January 18, 2017      

As more than 175,000 people gathered for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, self-driving cars, drones, and wearables drew a lot of attention. As a geopolitical futurist, however, I wanted to focus on whether companies are investing in cyber security to protect their products such as robots from attacks that may have political origins.

Walking past the booths of the major automakers as well as Faraday Future, LeEco, and many more, one thing caught my eye. These companies were showing off their innovations in design, self-driving capabilities, vehicle performance, environmental friendliness, and integrated technologies.

But cyber security was practically non-existent.

Business Takeaways:

  • There are currently no real cyber security solutions being proposed by innovators in robotics, self-driving cars, and related consumer technologies.
  • Employees working for robotics firms know this but seem to have no idea as to what steps to take in order to “secure the robots.”
  • Without cyber security, robots are vulnerable to being hijacked and becoming part of geopolitical incidents.

There are two reasons why there wasn’t a lot of cyber security for self-driving cars. First, these automakers may believe that most consumers aren’t yet interested in learning about cyber security for autonomous vehicles. Or, cyber security isn’t a priority, so there is nothing “cutting-edge” to show off.

Either way, these companies are walking a fine line.

Consumers need to be aware of the kind of cyber security their vehicles will come with. Many connected devices — from drones to self-driving cars — could be hacked and used for nefarious purposes.

Cyber security wasn't much in evidence at Eureka Park.

In the Eureka Park startup area at CES 2017, the same reality existed. Several representatives of various robotics companies acknowledged my concern that cyber security should be a requirement but threw their hands in the air when asked how they plan to tackle this.

If robots that are destined to enter our homes or workplaces do not have proper protections, our lives will be at risk of immense disruption as the robots that we rely on are hacked or become part of a hacking attack — like how Internet of Things (IoT) devices were vulnerable to the Mirai botnet.

In addition, the robots that we use in personal and professional settings could become “gateways,” allowing hackers to access our networks and other devices. This leads to the question I have been asking for some time: Are robotics providers the next cyber security companies?

Consumer protections

Interestingly, one takeaway from CES was that consumer robots have more protection from hackers than industrial robots do, since software such as Bitdefender exists to protect home appliances. Bitdefender scans a home network, and if it detects an attack or vulnerability, it blocks that connection. Bitdefender can also protect robots, according to those present at the company’s CES booth.

But even Bitdefender falls short in addressing robot security. If older people rely on robots such as Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ in their homes, blocking a potential attack can also take an important technology offline for these end users.

What are they supposed to do now?

Cyber security is a concern around China's "New Silk Road."

China’s “New Silk Road” could include its own version of GPS. (Click here to enlarge. Source: The Wall Street Journal)

What happens if some future robots and drones come equipped with direct satellite connections so they can still have Internet access even if the owner’s systems are down or nonexistent?

What role, if any, will Bitdefender and other similar products play then? This might sound far-fetched, but consider that China is in the process of building its own navigation system and will begin offering this to members of the “New Silk Road” starting in 2018.

Could DJI, Tencent, Baidu, Xiaomi, Huawei, and others tap China’s navigation system for their products — including robots — bypassing dependence on an owner’s Internet connection?

This lack of cyber security in consumer electronics is a glaring vulnerability that criminals, terrorists, and foreign governments could exploit. In theory, aerial drones could be hacked and used for a terrorist attack, a weakly defended self-driving car could be used to commit crimes or at least distract police.

Even if many of the social robots at CES were merely prototypes, providers of robots and other consumer technologies have yet to demonstrate that they care about security and privacy.

More on Robotics, AI, and Cyber Security:

AI could ride to the rescue

How do you secure what will soon be the most important technology sector in the world — robotics?

This is the million-dollar question, and there are currently no real solutions in the market. In fact, protection for robots is usually an “extension” of a product like with Bitdefender; it isn’t the focus.

Ironically, it could be robots that protect robots. For example, IBM Watson is being trialed by 40 organizations for cyber security, and Symantec has launched security software with artificial intelligence capabilities. Will it be up to AI to help identify and patch vulnerabilities in robots?

For now, many robots have weak cyber security, as seen at CES. Robotics companies should be able to answer a single question: How long do I want to stay vulnerable for?