Computer, heal thyself! With menacing bugs and viruses floating around the internet, such a command would be useful. In fact, it may be moving toward reality.
A glimpse of self-healing computers unfolded in a massive Las Vegas ballroom Thursday night, and the moment evoked crucial leaps in computer development, such as when IBMs Deep Blue beat a reigning world master at chess in 1997 and more recent experiments with computerized self-driving cars.
The challenge on the stage was for seven competing teams to set their supercomputers loose against one another, protecting their own systems and attacking others. They faced some of the most daunting digital viruses known to humans, and the computers acted autonomously to find, diagnose and fix software flaws.
Judges announced Friday morning that a team of academics and hackers once affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh had snatched the $2 million top prize.
I can say with certainty that a spark was lit today, and we have proven that this autonomy is possible, said Mike Walker, program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagons visionary mad science agency, which hosted the Cyber Grand Challenge.
The implications could be far-reaching as the world moves into the internet of things, in which automobiles, lighting systems, medical devices and even coffeepots become subject to virus attacks. As it is now, computer vulnerabilities can remain undetected for months, and require tedious work of searching through complex computer programs to patch the problems. A successful self-healing prototype could transform the way cybersecurity is conducted.
Touted as the worlds first all-machine hacking tournament, the challenge drew more than 100 teams in qualifying rounds, leading to Thursday nights seven-team faceoff. For some 5,000 techies in attendance at Ballys Paris Las Vegas Conference Center, it was geek nirvana.
Rival computers faced an escalating array of attacks, starting with the Morris worm, which appeared in 1988, moving to the SQL Slammer, which infected 75,000 computers in 10 minutes in 2003, on to the .lnk bug from 2010 and facing onslaughts from other nasty fresh digital critters.
Most teams were coding nonstop in the days leading to the tournament, and exhaustion marked the final chapter as much as excitement.
Im going to sleep, said Dr. David Melski, a leader of Team TechX, which took the $1 million second prize as the tournament closed. Melskis day job is vice president of research at GrammaTech Inc., a tech spinoff from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Competitors said they had no doubt that teaching computers to heal themselves would be a major step.
Every day, we trust more and more parts of our lives to computers, to software. We want this to be safe, said Thanassis Avgerinos, a leader of the winning ForAllSecure team.
Another member, Ryan Goulden, said computers operated at far greater speeds than human hackers and that computers would outwit them if autonomous cybersecurity became viable.
If you can patch faster than humans can exploit, then youve solved hacking, right? Goulden said.
Organizers cautioned that it may take years of development before ordinary smaller computers can fend off attacks by themselves.
Theres still a huge gap between (achievements at the event) and being able to roll it out across enterprise networks tomorrow, said John Launchbury, the director of the information innovation office at DARPA.
Nonetheless, the Pentagon agency has a track record of stimulating breakthrough technologies, including GPS navigation systems, stealth technology and the internet itself.