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DARPA wants Matrix style virtual world for cybergeddon

To feature human 'replicants', time-machine mode

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The US military's famed scientific wingnut farm, DARPA*, has released full details of its planned "National Cyber Range" - a mighty network which could be configured to simulate the cyberspace battlefields of the future. This would allow America's fighting nerds to train for the net conflicts of tomorrow, mounting attacks on simulated enemies or defending against devastating cyber strikes by the enemies of democracy.

The Cyber Range proposal was trailed last December, but yesterday full details for those wishing to become network killing-house builders were issued (Word file).

Essentially, DARPA seem to be after something not unlike an entire simulated world. The Range must "enable realistic testing of Internet/Global Information Grid (GIG) scale research [and] simulate national or global communications systems".

This virtual world must, of course, contain computers - of pretty much any type:

The NCR must be capable of taking a physical computer and rapidly creating a functionally equivalent, logical instance of that machine that can be replicated repeatedly... Given a never-before-seen physical computing device, [the Range must] create logical instantiations of the physical native machine that accurately replicates, not only the software on the machine, but hardware to the interrupt level, chipset, and peripheral cards and devices...

And that's not all. The Cyber Range must also be populated with simulated human beings to play the parts of users, sysadmins and so forth. DARPA refers to these software sim-people as "replicants".

Replicants must be capable of implementing multiple user roles... Replicant behavior will change as the network environment changes, as the replicated “outside environment” (i.e. DefCon, InfoCon, execution of war plans, etc) changes, and as network activity changes (detected attacks, degradation of services, etc)... Replicants will simulate physical interaction with device peripherals, such as keyboard and mice... Replicants will drive all common applications...

But all this is merely scene-setting. Moving among the swarming virtual machines and people "injected" into DARPA's Matrix-esque warzone will be the network combatants of the USA and its enemies - the OpFor, or opposing forces. The Cyber Range agents of OpFor aren't going to be script kiddies in their underpants operating from bedrooms in their parents' house. They're going to be more like Operation Screaming Fist**, or perhaps Agent Smith.

Realistic, sophisticated, nation-state quality offensive and defensive opposition forces... Capabilities include sophisticated cyber activity, from defending national assets, to computer network attack... cyber adversaries [equipped with] a malware library of offensive tools for use by DARPA-authorized individuals on the range [and] a defensive tools library...

Battling these fearsome enemies amid the hapless simulant hordes will be the cream of America's elite combat geeks, armed with network weapons of fearful potency - or "potentially revolutionary cyber research and development technologies", as DARPA puts it. The Pentagon's network gladiators add that "the range must be capable of testing a variety of technology thrusts [and] classified cyber programs".

Unsurprisingly, with crack Pentagon dorks tooled up with secret cyber thrust packages battling "nation-state quality" opposition packing weapons-grade malware, DARPA expect a lot of virtual devastation and e-blood all over the carpet. Even so, the Range must be able to clean itself up and rebuild instantly - or "sanitize resources securely and rapidly when resources are freed from tests".

It's also important that none of the devastating cyberplagues and self-replicating code pestilences unleashed in the Range get out of control. The builders must "ensure data does not spill across tests and testbeds while on the range or archived... [and] ensure a test does not perform an unintended denial of service on other tests".

And just in case all that wasn't enough, the Range must also be able to function as a time machine.

Time Dilation/Contraction... [Contractors must] develop technologies to accelerate or decelerate test time (relative to reality); to enable new capabilities (for example, to create bandwidths that are not commercially available today)...

The whole business plainly raises quite a few questions, not least the obvious one: will the Replicants know they are only software running in a giant battle simulation? And how can we be sure we aren't in the Range already? ®

*Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency

**From the seminal work Neuromancer. As if you didn't know.

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