The Cybot Age could soon be upon us. But be not afraid; this isn't Star Trek. We're not talking droves of evil cyborgs bent on galaxy domination.
If all goes as planned, in just a few years colonies of software robots -- "cybots" -- linked into a "hive" mind could be defending the largest computer systems in America against network intruders.
Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory say the program behind the cybots — Ubiquitous Transient Autonomous Mission Entities (UNTAME) — will be very different from current cybersecurity systems.
Joe Trien, who leads the team at the lab's Computational Sciences and Engineering Division, said what will make cybots so useful is that they will be able to form groups, function autonomously and respond almost immediately.
Trien likened the UNTAME framework to the Borg, a fictitious race of cybernetic organisms in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" that assimilated other cultures throughout the galaxy.
"The difference between an agent-based system and UNTAME is that the cybots are designed to function on their own and they can regenerate," he said. "It works with other robots, and what it does is known by the collective. So when you lose a robot, the collective hasn't lost the information that robot was able to achieve up until the point it was killed."
That's a quantum leap from current network "intelligent agents," which specialize in a single task and report to a central node or human administrator.
Trien said there is little danger that cybots will organize and take over the world, stressing that the real-life "cyborg collective" would be bound by human directives. But he did acknowledge that there is a risk of malicious cybots running awry.
"There's always that risk, and that's why we’re hesitant right now," Trien said. "If we don't put some boundaries on these cybots, they could turn against us. The potential is always there."
UNTAME's new levels of speed and automation will likely prevent hackers from targeting one area of an network while using a diversion at another location.
And that couldn't come a better time. Cyberattacks on government computer networks spiked 40 percent last year, according to US-CERT, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team.
President Obama is now making computer security a priority and is asking Congress for $355 million to make private and public cyber systems more secure, as part of his Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative.
Consumers lost nearly $240 million as a result of cybercrime in 2007, an all-time high and an increase of nearly $40 million from 2006, according to a report released by the National White Collar Crime Center and the FBI.
Trien warned that a coordinated cyberattack today could cripple critical U.S. infrastructures with "little investment or expertise" on behalf of a hacker.
"You could be a cyber-terrorist sitting anywhere around the world, and you could shut down the United States' economy if you were able to break into critical networks," he said. "We're very vulnerable."
Not only could UNTAME help save thousands, even millions of dollars lost to cyber criminals, Trien points out that it will also also be cost-effective because once the system is set up, it runs itself.
"You basically automate the process and do it real-time instead of having an individual doing it," Trien said. "What took you hours may now take you seconds."
But the laboratory-tested prototype is at least two years away from private or municipal use, depending on resources made available through developers, Trien said.
Lawrence McIntyre, one of the project's developers, said several kinks need to worked out before the program is used in real-world scenarios, including perfecting UNTAME's artificial intelligence system, which hasn't been "well developed yet," he said.
"You have to make it easy for people to understand and easy for people to use," McIntyre said. "At this point, it's a very 'researchy-type' software."
Commissioned in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, the project — which began in the early 1990s — was launched to response to security flaws in government computer systems. UNTAME has already garnered interest from the Air Force Research Laboratory, which leads the way in military-related computer security.
"We've had several in-depth discussions," Trien said of ongoing talks with Air Force officials. "The Air Force has established long-range research objectives and we've discussed the possibility of assisting them in reaching their goals."
Established in 1943, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is the Department of Energy's largest multipurpose, nonweapons laboratory.
The 10,000-acre facility, which houses more than 4,000 staffers, initially served as the Manhattan Project's site to develop nuclear weapons. Following World War II, research efforts at Oak Ridge shifted to fields like biology, physics, medicine and national security.
"If we don't do something to harden our network security and information, we're vulnerable to attack," Trien said.