Computer viruses as Artificial life

Hitherto the only appreciable influence of AL on our own physical reality has been the consequences of computer viruses. Computer viruses reproduce and propagate by copying themselves into another computer or to some kind of electronic memory. They manage the metabolism of its host and implement their own functions just as real viruses do in a cell. They respond to stimuli in their environment and could even mutate and evolve. Living their whole life within the computer and its network, they have no independent existence of its own. Released computer viruses can be seen as an automated attack on a computer system with certain destructive aims. The result of the attack may have the following effects (Warman 1993):

  • Interruption. Constant access to data stored in the computer is interrupted, sometimes for prolonged periods. This may have serious implications for business activities, for example.
  • Interception. Access to internal information may be used to the creator’s advantage.
  • Modification. Internal information is changed by the attacker or replaced by misleading or inaccurate data.
  • Fabrication. An extreme modification where data or transactions are entered into the information system in order to produce disinformation.

Computer viruses represent the claim for strong AL and the similarities between artificial and natural viruses are remarkable. Both are incomplete organisms fulfilling their sole aim of surviving by use of an host mechanism. By infecting, replicating and infecting again they preserve their individual code in different locations. However, the significant difference between a computer virus and a biological one is that the former has been written by a programmer for a certain purpose, whereas the latter arises spontaneously in nature.

Computer viruses have their own natural history and may be seen as a result of combination of predecessors like computer worms, logic bombs and Trojan horses. The worm is a piece of code which makes copies of itself intended to occupy accessible memory or disk storage space. When all space is occupied, the worm proceeds to the next free space into another computer via the network (if any).

The Trojan horse is a computer code which generally looks innocent and claims to be something other than what it is. When activated, the program begins its destructive activity, that is, deleting files from the computer’s secondary memory. A certain kind of Trojan horse is the trapdoor, which consists of hidden extra code that enables the creator of the program to obtain easy and unauthorized access to the computer system without the normal log-on procedure.

The logic bomb is a relative of the Trojan horse with its program code remaining dormant until a specific circumstance will release it. The detonation may be initiated when a certain person is deleted from a payroll or by the system clock (a time bomb).

The various infecting and replicating strategies used by real viruses generally have their counterpart in the computer viruses. Classification of computer viruses according to their attacking strategy gives the following.

  • Shell viruses. Create a shell around the code of the original program which therefore becomes a subroutine of the This can be compared with biological viruses infecting cells and operating outside the cell nucleus.
  • Additive viruses. Hook their code onto the host program. This can be compared with biological viruses which link their genetic code to the DNA in the cell.
  • Exchange viruses. Replace the host code with their own code lines. This can be compared with biological viruses which replace the cell DNA with their own.

One of the most spectacular releases of a computer virus was made in November 1988 by Robert Morris Jr, a 21-year-old student at Cornell University. From the very beginning Morris lost control over his program. He could only watch powerless as it replicated itself through the university network and then beyond. This creation came to be known as the ‘Internet Worm’ when it congested all computers and finally shut down the whole network. When this was a fact some hours later, millions of users were affected. The losses were counted in hundreds of million dollars, including reprogramming and lost computer time.

Computer viruses have now existed for about 25 years, and hitherto have only evolved through the actions of human programmers. Their random variations have been clearly destructive for themselves and some kind of spontaneous evolution has not yet been detected. Effective vaccination programs written to neutralize all known computer viruses are now standard in most computer applications. In spite of this, many computer scientists and other researchers express concern for a future uncontrolled development. The possibility for a computer organism really going out of control by some kind of mutation, operating only for its own needs, may cause serious threats to our whole society.

Unengaged people see this attitude as overly pessimistic and state that one always turns the machines off if something seems to be dangerous. The counter-argument says that we never know when this point has come and that the turning off of our computers in itself is a threat to our high- tech society.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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