Matson: Malicious use of autonomous technology threatens public safety

Eric Matson presents “Drones and Autonomous Vehicles: The latest new technology to come with threat potential” at the 2018 Dawn or Doom conference

At the 2018 Dawn or Doom conference, Eric Matson, professor of computer and information technology, presented a talk on “Drones and Autonomous Vehicles: The latest new technology to come with threat potential.”

Matson has been researching drones and autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles for 10 years, and he has worked with the U.S. Department of Defense for four of the past five years. His research with artificial intelligence includes robotic first responders, such as fire-fighting robots and robots that survey disaster areas or other locations that aren’t safe for humans. He warned the audience that his presentation would not be a rosy one. He described autonomous vehicles as providing both “threats and opportunities from every direction, from land, air and sea.”

“I’ve been told that I tend to land on the ‘doom’ side of things,” said Matson, referring to the two ends of the “Dawn or Doom” spectrum. “I’m not trying to be provocative. I’m trying to wake people up.”

This research connects with Purdue's 150 Years of Giant Leaps in AI, Algorithms and Automation – Balancing Humanity and Technology

In addressing the threat of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, Matson displayed a photo of a UAV flying within an empty Ross-Ade Stadium. Given that the drone pictured, although normal sized, was difficult to spot in the photo, it surely would be next to impossible to locate if flown into a noisy capacity crowd of more than 57,000 people. Matson hypothesized a terrorist would need only to equip a UAV with a small amount of explosives because a minor explosion would be enough to incite a panic among the tens of thousands of attendees trying to escape the venue.

“It’s a real threat. It’s cheap and accessible,” Matson said.

Matson also expressed concern over the potential for autonomous vehicles, such as autos and tractor-trailers, to be used as bomb-delivery devices. For instance, a self-driving, ride-sharing vehicle could be summoned, loaded with explosives and then dispatched to a location, where the vehicle could be remotely detonated. “Roboships are the next problem,” said Matson, displaying an image of an ocean liner.

“When the Internet came out, no one thought about hacking data. Everyone thought, ‘I can email my friends,’” said Matson. “Now, we’ve purposely invited things into our homes that listen to us all the time. This is about the technology that’s sitting right next to you.”

Matson lamented the state of politics, government disinterest and the lack of progress on curtailing the threat. “We need to get on this problem better than we are,” he said. “Every day we don’t solve this problem, the people (with nefarious intentions) get one more day to get ahead.”

A video replay of Matson’s presentation will be added here when available.

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An illustration by Ink Factory summarizing Eric Matson's presentation

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