A supercomputer is taking on humans in a hacking contest at DEF CON

The supercomputer, called Mayhem, is taking part in this year’s Capture the Flag contest


The supercomputer Mayhem is competing with human hackers in a contest at DEF CON. 

Credit: Michael Kan

Can a supercomputer beat humans in a hacking contest? We're about to find out.

For the first time, a fully automated supercomputer is trying to compete with humans in a major hacking contest, and so far the machine is hanging in there.

The supercomputer, known as Mayhem, is among the teams taking part in this year’s Capture the Flag contest at the DEF CON security conference in Las Vegas.

The game involves detecting vulnerabilities in software and patching them, and humans have been playing it at DEF CON for years.

Now computers are getting in on the act. DARPA, a U.S. defense agency, recently held an all-machine competition, awarding $2 million to the team that did best.

Mayhem was the winner, and it's now competing against humans in the three-day event this weekend. 

On Saturday morning, the supercomputer was ranked 13th out of 15 teams playing.

Alex Rebert, one of the designers of Mayhem, said he was happy the machine wasn’t in last place. The teams that play Capture the Flag include some of the best hackers in the world, and he’s glad Mayhem seems to be holding its own.

There were some hiccups. Technical issues meant that the machine had to briefly sit out of the competition on Friday evening.

“It’s been tough,” said Rebert, who is cofounder of ForAllSecure, which built the machine. Mayhem has struggled to detect some vulnerabilities that the human teams already found.

On the plus side, Mayhem excels at patching vulnerabilities, he said. Because it’s a machine, it can get the job done fast.

Giovanni Vigna, a player on one of the other teams, said he was impressed with the supercomputer’s performance.

“The machines are not very good at making decisions," he said, but their speed helps make up for it. 

Vigna is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His team, Shellphish, has been using computer programs to help it win the game.

It may be only a matter of time before these programs can surpass humans at Capture the Flag, said Vigna, who also built a supercomputer for the DARPA contest.

Others were more skeptical and said computers will need to make a big leap in their capabilities to beat human opponents.

A member of the team Plaid Parliament of Pwning, which was beating Mayhem by a significant margin, said more sophisticated hacking challenges, perhaps involving cryptography, could be too hard even for the next generation of supercomputers to solve.

"But who knows what it will be like in ten years," he added.