Seven machines entered the competition, and Mayhem won. The field of battle was the Cyber Grand Challenge put together by the Pentagon's future projects wing DARPA, a variation on a traditional computer security tournament. Normally, in computer security Capture the Flag, humans work to repair flaws on their own network while exploiting security weaknesses on the competition. For DARPA's latest grand challenge, the humans let the machines do the work on their own.
A section from Network World captures the scene:
Surprisingly, Mayhem managed to win the competition despite being entirely disabled through most of the final rounds 30 rounds. That is not uncommon in Capture the Flag competitions where sometimes the best game strategy is to do nothing while others struggle with problems of their own.
During the competition, an entrant dubbed Rubeus (created by a team from Raytheon) was slowed down after issuing a patch to a flaw found by a competitor. The patch apparently sucked up so much CPU that it affected the performance of other services being run on the server.
Later, Rubeus's logic apparently decided that it was better to remove the patch and remain vulnerable than to do poorly in its availability score.
What did DARPA learn? The goal wasn't just to showcase a network security sport, though DARPA went all out to highlight the sportlike aspects.
“This Cyber Grand Challenge,” DARPA said in a press release, “will mark the culmination of an ambitious three-year effort to develop advanced, autonomous systems that can to detect, evaluate, and patch software vulnerabilities before adversaries have a chance to exploit them.”
If machines can learn to defend themselves from hostile attacks, that's peace of mind for everyone who uses computers, and for everyone whose safety depends in some part on secure computer networks. That's not quite everybody, but it's pretty close.
Here's a video from Team For All Secure, the creators of Mayhem, recorded before the grand challenge. Their success in the Cyber Grand Challenge won the team $2 million.