great many deaths that were caused by uncontrolled internal bleeding.

DARPA-FoamLocated in Watertown, Massachusetts, Arsenal Medical designed this substance that consists of two liquids to fill the abdominal cavity and form a solid foam that does not interact with blood. This is key, since the hardened foam needs to remain separate and stop the blood from flowing. Comprised of polyurethane molecules, this foam belongs to a family of materials that is already used in bone cement, vascular grafts, and other medical applications.

The team began by testing the foam in pigs that were subjected to an internal injury that cut the liver and a large vein. With the treatment, nearly three-quarters of the pigs were still alive three hours later. Afterward, the team began monitoring how the pigs fared once the foam was removed. In 2013, the company began working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to determine how to test the technology on the battlefield (though no dates as to when that might have been available yet).

gun_violenceAs always, developments in the armed forces have a way of trickling down to the civilian world. And given the nature and prevalence of gun violence in the US and other parts of the world, a device that allows EMTs the ability to seal wounds quickly and effectively would be seen as nothing short of a godsend. Between saving young people for gang violence and innocent victims from mass shootings, NGOs and medical organizations could also save countless lives in war-torn regions of the world.

Source: gizmag.com, technologyreview.com, medcrunch.net

The Future is Here: Google Glass for the Battlefield

q-warrior see through displayWearing a Google Glass headset in public may get you called a “hipster”, “poser”, and (my personal favorite) “glasshole”. But not surprisingly, armies around the world are looking to turn portable displays into a reality. Combined with powered armor, and computer-assisted aiming, display glasses are part of just about every advanced nation’s Future Soldier program.

Q-Warrior is one such example, the latest version of helmet-mounted display technology from BAE Systems’ Q-Sight line. The 3D heads-up display provides full-color, high resolution images and overlays data and a video stream over the soldier’s view of the real world. In short, it is designed to provide soldiers in the field with rapid, real-time “situational awareness”.

q-warrior1The Q-Warrior also includes enhanced night vision, waypoints and routing information, the ability to identify hostile and non-hostile forces, track personnel and assets, and coordinate small unit actions. As Paul Wright, the soldier systems business development lead at BAE Systems’ Electronic Systems, said in a recent statement:

Q-Warrior increases the user’s situational awareness by providing the potential to display ‘eyes-out’ information to the user, including textual information, warnings and threats. The biggest demand, in the short term at least, will be in roles where the early adoption of situational awareness technology offers a defined advantage.

The display is being considered for use as part of the Army Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) system, a powered exoskeleton with liquid armor capable of stopping bullets and the ability to apply wound-sealing foam that is currently under development.

q-warrior2As Lt. Col. Karl Borjes, a U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) science adviser, said in a statement:

[The] requirement is a comprehensive family of systems in a combat armor suit where we bring together an exoskeleton with innovative armor, displays for power monitoring, health monitoring, and integrating a weapon into that — a whole bunch of stuff that RDECOM is playing heavily in.

The device is likely to be used by non-traditional military units with reconnaissance roles, such as Forward Air Controllers/Joint Tactical Aircraft Controllers (JTACS) or with Special Forces during counter terrorist tasks. The next level of adoption could be light role troops such as airborne forces or marines, where technical systems and aggression help to overcome their lighter equipment.

iron_man_HUDMore and more, the life in the military is beginning to imitate art – in this case, Iron Man or Starship Troopers (the novel, not the movie). In addition to powered exoskeletons and heads-up-displays, concepts that are currently in development include battlefield robots, autonomous aircraft and ships, and even direct-energy weapons.

And of course, BAE Systems was sure to make a promotional video, showcasing the concept and technology behind it. And be sure to go by the company’s website for additional footage, photos and descriptions of the Q-Warrior system. Check it out below:


Sources: wired.com, baesystems.com

The Future is Here: “Ironman” Spec-Ops Suit

 

ironman3Army researchers have been working for years to incorporate powered armor, exoskeletons, and high-tech weaponry into the arsenal of next-generation soldiers. And this latest development from DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research wing of the US Army – is being hailed as the closest thing there is to a real-life “Iron Man” suit to date.

Its known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) and is designed to deliver “superhuman strength with greater ballistic protection”. Named in honor of the Greek automaton made of bronze that Zeus assigned to protect his lover Europa, this suit incorporates a powered exoskeleton, liquid armor, built-in computers and night vision, and the ability to monitor vital signs and apply wound-sealing foam.

DARPA-Warrior-Web-660x495Put together, the capabilities would make the already elite Special Operation Forces nearly invincible in the field, according to the Army. As Lt. Col. Karl Borjes, a U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) science adviser, said in a statement:

[The] requirement is a comprehensive family of systems in a combat armor suit where we bring together an exoskeleton with innovative armor, displays for power monitoring, health monitoring, and integrating a weapon into that — a whole bunch of stuff that RDECOM is playing heavily in.

For the sake of the suit’s design and high-tech features, DARPA reached out to engineers from MIT, who are currently working to produce the liquid body armor that is perhaps the most advanced feature of the suit. Composed of magnetorheological fluids, this armor will “transform from liquid to solid in milliseconds when a magnetic field or electrical current is applied.”

TALOS_Future_Army_Soldier_WideThe suit is expected to make a first-generation appearance some time next year. Because of the high number of highly integrated technical challenges with advanced specifications, the Army is also drawing on a broad range of collaborators from multiple fields to complete the design in time. And as Jim Geurts, USSOCOM acquisition executive, in a statement:

USSOCOM is interested in receiving white papers from a wide variety of sources, not just traditional military industry but also from academia, entrepreneurs, and laboratories capable of providing the design, construction, and testing of TALOS related technologies. The intent is to accelerate the delivery of innovative TALOS capabilities to the SOF operator.

US_Army_powered_armorFor some time now, the concept of advanced powered suits of armor has been a feature of science fiction. Examples abound from literary references, such as E.E. Smith’s Lensman series and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, to RPGs like BattleTech and Warhammer 40k, and to the gaming world with the HALO and Fallout series’. And much like lightsabers, there has scarcely been a geek alive who didn’t want one!

Now it seems that something very close might be realizable within a year’s time. I don’t know about you, but I feel both inspired and more than a little jealous. Damn SOCOM, always getting the coolest gear first! And of course, there’s a video:


Sources:
wired.com, dailytech.com
,

Judgement Day Update: The Tool-Using Robot Hand

darparobot

As if robotics weren’t advancing fast enough, what with robotic astronauts or androids that can be 3D printed, it seems that DARPA has developed a robotic hand that can perform complex, dextrous tasks. But to make matters worse, this particular robot can be cheaply produced. Up until now, cost has remained a factor in the creation of robotic limbs that are capable of matching human skill. But from now on, we could very well be seeing robots replacing skilled labor on all fronts!

As we’re all no doubt aware, one of the key differences between humans and other mammals is the use of tools. These not only allowed our earliest ancestors the ability to alter their environment and overcome their disadvantages when faced with larger, deadlier creatures. They also allowed homo sapiens as a species to gain the upper hand against other species of hominids, those who’s brains and hands were not as developed as our own.

darparobot1

So what happens when a robot is capable of matching a human being when it comes to a complicated task – say, like changing a tire – and at a cost most businesses can afford? To add insult to injury, the robot was able to conduct this task using tools specifically designed for a human being. But of course, the purpose was not to demonstrate that a robot could replace a human worker, but that it was possible to create more dextrous prosthetics for the sake of replacing lost limbs.

Ordinarily, such machinery would run a person a good $10,000, but DARPA’s new design is estimated at a comparatively modest $3000. This was made possible by the use of consumer-grade tech in the construction process, such as cameras from cellphones. And in addition to being able to work with tools, the robot can perform more intricate maneuvers, such as handling an object as small as a set of tweezers.

LS3-AlphaDog6reduced

However, DARPA was also quick to point out that the robot shown in the video featured below is actually an older model. Since its creation, they have set their sights on loftier goals than simple tool use, such as a robot that can identify and defuse Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Much like many of their robotic projects, such as the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), this is part of DARPA’s commitment to developing robots that will assist future generations in the US army.

So if you’re a member of a pit crew, you can rest easy for now. You’re job is safe… for the moment. But if you’re a member of a bomb squad, you might be facing some robotic competition in the near future. Who knows, maybe that’s a good thing. No one likes to be replaced, but if you’re facing a ticking bomb, I think most people would be happier if the robot handled it!

And in the meantime, check out the video of the robotic hand in action:

Source: Extremetech.com