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DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar speaks during Day 2 of the GeekWire Summit 2016 at the Seattle Sheraton, October 5, 2016. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire
DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar speaks during Day 2 of the 2016 GeekWire Summit at the Seattle Sheraton, October 5, 2016. Photos by Dan DeLong for GeekWire.

The Internet of Things so widely predicted as the Next Big Thing in computing is full of promise but presents a correspondingly large vulnerability to cyber attacks, said Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA, at the 2016 GeekWire Summit in Seattle today.

IoT offers “a huge value, but then with every advance comes more attack surface,” said Prabhakar during an interview with Alan Boyle, GeekWire’s aerospace and science editor. “Provably secure embedded systems is part of the answer.”

DARPA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military, though that technology often flows into and out of the commercial sector. In a wide-ranging interview, Prabhakar started with the origins of DARPA during the Sputnik era, when American panicked over the Russian launch of the first satellite in 1957.

“That was a wake-up for the federal government to think about technological surprise and how to prevent it — by creating surprises of your own,” she said.

Prabhakar said Sea Hunter, an autonomous Navy warship, can sail with “very sparse supervisory control across thousands of nautical miles,” replacing hugely expensive manned vessels in tasks such as clearing mines and trailing submarines.

DARPA is working on an unhackable helicopter that uses provably secure embedded systems, Prabhakar said. “Where this research is going is being able to (create) a cybersecure foundation that rigorously keeps out all the attack vectors you can think of. It will be important for the Department of Defense and for the IoT world as well.”

GeekWire Day 2 of the GeekWire Summit 2016 at the Seattle Sheraton, October 5, 2016. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire
Alan Boyle, GeekWire’s aerospace and science editor, interviews Prabhakar.

DARPA isn’t just shielding against hackers; it’s creating technology to find flaws in its software. The agency recently built a machine version of the bug-finding game “Capture the Flag” that within minutes found and patched software flaws, even those not intentionally included and meant to be found — “the kind of flaws that typically take expert humans many, many hours” to find, she said.

The agency also sponsors competitions in which humans seek out bugs, lured by millions of dollars in cash prizes. Its next cash-prize competition will center on using artificial intelligence in radio, trying to maximize the amount of data that can fit into a fixed amount of spectrum. Despite progress in voice assistance, frequent flubs by Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are “an example of how far we’ve come with AI, yet how far we have to go to (get) anything that’s remotely human,” she said.

DARPA is even getting involved in “wetware” — gene editing and genetic alteration. It’s working on synthesizing genetic sequences to nip in the bud infectious diseases such as Zika and Ebola.

In the realm of space travel, Prabhakar discussed the XS-1 program, which aims at launching space vehicles with one day’s preparation. “We rely on space for GPS and communications,” she said. “We can’t function as military or as a society without it. We must be able to restore our space community tomorrow, so it’s not so exciting for the enemy to take things down. We want to be able to fly 10 times in 10 days.”

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