We spend a lot of time thinking about what the future is going to look like. And that makes sense, right? We plan out our careers. We write five-year plans. We put together strategies to move the needle forward in our organizations.
And then comes disruption. The linear paths we’ve crafted for ourselves are completely thrown off by technological forces out of our control. How could we have known? Who saw these changes coming?
Science fiction writers did, and they tried to warn you.
The message is usually cloaked in highly entertaining CGIs, and/or weird relationships between robots and humans, but the message is there nevertheless. A good science fiction writer offers realistic predictions of the future and provides commentary about its implications.
Now, a really good piece will successfully bring an issue to the forefront early enough that we can do something about it (assuming something should in fact be done).
This is exactly what is accomplished in the British television show “Black Mirror.” It explores the impact of new technologies in our everyday lives. (Albeit with a seriously satirical bent.) I was recently asked to watch episode 6 of season 3, “Hated in the Nation,” and then take a stab at answering if it could actually … you know … happen.
So without further ado …
Spoiler Alert! If you’ve not watched this episode yet (and want to), stop reading now.
In the “near-future” of this episode, honey bees have gone extinct. (Folks, please stop killing the bees.) Due to the overwhelming agricultural impact of the primary pollinator dying off for so many of our foods, humans are left to come up with an alternative. Introducing… robo-bees. (Stupid cool by the way.) These bees are exactly what you would expect to see in a bee, except they are made of metal, and are networked to all the other bees in Britain. (All via a super cool wide screen display that in no way had enough display space to show all of the bees like they said, but it was still exceedingly fancy.) The bees are connected to their hives, very similar to the manner we connect our mobile devices to cellular towers now. (More on this below.)
Now all of this geek with the bees would absolutely have been enough to hold my attention for an hour, but wait, there’s more. A seriously malicious black hat has managed to caper the bees and can order them to perform all sorts of evil … including killing people. (Think, high-speed metal honey bee in your eardrum … argh.) He then starts an online competition where Twitter users are able to tweet the hashtag #DeathTo and a name. The person (who is named in the tweet) who receives the most votes in a 24-hour period is then executed at midnight, a la cyber-bee. The first night no one really believes, but once people start dying, more people start playing … OK. That’s enough of that. You’ll have to hop on Netflix if you want more of that story.
Can we really create robotic bees?
For over a decade, Colony Collapse Disorder has been wiping out bee colonies. The majority of the worker bees are either dead or just gone … leaving the queen and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining colony. Typically, colonies in this situation do not recover, resulting in a complete loss of the hive. This should horrify most people (sadly, it doesn’t seem to), and has inspired beekeepers around the world to do their utmost to protect their fuzzy, flying charges.
Ok, so what happens if we fail, and the honeybees die off? I’m not the only person on the planet who feels a serious desire to hang on to coffee beans, potatoes and grapes.
Would we be able to replace the honeybee, and all the integral work they perform for our environment? Can we really build a robo-bee? Robotic bees/insects/drones are not a new concept. There have been several science fiction authors who have talked about them, and as recently as 2013, we’ve started building them. While our versions do not look anywhere near as cool as the bees in “Black Mirror,” they do still perform the task. (Well, almost, but power is still a problem.)
Now comparing our “fantasy” vs. “reality” bee, it’s pretty obvious we don’t have the technology to deploy them in a manner similar to the episode. A great deal of continued miniaturization needs to occur before we will be able to jam in the wireless antenna, processor, RAM and all the other nifty hardware that would allow us to network the units all together, making the hives (and their associated bees) behave the way the show described. So, my answer is, unfortunately, no, we can’t build the bees … yet. We’re getting closer though.
In fact, this video posted by The Verge went viral on Twitter, indicating perhaps we’re closer than we think.
If we can create the bees as described in the show, can they be hacked?
Now this is a much more loaded question. To answer, we’re going to have to make a couple assumptions.
- Technology miniaturization has progressed to the point where we are actually able to produce robotic honey bees similar to the ones described in the show.
- The necessary politics happens to not only set aside the resources to create a solution like this, but to also maintain it. (We could go on a tangent for days about this topic alone. Does each country run its own bees? Or is there a global organization that manages them? What happens if a bee crosses the border?)
Now, if our assumptions are true; we have the tech, the resources and infrastructure in place to manage them, could our deployed bee colonies get hacked?
The short answer is “of course.” There are a lot of caveats here but let’s address this in the way the show approached the hack. There were two real capers discussed in our episode:
Spoofing a beehive
All bees are attached to a hive. They perform their functions, search for pollen and then return to their requisite hive. Each hive has an area or “zone” it manages. Bees, in the process of performing their duties, sometimes cross these zones. When this happens, a “handoff” occurs, similar to the handoff that happens between airport control towers when an airplane moves into another region of the country. The new hive informs the bee that it is now the “controlling hive,” and then the bee informs the “old hive” it is reporting to a new controller.
This same logic applies to another piece of technology we use today: cellular telephones. As you move about your area, your phone “pings” out looking for the closest tower. Towers receive this ping, and respond, providing your phone details related to the tower location, carrier, etc. Your phone then selects the tower that best suits its purpose (most of the time this is the closest, unless you’re playing around with your carrier) and uses that tower to route calls. This is also how the tower identifies where to send the cellular signal that causes your phone to ring when you are receiving a call.
The logic involved in this particular technology solution has already been hacked, and is in use against everyday people today.
Enter the Stingray
A Stingray is an IMSI-catcher. It has the ability to not only digitally analyze cellular traffic , it can also simulate a cellular tower. Spoofing the cellular tower causes all nearby cellular devices to connect to the Stingray before the real tower, allowing for the extraction of data, GPS tracking and more. Interestingly enough, the heaviest users of the Stingray are not black hats or top secret government spies, but local police agencies. (The law here is currently fuzzy, with several constitutional questions in play. Currently, agencies do their best to not talk about it, even dropping cases when it looks like they have to describe how they “know” the accused is in a specific location.)
Based upon the data we have, and what we have already done related to spoofing technologies that have to “peer locate” their connection to the network, my answer would have to be yes, the bees could be hacked in this manner. Security protocols could certainly be put in place to prevent this, but they would need to be well implemented.
In the episode, they discuss how a developer embedded a backdoor into the original source code for bee control. This is a pretty standard example of an insider threat, and happens today. Backdoors can been found inside source code to allow a specific user to perform any number of functions, be it providing administrative access, or just outputting server or application details. Sometimes, a backdoor is not meant to be a threat, it’s just there to give the developer another way to access that piece of functionality or that specific code path. Once the source is moved to production, these backdoors should be removed, but are frequently not, leaving a vulnerability.
One of the flaws in how the bees were deployed in our episode resides in how the bee control source code was moved to production. Evidently, our one developer was the developer. The government agency involved did not appear to have any other coders reviewing the source who would have caught this backdoor, nor did they discuss the QA cycle that should have occurred to look for things like this … so, our one developer’s code was allowed to push to production unchecked. Ta-da! Instant access to the system for the bad guy anytime he wants. Could this happen if we built the bees? Yes, if we build the bees, and do not implement the correct source control procedures, they could absolutely be capered via a backdoor in the production source.
So, why does this matter?
Science fiction serves as a thought experiment into the future, assuming current trends continue. Now, regarding bees, it looks as if multiple entities are actively working to solve this problem, so we may not have to stress out about those coffee beans after all. But what about the ability to hack the robots? Do we recognize security to be a major concern? After all, societal attitudes have a major impact on such priorities.
That’s why we should care on a macro level. But what about personally? How do the shifting technological tides affect you? For instance, what jobs will be created, and what jobs will become obsolete? It’s so important to understand these trends so you can stay one step ahead of them, and science fiction offers a marvelously convenient cheat sheet, because someone else has thought it all through. That doesn’t mean they are right, but it certainly does provide a good starting point.
Next time you indulge in a good science fiction, take the time afterwards to answer that same “what if.” You’d be surprised how much it’ll prepare you for the future.