Tag Archives: software

Biomimicry in computer security: ants vs. worms

ant headWe have a tendency to name software entities after biological creatures whose behaviours they remind us of – think of viruses in general, or worms. Now a bunch of computer security geeks are coming from the other direction, taking inspiration from nature’s creatures for the next weapon in the never-ending war against malware and viruses… few species are more effective at responding to intrusions into their system than the ant, after all. [via SlashDot; image by CharlesLam]

Unlike traditional security devices, which are static, these “digital ants” wander through computer networks looking for threats, such as “computer worms” – self-replicating programs designed to steal information or facilitate unauthorized use of machines. When a digital ant detects a threat, it doesn’t take long for an army of ants to converge at that location, drawing the attention of human operators who step in to investigate.

The concept, called “swarm intelligence,” promises to transform cyber security because it adapts readily to changing threats.

“In nature, we know that ants defend against threats very successfully,” explains Wake Forest Professor of Computer Science Errin Fulp, an expert in security and computer networks. “They can ramp up their defense rapidly, and then resume routine behavior quickly after an intruder has been stopped. We were trying to achieve that same framework in a computer system.”


“Our idea is to deploy 3,000 different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat,” Fulp says. “As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modeled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection.”

Let’s just hope it takes the black-hat kids a long time to code up a software aardvark, eh?

Universal robot operating system: well, they’re too late to call it Android

robotAs evidenced by the number of posts we end up doing about them, robots are a real growth industry. Which is all well and good, but the folks in R&D departments everywhere have a problem.

In a nutshell, it’s interoperability: each robot is developed in isolation, meaning valuable resources are expended replicating functionalities that others have already nailed down. What they need is a common and standardised robot operating system.

This sorry state of affairs is set to change. Roboticists have begun to think about what robots have in common and what aspects of their construction can be standardised, hopefully resulting in a basic operating system everyone can use. This would let roboticists focus their attention on taking the technology forward.


On top of all this, each robot has its own unique hardware and software, so capabilities like balance implemented on one robot cannot easily be transferred to others.

Bourcier sees this changing if robotics advances in a manner similar to personal computing. For computers, the widespread adoption of Microsoft’s Disk Operating System (DOS), and later Windows, allowed programmers without detailed knowledge of the underlying hardware and file systems to build new applications and build on the work of others.

Programmers could build new applications without detailed knowledge of the underlying hardware

Bringing robotics to this point won’t be easy, though. “Robotics is at the stage where personal computing was about 30 years ago,” says Chad Jenkins of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Like the home-brew computers of the late 70s and early 80s, robots used for research today often have a unique operating system (OS). “But at some point we have to come together to use the same resources,” says Jenkins.

And there’s already an open-source type system being developed… as well as a Microsoft alternative, for those who fancy paying a license fee for robots that are vulnerable to trojans and spyware, one assumes.

If we’re to extend the analogy of the current robotics industry being like the computer industry of the early eighties, I wonder if we can expect generic clone hardware to start appearing in response to a demand from maker-businesses and hobbyists? [via PlausibleFutures; image by woordenaar]

The dangers of cloud computing

cloudJonathan Zittrain explores some of the downsides of the incipient cloud computing revolution in this article at the New York Times:

If you entrust your data to others, they can let you down or outright betray you. For example, if your favorite music is rented or authorized from an online subscription service rather than freely in your custody as a compact disc or an MP3 file on your hard drive, you can lose your music if you fall behind on your payments — or if the vendor goes bankrupt or loses interest in the service.

The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you — and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more to say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy.

This freedom is at risk in the cloud, where the vendor of a platform has much more control over whether and how to let others write new software. Facebook allows outsiders to add functionality to the site but reserves the right to change that policy at any time, to charge a fee for applications, or to de-emphasize or eliminate apps that court controversy or that they simply don’t like.

As useful as storing links, calandars, emails, and documents in the cloud is I like to keep local backups of all my stuff (where possible). The further threat to the decentralised innovation that has characterised software development over the last several decades is another reason to be sceptical of the benefits of the cloud.

[image from Dan Queiroz on flickr]

iHobo augmented reality app: a spoof with truth

So, did you see the Wired spoof piece about the iHobo augmented reality application? Yeah, yeah, I know it’s a joke, they make that pretty clear. But it’s a clever joke – and not just because it says a number of things about technology, class and culture.

iHobo - spoof augmented reality app screenshot

What iHobo does is highlight not only the imminent mundanity of augmented reality – a technology whose path to near-ubiquity in the developed world is defined only by time and falling prices – but also the fact that we’ve always had augmented reality. It’s not a thing you buy, it’s a thing you do.

Reality is perception – when I go to, say, Berlin, whose Berlin do I see? Do I see the Berlin of the German Tourist Board or the Lonely Planet writers? Do I see the Berlin of a modern experimental architect, or the Berlin of Albert Speer? Of the gallery-owning cognoscenti or the punk squatter kids? They’re all different cities, yet they share the same geographical space.

In addition to time and space, there’s another dimension you can move in – call it culture, call it perspective, call it viewpoint, call it contextual relevance, call it popularity. It’s all of those things, and none. It’s something we build as groups and as individuals, a shared semiotic system of value and meaning – and soon we’ll be able to travel inside other people’s systems at the swipe of a finger across a touchscreen.

Of course, there’s a very good chance I’m stating the obvious here*, but this ties in so closely to a bunch of the weirder theories of reality I had when I was younger that I can’t help but geek out about it. Sorry.

[ * Seriously, sometimes it’s a real struggle finding stuff that I think won’t just bounce right off of you jaded lot. But then I console myself with the thought that I’m lucky to have a very smart and well-read audience by comparison to a lot of similar sites. So don’t go changin’. 🙂 ]

Gaze-tracking software to keep your screen secret

row of computersSick of people shoulder-surfing while you use your computer? A new suite of gaze-tracking software could be just what you’re looking for – it authenticates you by the patterns of motion in your eyes on the screen, and shows garbled text to anyone other than you:

Chameleon uses gaze-tracking software and camera equipment to track an authorized reader’s eyes to show only that one person the correct text. After a 15-second calibration period in which the software essentially “learns” the viewer’s gaze patterns, anyone looking over that user’s shoulder sees dummy text that randomly and constantly changes.

To tap the broader consumer market, Anderson built a more consumer-friendly version called PrivateEye, which can work with a simple Webcam. The software blurs a user’s monitor when he or she turns away. It also detects other faces in the background, and a small video screen pops up to alert the user that someone is looking at the screen.

Crafty. If the system gets cheap enough, we’ll see internet cafes start to offer private browsing as their unique selling point… although if you’re worried about people seeing what you’re looking at, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in an internet cafe to start with. [via Bruce Schneier; image by Kevin Zollman]