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Can maths secure mixed reality systems from attack

DARPA's Intrinsic Cognitive Security program seeks to develop computational science that protects Defense Department systems from potential adversary exploits

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Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

The increasing use of mixed reality systems could become a new potential vulnerability. Mixed reality (MR) merges real and virtual worlds in real time. Adversaries could exploit the intimate connection between users and their MR equipment through various techniques targeting cognition. Examples include:

  • Information flooding to induce motion sickness
  • Planting real-world objects to clutter displays
  • Injecting virtual data to distract personnel
  • Using real-world objects to overwhelm the user with confusing false alarms, etc.

Commercial MR systems apply cognitive engineering principles during system development, but today's methods do not ensure that systems operate safely when facing an adversary intent on interfering with a mission. Cognitive effects that have been demonstrated in virtual settings include manipulating emotion, inducing cybersickness, causing confusion or anxiety and reducing trust in equipment.

To fulfill its mission to prevent technological surprise, DARPA intends to get in front of this issue before military personnel widely rely on MR for their missions. The agency recently launched the Intrinsic Cognitive Security (ICS) program to explore and validate mathematical approaches, known as formal methods, to provide guarantees that MR system designs mitigate potential cognitive attacks.

Formal methods have not been widely used to protect MR users, but the cognitive engineering field provides principles to help formulate models and guarantees. ICS aims to prove guarantees relevant to MR user attacks and protections based on models applicable to MR system use.

“We need to develop methods to protect mixed reality systems before systems lacking protections are pervasive,” said Dr. Matthew Wilding, DARPA's ICS program manager. “This program will show how to protect personnel using rigorous, math-based development practices that enable MR adoption plans in DOD organizations.”

Wilding says modelling user behaviour in the MR domain will also help formalize an understanding of how people behave when using immersive systems. ICS does not have a sole MR system in mind. Instead, proposers will work with various commercial technologies performing different MR-related tasks.

ICS is a 36-month effort divided into two phases. Phase 1 focuses on developing proved guarantees to describe desirable properties of mixed reality systems and supporting models to enable proofs of the guarantees, including cognitive models. Building off Phase 1 results, Phase 2 will validate the usefulness of the guarantees in mixed reality systems. Performers will develop prototypes to demonstrate how guarantees can lessen vulnerabilities using commercially available hardware and software.

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