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This Ohio State researcher is protecting AI technology from cyberhackers – The Columbus Dispatch

When you hear the words “artificial intelligence” and “cybersecurity,” your mind might wander to dystopian science-fiction scenes of robots taking over.
While it’s a scary – albeit improbable – thought, Vimal Buck said he’s researching a much more-realistic threat: hackers.
Buck, a senior researcher and director of cybersecurity at Ohio State University’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence, and a team of researchers are studying new ways to protect autonomous manufacturing systems.
This research takes place at the center’s Artificially Intelligent Manufacturing Systems lab, better known as the AIMS lab, which opened in 2019. Outfitted with several large robotic arms, sensors, cameras and computers, the lab equipment is all trained to answer the same question: How can we trust the tech we rely on?
The impetus of this question was a cyberattack that took place in Iran before the lab opened, Buck said.
In 2010, a malicious computer worm called Stuxnet is believed to be responsible for causing substantial physical damage to Iranian centrifuges used as part of the country’s nuclear program. Stuxnet − believed to be the creation of the U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, though never confirmed − did this by infecting the computers and altering the programming that ran the centrifuges.
The cyberattack got Buck thinking about how other industries could be vulnerable to hackers attempting to take over machinery through their computers.
Take manufacturers, for instance. Automation and industrial robots are growing facets of the manufacturing industry, a market worth $189.7 billion that some experts forecast will be worth $430.9 billion by 2030.
And as automated manufacturing grows, so does cybercrime. Experts anticipate global cybercrime damages to total $10.5 trillion by 2025, according to a 2020 report by Cybercrime Magazine.
“Robots have been used for a long time, and now they’re easier to use,” said Ted Allen, an associate professor of integrated systems engineering at Ohio State who also does research in the AIMS lab with Buck.
Cybersecurity with robotics can be kind of scary, said Adam Exley, an Ohio State junior majoring in computer and electrical engineering who has worked at the AIMS lab since his freshman year.
The thought of robotic arms weighing thousands of pounds uncontrollably whipping through a lab, potentially harming workers and other equipment, could make anyone shudder. But having the tools to be prepared against possible threats can ease the mind, he said.
“As (automation) becomes a bigger part of the supply chain, we need to make sure that we can trust it,” Buck said. “From nefarious state actors to smaller actors, the potential for harm and abuse is there.”
“It’s not about the robots taking over,” Exley added, “It’s making sure no one else takes over.”
To answer that question, Buck and other Ohio State researchers use cameras and sensors to gather data from robots in their lab. They monitor the equipment to track its normal operations and examine the code running the automated systems for signs that something is wrong.
If the cameras know what is normal, Buck said, then the system can also detect if something is wrong. Then in the case that something is awry, the data can inform workers whether the issue is typical and easily fixed, or if it’s something more-sinister.
Exley said this research is especially crucial for Ohioans. Ohio ranks fourth nationally in manufacturing gross domestic product, and the state’s manufacturing sector employs nearly 706,000 people, according to the Ohio Department of Development.
Many of the shops in Ohio are small and medium-sized manufacturers, so making this technology accessible and affordable is important, Exley said. Many of the cameras used in their research cost between $200 and $300.
Their research also has implications beyond manufacturing, Allen said.
The AIMS lab is a member of the SecureAmerican Institute, a public-private research collaborative housed at Texas A&M University, and it works closely with national defense, energy laboratories and universities.
Even universities such as Ohio State – with its hospitals, hundreds of buildings and, eventually, on-campus power plant – could benefit from cybersecurity tech like this.
Sheridan Hendrix is a higher education reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. Sign up for her Mobile Newsroom newsletter here and Extra Credit, her education newsletter, here.
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