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AI-powered cybersecurity bot from Pittsburgh firm lands at Smithsonian

| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 12:09 p.m.
Mayhem, a cyber security system that uses artificial intelligence to guard against attacks, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington. The system was designed by Pittsburgh-based ForAllSecure.
Visitors check out Mayhem, a cyber security system that uses artificial intelligence to guard against attacks on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington. The system was designed by Pittsburgh-based ForAllSecure.
Mayhem, a cyber security system that uses artificial intelligence to guard against attacks, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington. The system was designed by Pittsburgh-based ForAllSecure.

Museums are often catalogs of the past.

But a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History will showcase the possible future of cybersecurity.

Mayhem, a cybersecurity bot that uses artificial intelligence to detect and defend against attacks, was put on display Tuesday on the first floor of the Washington museum's innovation wing. Mayhem was built and designed by Pittsburgh-based ForAllSecure.

“It's an amazing piece of technology by itself,” said Arthur Daemmrich, director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation , a think tank inside the National Museum of American History that is geared toward innovation. Mayhem represents not only an innovative approach to cybersecurity, he said, but is also a symbol of the advancements in artificial intelligence.

Mayhem won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's first-ever Cyber Grand Challenge in August. The computer competed against six other computers in 96 rounds of Capture the Flag, a competitive hacking game in which players must protect their system while trying to exploit others. What made the Cyber Grand Challenge unique was that the computers were operating autonomously, detecting and patching holes in their own defenses while watching for intrusions.

The competition showcased a new approach to cybersecurity.

Instead of defending against known viruses, worms or other attacks, Mayhem can scan a system for vulnerabilities and fix them before they are exploited.

“We have defense mechanisms that rely on what the hack code is and searching for it, but then whenever someone creates a new one, it's not in one of those libraries,” Daemmrich said. “You're always behind the curve, but here's an artificial intelligence system that from the start was designed to prevent and find those hacks.

“That's a significant step forward.”

The museum is displaying Mayhem, a computer box that's lit with LED lights just as it was during the Cyber Grand Challenge. There is a placard in front of the computer explaining Mayhem's significance and a video playing next to it featuring footage from the Cyber Grand Challenge and interviews with ForAllSecure.

“Mayhem represents the possibilities for innovation,” said Tiffany To, ForAllSecure's COO. “This is a technology that is just starting to gain awareness, and I think it will be really interesting to see how it progresses and how it will be used.”

Alexandre Rebert, a co-founder and the captain of the Cyber Grand Challenge team, said that while the Cyber Grand Challenge showed that a security system such as Mayhem is possible, he hopes its inclusion in the Smithsonian will spread the word.

Business at ForAllSecure has picked up since the team won the Cyber Grand Challenge. ForAllSecure was founded in 2012 as a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff company. To, of ForAllSecure, said the company has attracted interest from agencies in the federal government, banks and financial institutions and companies that make connected devices to bolster their cybersecurity. Rebert said the company is also building a database of connected devices, the Internet of Things, that includes ForAllSecure's assessment of how secure the products are.

“Our commercialization strategy is to make it as useful to as many people as possible,” Rebert said.

The future of ForAllSecure aside, Daemmrich wanted to include Mayhem in the museum to spark a conversation about artificial intelligence and its effect on employment. The museum is full of technology that has disrupted the workforce, Daemmrich said. As you walk through the museum's innovation wing to get to Mayhem, you pass a patent model of a pin maker from the 1860s that automated the job of making clothing pins.

“That's not the end of employment,” Daemmrich said of the pin maker. “We're at a historical moment right now where our artificial intelligence is going to open new avenues but also threaten types of works.”

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Daemmrich said society hasn't been great about transitioning workers displaced by technology into new fields. We need to do better this time, Daemmrich said. Exhibits in the museum, especially Mayhem, aren't included to tell visitors what technology will do to the future but to show people the technology that will affect the future and get them talking about how to manage it.

Mayhem seems to be doing that, Daemmrich said. Not 48 hours after the museum put it on display, it was drawing quite a buzz.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Aupperlee at aaupperlee@tribweb.com or 412-336-8448.

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