Hurtling towards Doom?


I remember the days in 1980s, when the effort needed to create a simple computer virus (it used to be less than 512bytes) would easily have been a few days. We saw one new virus per year during late 80s. In early 90s, it had already gone up to a handful and by 1994 we already had few dozens coming every year. I remember 1993-94 when the first Computer virus kits started appearing in the underground. Even mutating/polymorphic viral kits, making it easy for any reasonably accomplished programmer to create new viruses. Even today there are tools available that make writing of worms easy, once a vulnerability is found out.

Now, while the above is a matter of concern, that is not what is bothering me!

In 2002, the first artificial lifeform was created. A synthetic virus, assembled purely from chemicals using just a published genome sequence (think of printed computer code). Check this url : First Synthetic Virus. The first synthetic virus created was a Polio virus, and its genome is available openly. You can see it here!

Almost four years now, and situation is changing rapidly. Bio-informatics has made it easier to map and mix genomes. Hardware/software is being built to automate the creation of these synthtic organisms, out of pure genome code. Considering genome is the ‘code of life’, portions of genome can be considered equivalent of software libraries. These libraries are becoming openly available and people can download it on the Internet. Reverse engineering of life-forms are becoming simpler and as new hardware/software makes it simpler to put together new custom synthetic lifeforms from mix-and-match genomes, my fear is making of new viruses will become so simple, that we will see people experimenting midlessly with it (Just as some youngsters played around with Viral code).

This may result in an equivalent of “script-kiddie”, in bio-tech, and the results may be unimaginably horrible. Think of having few hundred new biological viruses appearing every month!!!

I have had various arguments with friends about why computer viruses won’t go away, as long as we use von Neumann architecture. The whole underlying concept was presented by Von Neumann himself in 1940 – Theory of Self Reproducing Automata. We are fighting the computer viruses currently by a combination of mechanims, and there is some chance of new architectures replacing von-neumann architecture, thus taking care of possibility of the phenomenon of computer viruses once for all.

But, what about the architecture of Human-life-form?? It can’t be altered fundamentally and synthetically created viruses can find easy prey. And before any anti-viruses are created for such synthetic viruses, it will do sufficient damage.

I don’t know if all this happens in my lifetime, but i suspect it would happen in this century. And that’s the lifetime of my children!! Wonder what kind of a response would enable human kind to endure this imminent threat.

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