White Noise Computer Virus Could Bring down Artificial Intelligence

The Achilles heel of AI is an inability to discriminate between sources of knowledge that are trustworthy and those that are deceitful and manipulative.


Nightmare scenarios involving Artificial Intelligence typically involve computers that become too smart for their own good and turn against their creators. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000 famously refused to open the pod bay doors for Dave:

Well, now we have an entirely different cause to be wary of AI, and the culprit is human rather than machine. Dave Gershgorn reports in Popular Science that a risk more imminent and more worrisome than HAL comes with everyday devices using even rather basic versions of AI: Siri (the virtual assistant on Apple iPhones), Alexa (Amazon’s assistant) and Google Now (for Android phones). The problem isn’t that the computer programs are too smart; it’s that they’re too gullible. Like the prisoners chained in Plato’s cave who mistake manufactured shadows on the wall with reality, Siri and her virtual posse tend to believe what they hear. And that’s a problem if someone with a sinister motive decides to use your phone against you.

Gershgorn quotes a researcher who says his team has ”been able to activate open source audio recognizers, Siri, and Google Now...with accuracy on all three more than 90 percent.” It doesn’t take a menacing recording to break into the phones; instead, “a science-fiction alien transmission...a garbled mix of white noise and human voice” is enough to gain access, and the sound is “certainly unrecognizable as a command.” In other words, you’d have no idea you were being attacked.

How might this work?

With this attack, any phone that hears the noise (they have to specifically target iOS or Android) could be unknowingly forced to visit a webpage that plays the noise, and thus infect other phones near it… In that same scenario, the webpage could also silently download malware onto the device. There’s also the possibility these noises could be played over the radio, hidden in white noise or background audio.

Researchers at Google are laboring to come up with defenses against this new front in cyber-warfare, but they are not confident they’ll be able to claim victory anytime soon. Gershgorn again:

Kantchelian says that he doesn’t think the door is completely closed for any of these attacks, even with the promising research from the Google team.

“At least in computer security, unfortunately the attackers are always ahead of us,” Kantchelian says. “So it’s going to be a little dangerous to say we solved all the problems of adversarial machine learning by retraining.”

The Achilles heel of machines is an inability to discriminate between sources of knowledge and information that are trustworthy and those that are deceitful and manipulative. This is another way of saying that computers are more similar to their human creators than anyone may have thought. That appears to be a mixed blessing.    

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Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

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Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

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"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.