Computers Teach Each Other by Playing Pac-Man
When the teacher agent detects its student is in trouble, it jumps in to give advice.
Once relegated to the shadows of the digital underground, hacking has gone mainstream. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a major cybersecurity breach, sometimes conducted by groups, such as Anonymous and LulzSec, that are virtually becoming household names. Hacking has become so prevalent that it has even been allegedly used by major news organizations in the United Kingdom for news gathering. This year alone, there have been a number of high-profile attacks on major companies, such as Sony; international organizations, such as NATO; and even entire governments, as was the case most recently with Syria. Although the major players are becoming more familiar, to many, their methods are as opaque as they've always been. In this slideshow, explore some of the techniques used by hackers to exploit and overcome cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
Eavesdropping and Other Passive Attacks With a passive attack, computer systems and networks are monitored in order for a hacker to gain some information. One technique involves eavesdropping, where a hacker listens in on a network. The point isn't to cause damage to the computer system itself, but to harvest information as it's transmitted. This technique is also known as sniffing or snooping. Eavesdropping is not only a concern for computers, but also mobile devices as they become ubiquitous.
Viruses, Worms and Other Active Attacks Active attacks, such as viruses and trojans, are techniques where a hacker manipulates or deletes data to create the desired result. Computer viruses were first seen in the late 1980s just as home computers were growing more popular. As its name suggests, a virus is a piece of code attached to a seemingly innocuous program and passed between computers. Once inside a system, the virus spreads and can bring down a computer. Like a virus, a Trojan horse is simply a computer program. As the name implies, a Trojan horse fools the user into thinking it's another kind of program, and once installed, releases a malicious code. Another cousin of the virus is the computer worm. Worms burrow into network security holes to pass and install malicious code from user to user. One of the most severe cyber-attacks of all time was through the accidental use of a worm by a graduate student in 1988, who was looking to determine the size of the Internet. Software used for a variety of functions from disrupting a system to gaining access to a network is often called malware. Spyware serves to collect information on users and may or may not be malicious. Not all spyware is malware and vice versa. There are also more niche subcategories of malware, such as ransomware, a term used for an attack meant to scare the user into paying what is essentially a form of blackmail, or scareware, a product falsely sold under the premise that it will protect your computer from outside threats.
Denial of Service A denial of service attack is a technique intended to impede normal operations of a website or network. The basic idea is to overrun a computer or server with requests from outside a network to overwhelm the system's available resources. By flooding the intended target with requests, hackers incapacitate the site. These attacks often employ botnets, also known as zombie computers, which are systems that are taken over, sometimes unknowingly though occasionally voluntarily, by a hacker. This technique was most notably employed by the hacking group known as Anonymous against various websites, including Mastercard, Visa, Paypal and others, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the online whistleblower Wikileaks.
Going In The Back Door Earlier this year, hackers shut down Sony's PlayStation Network and stole the personal information, including some credit card data, from nearly 100 millions users. According to a letter by Sony following a Congressional inquiry into the matter, the company asserted that the heist was the result of two groups of hackers: the first launched a denial of service attack while the second stole the data. Before this series of attacks took place, however, Sony itself was accused of slipping malicious code -- a rootkit -- into one of its firmware updates for the PlayStation 3. A rootkit, also known as a back door, is software that gives a hacker access to a computer or network, often without an administrator's knowledge. Gaming security experts, however, dismissed the rumors as false.
Phishing and Sidejacking Behind almost all secure data both online and off is a username and password. If a hacker can gain user information and crack a password, that attacker can access a network and create, modify or delete data maliciously. Different techniques, however, are used to steal a user's password. One of the most popular methods is known as phishing. It starts when a hacker sends an electronic communication to an unsuspecting user under the illusion that the message is from a trusted institution. The user is duped into supplying his information, which may not only include a username and password but also a social security number and bank account information. Another method, known as sidejacking, session IDs, which can be unencrypted data in a URL or cookie, to gain access to an account. Other automated attacks simply guess passwords using predetermined dictionaries and often exploits systems without lockout policies for successive login failures.
Keylogging Keylogging is a technique that could be used for password cracking, but goes a step further. It allows hackers to monitor every stroke of the key entered by a user, which could include other information besides passwords, such as social security numbers, credit card data and much more.
Spoofing With spoofing attacks, hackers pretend to be a user designated to access a particular system or network by mimicking that person's IP address. Once a hacker is inside the system, that attacker can steal or delete data, or access other resources within a particular network.
Video games can be educational -- for computers. Researchers at Washington State University developed an algorithm that helps computers learn and teach each other by playing Pac-Man, an iconic video game that has eaten up the spare time of gamers since the 1980s.
Advances in robot intelligence could potentially lead to robots teaching humans. Matthew E. Taylor, an expert in artificial intelligence at WSU, published these findings online in the journal Connection Science.
The virtual robots, nicknamed "student agent" and "teacher agent," learn from each other as the student agent navigates through a dizzying maze trying to outrun four colorful ghosts all while gobbling up pellets. When the teacher agent detects its disciple is in trouble, it jumps in to give advice.
Knowing the precise moment to give advice is a skill most teachers and parents have crashed and burned trying to master. Unlike its human counterpart, this new algorithm developed by Taylor’s team recognizes the fine line between inattentiveness and micromanagement.
With this refined version of action advice, researchers found that several "student agent" players soon outshone their teachers because they learned to think independently. This was illustrated when student agents played against imperfect teachers and won.
"We designed algorithms for advice giving, and we are trying to figure out when our advice makes the biggest difference," Taylor said in a press release.
According to Taylor, the easiest way to teach a robot new skills is to swap out its old 'brain' for a new one. But, it's not as easy as it seems because hardware and software isn't always compatible with the new version. Robots’ ability to teach each other is an important area of research, because someday robots could be put in charge of training successors, saving humans from the arduous task.
Beyond the more immediate goal of computers teaching each other, Taylor says his ultimate goal is to have a robot teach humans. “Anything we can do to speed up human learning will be great for education, for training,” he says.
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