The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, wants to crowdsource a fully automated cyber defense system, and they’re offering a two million dollar prize:

The so-called “Cyber Grand Challenge” will take place over the next three years, which seems like plenty of time to write a few lines of code. But DARPA’s not just asking for any old cyber defense system. They want one “with reasoning abilities exceeding those of human experts” that “will create its own knowledge.” They want it to deflect cyberattacks, not in a matter of days—which is how the Pentagon currently works—but in a matter of hours or even seconds. That’s profoundly difficult.

On the one hand, this is brilliant. I can easily imagine some huge leaps forward made as a result of the contest. The Netflix Prize advanced recommendation algorithms while the DARPA Grand Prize gave us autonomous cars. Clearly competitions work, especially in this domain where the barrier to entry is low.

On the other hand, this is scary. They’re asking competitors to marry artificial intelligence with cyber defense systems. Cyber defense requires a solid understanding of cyber offense, and aggressive defensive capabilities could be nearly as destructive as offensive capabilities. Cyber defense software could decide to block a threatening virus with a counter-virus, or shut down parts of the Internet to stop or slow infection.

Artificial intelligence has taking over stock trading, and look where that’s gotten us. Trading AI has become so sophisticated it is described in terms of submarine warfare, with offensive and defensive capabilities.

I don’t doubt that the competition will advance cyber defense. But the side effect will be a radical increase in cyber offense, as well as a system in which both side operate at algorithmic speeds.

Full information about the Cyber Grand Challenge, including rules and registration, is available on DARPA’s website.