Colloquium: October 4, 2016


A League of Extraordinary Machines: The First Steps to Autonomous Cyber Reasoning Systems

Jack W. Davidson

(video) within the Langley firewall only
Tuesday, October 4, 2016 at 2:00 P.M. in the Pearl Young Theater


In 2004, the United States Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) held its first Grand Challenge Competition. The challenge was to build an autonomous vehicle that could navigate a 150-mile route through the Mojave Desert. This competition and subsequent ones spurred interest and innovation and today, less than 15 years later, self-driving cars are soon to become commonplace on our highways.

In 2013, DARPA announced the Cyber Grand Challenge (CGC). The challenge was to build an autonomous cyber reasoning system that could analyze software, identify vulnerabilities, formulate patches and deploy them on a network all in real time. On August 4, 2016 at DEFCON 24 in Las Vegas, Nevada, an audience of 22,000 watched seven extraordinary machines compete in a historic, first ever machine vs. machine CTF contest with the winner receiving a $2M cash prize. In this talk I will describe the CGC competition, present some of the unique challenges faced by the teams, and provide an overview of technologies used to address these challenges. I will also present analysis of the telemetry collected during the CGC final event. While it remains to be seen if CGC will spur similar innovation as the first Grand Challenge competition, I will argue that the CGC results show the promise of autonomous cyber reasoning systems.


Jack W. Davidson is a Professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. Davidson’s research interests include compilers, programming languages, computer architecture, embedded systems, and computer security. He was a principal member of TechX, the team that built Xandra, which competed in DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge, and is currently the principal investigator on new DARPA-funded projected called CFAR (Cyber Fault-tolerant Attack Recovery) that is investigating the use of N-variant systems to protect critical software services.

Professor Davidson is a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and a Senior Member the IEEE Computer Society. He served as an Associate Editor of ACM’s Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems for six years, and an Associate Editor of ACM’s Transactions on Architecture and Compiler Optimizations. In 2008, he received the 2008 IEEE Computer Society Taylor L. Booth Education Award for “sustained effort to transform introductory computer science education.” Davidson currently serves as co-chair of ACM’s Publication Board, which oversees all aspects of ACM’s publications and the operation of the ACM’s Digital Library.