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Synergy Among Engineering Disciplines: Software, Cybersecurity, and AI

Paul Nielsen

Synergy among software, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence (AI) engineering disciplines will enable future critical missions in defense, national security, and other domains. Missions of the future will be characterized by multi-domain planning and execution, real-time operations in dynamic environments, a broad global context in a world that is increasingly interconnected, and the need for adaptive human-machine interfaces to manage complexity and respond to opportunity. The Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute (CMU SEI) envisions that a confluence of advances in those disciplines will support an automated and secure software lifecycle – including the supply chain.

In this blog post, I review the origins and interactions of the software, cybersecurity, and AI engineering disciplines and posit how their interrelationships would contribute to the intelligent systems of the future. ­­

Engineering Disciplines for Software, Cybersecurity, and AI Are in Different Stages of Development

Software engineering has evolved into a proven discipline over several decades. The U.S. government established the SEI in 1984 to advance the state of the practice of software engineering, and since then we have led development of crucial software engineering elements, including software architectural risk reduction, non-functional quality attributes, and architectural modeling. Software engineering practices—developed, proven, matured, and codified over many years—foster improvement across the software lifecycle, from design and development through testing and assurance. Thanks in large part to the widespread transition of effective software engineering practices into common use, today’s software-reliant systems are increasingly affordable, trustworthy, and evolvable, and succeed in achieving their required performance goals in delivered products.

Cybersecurity engineering is newer, dating roughly from the Morris Worm incident in 1988, which prompted the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to fund creation of the CERT Coordination Center (CERT/CC, now CERT Division) at the SEI. Building on insights from the field of software engineering, cybersecurity now consolidates the tools and analyses used in stages of the software-development lifecycle to ensure effective operational results. It reduces security weaknesses through, for example, secure coding practices; mitigates and responds to threats; increases network situational awareness; and enables the assurance of critical software and information systems.

Artificial intelligence was first conceived in the 1950s. Carnegie Mellon has been on the forefront of AI since collaborating in the creation of the first AI computer program, Logic Theorist, in 1956. It also created perhaps the first machine-learning (ML) department, studying how software can make discoveries and learn with experience. Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute has been a leader in enabling machines to perceive, decide, and act in the world, including a renowned computer-vision group that explores how computers can understand images. As occurred in the disciplines of software engineering and cybersecurity engineering, AI practices and applications are now evolving from origins in craft, practiced by talented early adopters. We are seeing an explosion today of scientific and commercial applications of AI created by skilled craftspeople applying increasingly well-established development procedures and practices. A discipline of AI engineering is emerging that will be practiced by educated professionals and characterized by research-based, validated analysis and theory. This discipline will guide the creation of AI systems that are robust and secure, scalable, trustworthy, and importantly, human-centered. AI engineering builds on a strong foundation of software engineering and cybersecurity, without which progress in this field would not be possible.

If software, cybersecurity, and AI engineering disciplines are used together, the resulting systems could see risk reduction in the supply chain, software/data development pipeline, and operation. Research and development work at the SEI is investigating the interaction of those disciplines.

Software Engineering for AI Systems

The SEI-led study and research roadmap Architecting the Future of Software Engineering: A National Agenda for Software Engineering Research & Development calls for empirically validated practices and verification methods, tools, and practices to engineer AI-enabled software. Among the SEI research projects aiming to provide verification methods is one to automatically detect and avoid inconsistences between assumptions and decisions that create delays, rework, and failure in the development, deployment, and evolution of ML-enabled systems.

In addition, a multiyear collaboration among the SEI, Georgia Tech, Kansas State University, Galois, and Adventium Labs researchers is developing architecture tools to analyze the impact of AI functions on the assurance of safety-critical systems.

AI for Software Engineering

The SEI study Architecting the Future of Software Engineering: A National Agenda for Software Engineering Research & Development notes that “AI-enabled and other automated capabilities will enable developers to perform their tasks better and with increased quality and accuracy.”

One area for improving developers’ tasks is in the necessary refactoring, often on a large scale, of software code. SEI researchers—working with experts from CMU and other universities—developed a tool to automate the isolation of the vast majority of connections that need to be changed for the system to be evolved rapidly and cost-effectively.

Another area where SEI researchers apply AI to developers’ tasks in in automating code repair. This work, undertaken with government collaborators, is developing automated source-code transformation tools to remediate vulnerabilities in code that are caused by violations of rules in the CERT Secure Coding Standards.

The Architecting the Future of Software Engineering study notes, as well, that AI can aid software architecture reconstruction for the modernization of legacy systems, an area pertinent in DoD reliant on established systems.

Software Engineering for Cybersecurity

In June 2023, the SEI organized the Secure Software by Design Conference to encourage collaboration toward improving the state of a holistic secure development approach. Participants discussed threat modeling, security requirements development, secure software architectures, DevSecOps, secure development platforms and pipelines, software assurance, secure coding practices, software testing, and other topics.

One of the presentations examined the Acquisition Security Framework for Supply Chain Risk Management in the context of the software bill of materials (SBOM) concept. The talk described the potential of using a properly integrated SBOM into effective cyber risk management processes and practices and introduced the SEI SBOM Framework of practices for managing vulnerabilities and risks in third-party software.

Cybersecurity for Software Engineering

In the course of creating tools for the automated prioritization of static analysis alerts, SEI researchers developed the Source Code Analysis Integrated Framework Environment (SCAIFE) application programming interface (API). An architecture for classifying and prioritizing static analysis alerts, the SCAIFE integrates a wide variety of static analysis tools using the API. The API is pertinent to organizations that develop or research static analysis alert auditing tools, aggregators, and frameworks. Building on that body of work, SEI researchers are proposing, in recently initiated research, to create a tool that can automatically repair 80 percent of alerts in 10 categories of code weaknesses.

Assuring software system security also means finding adversaries in the network before they can attack from the inside using cyber threat hunting. Unfortunately, this approach is often costly and time-consuming, to say nothing of the particular skills needed. SEI researchers are addressing these shortcomings by applying game theory to the development of algorithms suitable for informing a fully autonomous threat hunting capability.

Cybersecurity for AI

Trustworthiness is key to the acceptance of results produced by AI systems. Those systems using ML are susceptible to attacks that cause those results to be less reliable. SEI research is addressing issues with the secure training of ML systems. In this collaborative work with CMU, a team is ensuring that an ML system does not learn the wrong thing during training (e.g., data poisoning), do the wrong thing during operation (e.g., adversarial examples), or reveal the wrong thing during operation (e.g., model inversion or membership inference). To support this research, the team created the publicly available Juneberry framework for automating the training, evaluation, and comparison of multiple models against multiple datasets.

AI for Cybersecurity

The use of AI and ML for cybersecurity in, for example, anomaly detection supports faster analysis and faster response than can be provided by human power alone. In the SEI Artificial Intelligence Defense Evaluation project, funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a team is developing a means to test AI defenses. In early work, the research team created e virtual environment representing a typical corporate network and used the SEI-developed GHOSTS framework to simulate user behaviors and generate realistic network traffic.

Researchers are also seeking ways to improve human use of AI system results, including but not limited to those for cybersecurity. This research is developing the Human-AI Decision Evaluation System, a test harness for investigating AI-assisted human decision making in a variety of simulation environments. The research team has integrated the harness into game environments to observe the effect of AI decision-support systems on gameplaying outcomes.

How You Can Support the Evolution of the Intelligent Systems of the Future

As the disciplines of software, cybersecurity, and AI engineering converge and cross-pollinate, SEI looks forward to learning from pilot projects within the software-development community about successes and challenges that developers and users experience. The results of real-world applications in exercises will show us where pain points emerge that require further research and development.

Undergraduate and graduate educational curricula, as well as continuing education and professional development, must continue to evolve to keep pace with the rapid developments in practice that I have outlined in this post. Degree programs, certificates, and certifications will go a long way toward promoting the integration of AI with software and cybersecurity engineering, taking some of the mystery out of the craft and professionalizing the maturation of proven, trusted practices and applications. The SEI has contributed to establishing curricula for software engineering and cybersecurity engineering, and we plan to apply our experience to the field of AI engineering in the future.

Future missions will need technologically advanced and engineered intelligent systems that can scale quickly and gracefully to adapt to different environments, generate data to respond dynamically to changing conditions, and evolve with new mission parameters (i.e., cyber-physical systems driven by intelligence). Through the synergistic combination of software, cybersecurity, and AI engineering, these intelligent, resilient, evolvable systems will be able to scale, adapt in real time, and generate and use data to respond to their environments. Reduction of the risk profile of such systems will give their users greater confidence and trust, critical factors whenever AI is added to the functionality of mission-critical systems.

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