How a computer virus almost started world war 3.
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Our brains are hardwired to listen to stories. So obviously, it is better to talk about the most important discoveries of our lifetime as stories; instead of boring seminars. This is what this newsletter intends to do; tell stories that inspire awe and attract more people towards that path of knowledge that makes us collectively smart.
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How a computer virus almost started world war 3.
The time when US, Israel and Iran were in a tense Mexican standoff over Iran's nuclear enrichment program; and WW3 was just a rogue missile away. The inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency were visiting the once top-secret enrichment plant at Natanz facility. Much to their surprise, they noticed that the centrifuges used for the enrichment of Uranium were failing at an unprecedented rate. There was an air of mystery surrounding the facility as the industrial control and monitoring systems reported back optimal operations.
Five months later, in a completely unrelated incident, a computer security firm in Belarus was called in to troubleshoot a network of computers in Iran that were crashing and rebooting repeatedly. The researchers dug in and stumbled into a handful of malicious files. Little did they knew at that time that what they had in their hands was the world's first digital weapon of mass destruction- an entire geopolitical dispute packed into an attack vector to physically tare apart a country's nuclear infrastructure.
Stuxnet reached the computers at Natanz facility after months of hooping around in firms that had certain relations with the Natanz facility. Before reaching its target at Natanz, reportedly, through a meticulous operation of cyber-warfare, 5 other firms were attacked.
Stuxnet snuck into windows systems and sought for Siemens Step7 software. The worm worked by first causing infected Iranian IR-1 centrifuges to increase from its normal operating speed of 1,064 hertz to 1,410 hertz for 15 minutes before returning to its normal frequency. The infected centrifuges were slowed down to a few hundred hertz for a full 50 minutes. The stresses from the excessive, then slower speeds caused the aluminium centrifugal tubes to expand, often-forcing parts of the centrifuges into sufficient contact with each other to destroy the machine.
Technically, Stuxnet has three modules: a worm that executes all routines related to the main payload of the attack; a link file that automatically executes the propagated copies of the worm; and a rootkit component responsible for hiding all malicious files and processes, to prevent detection of Stuxnet. It is typically introduced to the target environment via an infected USB Flash drive, thus crossing any air gap. The worm then propagates across the network, scanning for Siemens Step7 software on computers controlling a PLC. In the absence of either criterion, Stuxnet becomes dormant inside the computer. If both the conditions are fulfilled, Stuxnet introduces the infected rootkit onto the PLC and Step7 software, modifying the code and giving unexpected commands to the PLC while returning a loop of normal operating system values back to the users.
Stuxnet worm destroyed 984 uranium enriching centrifuges. By current estimations, this constituted a 30% decrease in enrichment efficiency.
Stuxnet reportedly compromised Iranian PLCs, collecting information on industrial systems and causing the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart. Stuxnet's design and architecture are not domain-specific and it could be tailored as a platform for attacking modern supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and PLC systems (e.g., in factory assembly lines or power plants), most of which are in Europe, Japan, and the US. Stuxnet reportedly ruined almost one-fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges. Targeting industrial control systems, the worm infected over 200,000 computers and caused 1,000 machines to physically degrade.
Observing brain waves, scientists find neurons Juggle possible futures.
[Originaly published in Quanta magazine]
Based on the research and experiments of a group of scientists, led by neuroscientist Loren Frank of the University of California, San Francisco.
The scientists were investigating the activity of brain cells in the hippocampus of rats, a region of the brain known to play crucial roles in navigation, as well as storage and retrieval of memories. Hippocampus is the scratchboard of the brain - in different experiments when rats are put through mazes, they tend to memorize the routes in a portion of hippocampus. When the rats are put through other mazes, they tend to forget the old one - making hippocampus a literal a scratchboard. for memory. This portion also consisted of neurons called place cells, which are nicknamed "The brain's GPS. These cells create a mental map of the animal's location as it moves through space- much like an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) in the mobile phones.
As the animal, in this case, a rat moves through the environment, these place cells fire rapidly in specific sequences. This firing sequence corresponds to a sweep in position from just behind the animal to just ahead of it.
(Studies have demonstrated that these forward sweeps also contain information about the locations of goals or rewards.) These patterns of neural activity, called theta cycles, repeat roughly eight times per second in rats and represent a constantly updated virtual trajectory for the animals.
The researchers trained rats to take alternating routes through a W-shaped maze while electrodes recorded from their place cells. The animals ran through the centre arm of the maze, then turned either left or right. But as Frank and his team have now found, when an animal is about to act, the neural activity associated with the theta cycles pings back and forth between different possible future paths — not just to make predictions about what’s to come, but as a kind of high-speed, back-and-forth taste test from a buffet of upcoming courses of action.
Maybe we all are wired to predict the future involuntarily, and we still don't know. That's food for thought.
See you folks next week,