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Ethics 101 for Robots


Government Computer News had a nice little story on the ethics of robot warriors a short time ago. It talked about the work of Georgia Institute of Technologyâ''s Mobile Robot Laboratory professor Ronald Arkin and his attempts to define algorithms to define ethical behavior in machines that can follow norms like the Geneva Convention. This is from the abstract of his paper Governing Lethal Behavior: Embedding Ethics in a Hybrid Deliberative/Reactive Robot:

"This article provides the basis, motivation, theory, and design recommendations for the implementation of an ethical control and reasoning system potentially suitable for constraining lethal actions in an autonomous robotic system so that they fall within the bounds prescribed by the Laws of War and Rules of Engagement."

Dr. Arkin's 117-paper is a bit much to digest in one sitting, but I have taken a quick read and find it interesting in its approach and very thorough, at least from my perspective. In an AFP news story, Dr. Arkin is quoted last month as saying, "Robotics systems may have the potential to out-perform humans from a perspective of the laws of war and the rules of engagement," since with robots "there are no emotions that can cloud judgment, such as anger."

Arkin's work has direct relevance to another robot story in this week's London Telegraph and the aforementioned AFP story about University of Sheffield's Department of Computer Science professor Noel Sharkey's belief that the major powers are "sleepwalking" into an international robot arms race, and predicted "that it is only a matter of time before robots become a standard terrorist weapon, replacing suicide bombers."

This latter theme was reiterated by others at the UK robotics conference titled The Ethics of Autonomous Military Systems where Sharkey spoke. For instance, UK Rear Adm. Chris Parry spoke about the terrorists using remotely piloted planes as weapons such as Hezbollah's use of pilotless aircraft against Israel in 2006.

BTW, I wrote some about the US military's planned use of UAVs for warfare in the November 2007 issue of Spectrum article. As I wrote, "Back in 2001, Congress mandated, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, that by 2010, one-third of the operating deep-strike aircraft of the Armed Forces are unmanned, and by 2015, one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles are unmanned.â'' Currently, there are approximately 4,000 robots and 1,000 UAVs of varying types being used in Iraq and Afghanistan by US forces.

Terrorist Watch list Grows and Grows


Senior Associate Editor Sam Moore pointed me to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claim that the US terrorist watch list now exceeds 900,000 if it has continued to grow at a rate of about 20,000 names per month as it has since its start. The ACLU has launched a new watch list "counter" showing the number of new names supposedly added each day to the list, as well as a number of well-known people who have been put on the list.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has said in the past that records or names don't correlate one to one to actual people, but won't say how many people are on the list. Even cutting the number of records by 75% still leaves a couple hundred thousand folks on this list, and getting off after getting on is not easy.

It would be interesting to see how many foreign student pilots on this list. The reason I ask is that on this evening's ABC World News, there was a special report that claims that thousands of foreign citizens have been able to illegally enroll and obtain pilot licenses from U.S. flight schools. One former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector found that in 2005 alone there were over 8,000 foreign students "in the FAA database who got their pilot licenses without ever being approved by the Transportation Security Administration," as required by law.

The DHS in response to the report claims that "it conducts security threat assessments 'on all non-U.S. citizens seeking flight training,' " and that "We have a high degree of confidence that our layered security measures, both seen and unseen, have raised the level of security in our aviation sector."

If you say so.

Never Too Young to Protect Your Identity


The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently warned a seven-year-old boy from the northwestern Chicago suburb of Carpentersville that he owed back taxes on $60,000 of income and unemployment benefits.

This happened when the mother tried to claim the boy as a dependent on her 2007 income tax return, but the IRS told the mother that her son's Social Security number was being used by someone else.

Turns out someone had stolen the boy's identity shortly after his birth to obtain a truck, three separate jobs, gas and electrical service for his home, a credit card, unemployment benefits and more than $60,000 in pay and services. The police have identified a suspect.

There is no word on what the IRS plans to do now, but I bet it takes months for the mother to straighten out the mess with them, the credit card companies, the credit rating agencies and the Social Security Administration.

Taxes and Software Don't Mix


In a story reminiscent of another I wrote about a few months back, a software error caused a $250,000 shortfall in tax revenue collected last year from property owners in Kootenai County, Idaho.

According to the press report, the problem occurred after properties were assessed but before tax bills were issued. This meant that the tax bills reflected a tax value lower than the assessments, which had been updated, should have reflected.

County officials say they hope to make amends to cities and schools; however there is no legal option for asking taxpayers to make up the difference.

Executives Punish Themselves for Software Problems


It was reported last week that four top executives of Tokyo's Stock Exchange (TSE) including board chairman Taizo Nishimuro would slash their own pay 10 percent after a computer problem disrupted trading from the 8th until the 12th of February.

Although the fault's responsibility lay with Fujitsu Ltd., which developed the system, the TSE said that it's "responsibility as a market operator and administrator is also significant in terms of failure to construct an organisational structure that gives top priority to ensuring the functioning of the market."

In November of 2005, the TSE suspended trading in all shares for the first time ever in an embarrassing software glitch that brought stock dealing to a standstill for nearly a day. TSE management promised to fix the problem, but it obviously did not.

Yet, it would be nice to see other executives take responsibility for their organization's software problems and slash their pay 10% for a month. Maybe senior management at the LA Unified School District, for instance, or at the many others I have blogged about over the past few months will decide to emulate TSE executives acceptance of ultimate responsibility for the operations of their IT systems.

Naw - it will never happen. But wouldn't it be fun to ask them, "Why not?"

DC Tax Scam Longer and Bigger Than Thought

The Washington Post reported last week that the District of Columbia's tax scam now looks like it started 20 years ago, instead of seventeen years,which changed from nine years last, which itself was an update from seven years which was in turn a revision of the three year time frame first thought.

It also looks like that upwards of $50 million was stolen, as opposed to the $31 million that most recently was believed to be stolen (which was revised up from the $25 million or so thought lost, which was itself revised up from the $16 million initially said to be scammed).

The perpetrators charged in the scam (DC tax office employees) appeared to have figured out a way to manipulate paper-based tax records starting in at least 1989 to cut themselves bogus tax refund checks, and then hide the records from the tax office's automated tracking systems and auditors.

The Post says that some 40 people (who have not yet been charged) are now being investigated to see if they received or benefited from any of the ill-gotten gains.

LAUSD Tax Mess


Filling out tax forms is a pain, but for many of the poor souls who are employees of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) it is a nightmare. As I noted a while ago, the LAUSD payroll fiasco is now (predictably) causing income tax filing problems.

The LA Daily News is reporting that at least 3,400 incorrect W-2 tax forms (i.e, tax forms that state the amount of income you earned, taxes paid, etc., for those of you who are not from the US) were mailed out to employees as a direct result of the payroll mess, despite the fact that the LAUSD management had promised last December that since the payroll system was now "fixed," information that its employees needed to file their taxes would be up-to-date and correct.

One of the problems surfacing is that for many employees their December 2007 pay-stub - which should show the total year-to-date income earned and taxes paid and which LAUSD had also assured would be correct - are not matching up with the W-2's they have received (normally they should be identical).

LAUSD management is now saying that the W-2's are correct, and that any mis-matching pay-stubs are wrong.

This is a neat way for management to "solve" the problem, don't you think, especially when (a) in December they said the end of year pay-stubs were correct (even though many teachers then were saying they weren't), and (b) they also admit some 3,400 other W-2s have been shown to be in fact wrong?

Needless to say, LAUSD teachers and other employees are a bit perplexed, miffed and worried over exactly what they owe the state and the federal government. As one teacher noted, " 'I am trying to work backwards now to see if this W2 is correct. If I can't understand my pay stub, how can I figure out if my W2 is right?' "

Good question. Glad I don't have to figure it out.

IT Security Gets a Double Whack

In today's New York Times, there is a story about how a group led by a Princeton University security researcher Edward Felton has found a rather simple way to access information on encrypted devices: freeze the device's memory chip.

As the Times reported, Felton wrote on his blog that, "Interestingly, if you cool the DRAM chips, for example by spraying inverted cans of â''canned airâ'' dusting spray on them, the chips will retain their contents for much longer. At these temperatures (around -50 °C) you can remove the chips from the computer and let them sit on the table for ten minutes or more, without appreciable loss of data. Cool the chips in liquid nitrogen (-196 °C) and they hold their state for hours at least, without any power. Just put the chips back into a machine and you can read out their contents."

You can go to the group's website for a technical paper and the blog for discussions about the limitations of the technique.

Also today in ComputerWorld, there is a story about two researchers, David Hulton and Steve Muller, who claim they have found an expensive way to break the encryption on GSM phones, allowing calls to be easily listened to. They claim that by using about $1,000 worth of field-programmable gate array-aided computer equipment and a frequency scanner, they can crack a GSM phone's security in about 30 minutes. Spend $100,000, and you can crack it in 30 seconds is the claim.

Baggage Meltdown at Heathrow


A computer malfunction in the baggage system at London Heathrow's Terminal 4 has caused chaos for over 4,000 passengers flying British Airways (BA) and several others over the past several days. It appears that about noon Tuesday, a software upgrade to Terminal 4's computerized baggage handling system caused the the belts that route and or transfer luggage from check-in desks to specific aircraft luggage loading and off-loading areas to stop working.

As a result, BA told all of its economy class passengers who were leaving Terminal 4 (which handles long-haul flights to other countries) or transferring to other flights at the terminal that they could not check in anything but a small carry on bag. Business class and first class passengers were not affected (a travel class-specific software bug - how interesting). It must have been very thrilling for those passengers who were already on long-haul flights and landed at Heathrow only to be told they could go, but their luggage had to stay.

BA economy passengers were told they could try to ship their luggage to their destinations by other means, wait for some future BA flight when the system was working, try to get on another airline (BA said it would try to get other airlines to honor their tickets) or get a refund. Of course, I guess you could always upgrade if there was room.

The other airlines like Qantas, KLM and Air Malta that also use Terminal 4 quickly decided to manually moved passenger luggage, and therefore were only temporarily affected. BA claimed that the sheer quantity of their luggage meant this was not possible except for the aforementioned business and first class passengers.

As of today, the baggage system seems to be working again, except for transfer passengers. Heathrow has always been an awful place to transfer flights - this latest problem just adds to its notoriety, and a desire of experienced passengers to avoid Heathrow (and BA) at all costs.

According to reports, this is the 10th baggage system breakdown at Heathrow since last May.

In what could have been better timing for BA, while this situation was unfolding, it was announced that BA was the second worst airline in Europe for losing bags: 26.5 bags for every 1,000 passengers. Only TAP, the Portuguese carrier, lost more, some 27.8 bags per 1,000 passengers.

BA next announced a £12 fuel surcharge increase. As the Telegraph once more reported, that from "Monday, the surcharge for long-haul flights of less than nine hours will rise from £96 for a return flight to £106. For return long-haul flights of more than nine hours, the charge will increase from £116 to £128."

BA, with more exquisite timing, unveiled its new Terminal 5 to the press, which is supposedly going to solve the passenger baggage system problem once and for all. As the Telegraph reported, "Gary Ranns, lounges manager at British Airways, said: 'Terminal 5 will be a fantastic experience. It will make travelling a pleasure again and not a chore.' " Given what was happening over at Terminal 4 at the time, Ranns might have chosen better language.

And finally, to add to the positive publicity, BA pilots also have decided today that they would go on strike over the coming Easter holidays, and just before when Terminal 5 is supposed to open on 27 March.

Of course, BA apologizes for any inconvenience.

UPDATE: Friday, 22 February, BA announced everything was back to "normal" at Terminal 4 - which means routine chaos rather than computer enhanced chaos.

End of Wired Phones in Sight?

Yesterday, it was reported that both Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility announced (for example, here) new flat-rate plans costing $99.99 per month that eliminate not only long-distance and roaming charges, but also any time limitations on calls.

While wireless carriers like T-Mobile have been trying to convince people that they don't need a wired phone, these announcements to their respective customer bases by two major wireline carriers to basically do the same marks a major shift in strategic positioning. With one of these plans, you don't need a wireline phone, except, of course, if your connectivity and reliability pretty much stinks, like mine does regardless of carrier.

Anyway, T-Mobile which last year let its customers call free and use Wi-Fi connections at their homes or elsewhere, said it will also offer unlimited calling and messaging for under $100 per month.

I wonder how long it will be before the wireline carriers really start to jack up their landline connection costs, citing increased operational and overhead costs.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Willie D. Jones
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