Going Viral.

When you’re a first-time lecturer in a department full of senior faculty, odds are you’ll get crap time slots when it comes to your teaching load. When you’re a first-time lecturer whose supervisor is the most-detested rival of the department head, you’re pretty much guaranteed as much. Which is how I ended up teaching Advanced Animal Ecology at 8:30 on Monday mornings back in 1992.

Necessity forced me to come up with a strategy for rebooting hung-over twentysomethings under those circumstances. It was this: lead with a statement so off-the-wall that even a bunch of comatose undergrads can’t help leaping to their feet and calling Bullshit! Then you just spend the next fifty minutes arguing with them.  As an added bonus, you barely even have to prepare any actual lecture notes.

Perhaps my most successful iteration of this strategy occurred on the morning I walked into class whistling Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love”, then turned to the class and claimed that that song was — quite literally — a life-form.  That, in fact, any earworm was.  They reproduced, after all: spread from person-to-person like a disease, taking root in the brain of each new victim until that person in turn whistled or screamed or played it on to other brains in turn. They mutated (Mondegreens). They competed for resources; successful variants proliferated (“Stairway to Heaven”), unsuccessful ones died without issue (“Golden” — no, of course you haven’t). They can even go into a kind of metabolic dormancy, encyst and hibernate for uncounted years until their seeds take root once again in some fertile habitat.  And if they can’t do any of this unassisted — if they need ink and quills, mp3 players, human brains to take on the heavy lifting of actual reproduction — well, how is that any different from viruses built of protein and RNA? Can any of us perform the tasks of life independent of our environment? Remember, Richard Dawkins defines life as “information shaped by natural selection”. Doesn’t say anywhere in there that the information has to manifest through organic chemistry.

It woke up them up, and made for some decent debate. A decade later it also informed my novel Maelstrom, which posits literal ecosystems seething throughout the Internet: life-forms coded in electrons instead of carbon. Maelstrom also describes a coevolutionary process between those life-forms and the “Meltdown Madonna” meme that gave Lenie Clarke so much cover as she bled death and destruction across half of North America.

Now, right here in realityland, the line between electronic and biological viruses is blurring; so say researchers from a company called Fortinet, at a recent Black Hat conference in Europe. (Techworld report here; slightly sensationalized Scientific American rehash here).

At this conference, the Fortinet folks used the same e-life/o-life comparisons — right up to bemoaning the “mutability” of polymorphic worms like Conficker — that I used so long ago to wake up my students.  Their main concern, though, was not with the bugs themselves but with the hackers who built them. “Computer virus” is still a metaphor, you see. Those things aren’t truly alive just yet, and they never will be if the hackers themselves have anything to say about it.  In order to meet Dawkins’ definition, real life must be free to evolve; and while it would be trivial to outfit a computer virus with genes and a couple of random-number generators to seed variation, why would anyone choose to let their own creation off the leash that that? As long as people want their code to break centrifuges or steal credit-card numbers, life will never evolve down there in the wires; it will always be a product of special creation.

If you’re not interested in anything so focused, though — if your goal is chaos and collapse, if you’re some Joker who just wants to watch the world burn — why, setting your creations free would be a dream come true. That’s the backstory of the rifters saga, ancient history when Lenie Clarke’s story begins, but maybe a decade or so away from where we are now. Could be any time, really.

Maelstrom is over ten years old. I’ve done that already. What really piques my interest about this Techworld story is the alarms it raises over wet bugs getting cozy with sparkly ones. Because we can synthesize microbes now, bake them from scratch: and where do we store the recipes for polio and gasalgae and the latest Venter synthetics?

We store them online. Which means it’s probably only a matter of time before someone writes a computer virus to hack the specs of an organic one. At which point, electrons will be building meat.

I’m both excited and dismayed at this news.  Excited because, well, it means that one of the underpinnings of Intelligent Design is coming along right on schedule. But dismayed for the same reason, because now it’s out there. The surprise is gone.

And in Chapter Three, when my protagonist confronts the mystery of where exactly these gengineered oil-rig-attacking giant squid came from, a bunch of you will have already figured it out.

Damn.

Maybe I can distract you down the road with some homely cat photos.


A few shamefaced postscripts of pimpage and whoreistry:

  1. The Pattern Scars seems to be doing pretty damn well in the running for the CBC Bookies, thanks in large part to you all; but there’s still a full day before voting closes, and judging solely by sales figures I know that the competition has armies of fans. It’s not to late for them to weigh in and slaughter TPS beneath a tsunami of come-from-behind votes. It’s quiet ­— too quiet. So if you haven’t voted yet today, y’know, it’d be nice.  Also tomorrow. And then the polls close, so I’ll quit bugging you.
  2. I myself seem to be in a bit of a knock-down drag-out with George R.R. Martin in an ongoing plebiscite over at Katedra: last time I checked the Polish edition of Starfish was a measly two votes ahead of A Dance With Dragons in the “Best Foreign Book”. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anyone to vote for a novel in an unfamiliar language, against other novels they may not have even read (ahem) — but I get the sense that a disproportionate number of you actually happen to be Polish. So if you haven’t voted, well…
  3. Finally, last-call for tickets to Starship Sofa’s online writing workshop being held tomorrow, at which Nancy Kress, Ann Vandermeer, and myself will hold forth on a variety of topics while hiding behind our respective PowerPoint slides. I’m told that sign-ups have been surprisingly brisk; notwithstanding, there are still spots available.

 

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday March 30 2012at 12:03 pm , filed under a-life, evolution, writing news . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

28 Responses to “Going Viral.”

  1. We store them online. Which means it’s probably only a matter of time before someone writes a computer virus to hack the specs of an organic one. At which point, electrons will be building meat.

    3d printers?

  2. I’m reminded of the Meme Wars from John Barnes’ books: computer viruses learn to port themselves to run on human neural architecture, and start a global war as they fight for dominance over humanity’s mindspace.

  3. Well … this would give the headline of this lecture a completely new meaning: Print Me If You Dare

    @Sheila: Rather old news: DNA sequences via mail. And now think of a company having ordered sequences for improving a yoghurt culture, but getting a biological Trojan, with sustained/triggered release of a pathogen, maybe one equipping an innocent Lactobacillus with some of EHEC’s features …

    I found a Wikipedia Entry about Oligonucleotide Synthesis, but the details are going over my head.

  4. Fun. The advanced animal ecology talking point you start with has got my brain whirling. Did any of your hung-over undergrads convincingly argue that your proposed life forms were still just aspects of survival strategies for physical genes?

    (I’m in way over my head already, apologies, but I’m curious.)

  5. Winter67uk:
    Did any of your hung-over undergrads convincingly argue that your proposed life forms were still just aspects of survival strategies for physical genes

    I honestly don’t remember. I was too hung over at the time.

  6. Okay, I’ve had an hour or more to mull it over and I’m still not getting:

    Excited because, well, it means that one of the underpinnings of Intelligent Design is coming along right on schedule.

    Specified complexity?

    (I thought, “I.D. is bad, m’kay, children?”).

  7. Annnd now I have that song in my head.

  8. Peter Watts: I honestly don’t remember.I was too hung over at the time.

    Disgusting. As atonement for this wastrel disregard for education I look forward to a short piece involving biological and electronic genes fighting it out over resources in a communal environment. [Sound of drumming fingers.]

  9. I for one welcome our octopoid petroleum-slurping overlords.

  10. I don’t think evolution would work well for computer viruses. We’d probably rid ourselves of any viruses if the immune system was not itself dumb evolution of antigens via somatic hypermutation. The software world is transparent; you can look inside the virus; there’s no evolving the membrane as in flu and cold.

  11. My university years would have been much more entertaining with you as a lecturer instead ob Rotenone Balon, or any number of other “I hate undergrad” profs.

    One of the most thought provoking lectures I experienced was by one of the worst scientists. He posed a single question at the beginning of class “why are there no trees in the ocean?” After each response from a student he would just draw another adaptation on his chalk drawing of a sea tree that addressed it. Being the typical Custeau inspired bilogists that most of us were at the time, we tended to limit our logic to things we could see and treated biology as if it acted independently of physics and chemistry. Lets face it Organic and biohemistry was something that most of us took because we had to, not because we wanted to.

  12. anony mouse: One of the most thought provoking lectures I experienced was by one of the worst scientists. He posed a single question at the beginning of class “why are there no trees in the ocean?”

    John C. Roff.

    I wonder what happened to him. Didn’t know he was a horrible scientist, though: he actually wrote a letter of reference that got me into UBC.

  13. Dmytry:
    I don’t think evolution would work well for computer viruses. We’d probably rid ourselves of any viruses if the immune system was not itself dumb evolution of antigens via somatic hypermutation. The software world is transparent; you can look inside the virus; there’s no evolving the membrane as in flu and cold.

    The difference though is evolution in a digital medium works at digital speeds. By the time you’ve come up with a countermeasure the virus has already mutated, spread and mutated again a few hundred times over.

    The other side of that is of course an anti-virus that works along similar lines. Welcome to the joys of a digital arms race with, to quote Gibson, “one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button”.

  14. “Didn’t know he was a horrible scientist, though:he actually wrote a letter of reference that got me into UBC.”

    Just a poor judge of character.

    But you are right. Calling him a poor scientist is too harsh. I just found that he seemed to enjoy the university politics more than he did the science.

    I had drinks with him a couple years ago at Acadia where he was at the time. Since then I think that he moved to Belgium.

    I actually have many pleasant memories of the old charmer. And as I mentioned I found him to be a great undergrad teacher, although I knew people who would disagree. And he certainly made the marine bio field course fun (and liver damaging).

  15. From the TechWorld article: [ … ] “Conversely, software used when sequencing DNA of a living organism, and databases storing bits that code for that sequence, are probably not absent of vulnerabilities.” But whether it is possible to make a virus with malicious DNA sequences that could, once transcribed into bits, exploit those vulnerabilities, remains to be seen.

    Using a coded virus to affect human biology for military purposes is highly unlikely, since a spreading computer virus is much harder to control than, for example, anthrax bacteria. Releasing a virus might backfire and infect a nation’s own army. However, bioterrorists might be interested in the use of attacks based on such viruses, Lovet said. “And that is a very scary thought.”

    Sure it’s scary, and that’s one of the reasons that there was such a debate — and as I understand it, a sincere and nearly devout implementation of rather paranoid and thorough security measures consequent to the debate — when someone fully sequenced Variola. The sort of researchers who get access to Horrible Horrible Pathogens also get serious lectures on security, and in any case they know what they’re working with, and are generally happy to do all that they can to keep that genie in the bottle.

    As for this bit, […] whether it is possible to make a virus with malicious DNA sequences that could, once transcribed into bits, exploit those vulnerabilities, remains to be seen […], well, first you’d have to have a device hooked to a bug-riddled e-mail client, which device or series of devices were capable of printing DNA and performing assorted other rather complex technical processing steps.

    Folks, this is why I tell everyone I meet that they really should never leave their million-dollar DNA sequencing and RNA printing units hooked up to the WiFi, you never know who’d going to do a drive-by spamming with a payload that will usurp your lab and set it to the task of grafting H5N1 to Ebola and wrapping it in a nice oversized coat of really angry clustered polio virii. And even if they don’t go to that sort of extremes, you wouldn’t want to boot up the forensic PCR equipment to get an early start on catching up with the backlog of “rape kits”, only to find that the system messages page is full of 400K subject lines of “make more penis fast with nigerian v14gr4″. Further, actually scan your key drives with an up-to-date virus scanner between all machine-to-machine transfers.

    There’s also something to be said for secure authenticated networks that boot from read-only media, but that would be me trying to pimp my patent no less than Fortinet is trying to spread some fear to drum up sales of their products.

    @Peter Watts: Um, you up against George RR Martin? Wow, tough call, in the apples v. oranges department! I guess you’ve read his excellent book “Fevre Dream”? If not, I am actually shocked. (His last book I read was “A Storm of Swords”, though not in Polish. ;) )

  16. It looks like Pattern Scars won with the largest majority of all of the categories.

  17. As an honorary Polak (spent a year there, it counts) and big fan of both of you, I still cast my vote for you before the thing ended, mostly because your stories of Polish cons bring back fond memories and I am unaware of any record of GRRM actually visiting the place.

    …Also the translation of Blindsight is fucking stunning, at least to my Stupid American eye and the assurances of some of my friends.

  18. I really was looking forward to the alternate ending of Tron 2, where Clue breaks into the “real world”, gains access to the matter printer, breaks it down to first principles, and starts bulk printing eldritch horrors in the basement.

    As it is, we have an amazingly deadly, genetically evolved piece of software walking around in a cute girl meatsuit. I’m not sure that’s not worse.

  19. So what you are saying is that “We built this city” may be the pinnacle of evolution? I’m not sure I want to live in the kind of universe where that is possible.

    “Folks, this is why I tell everyone I meet that they really should never leave their million-dollar DNA sequencing and RNA printing units hooked up to the WiFi, you never know who’d going to do a drive-by spamming with a payload that will usurp your lab and set it to the task of grafting H5N1 to Ebola and wrapping it in a nice oversized coat of really angry clustered polio virii.”

    Thomas, I once wrote a short story in the form a risk assessment/containment strategy document for a military project involving a super intelligent AI. Was an interesting process, and I also came to the conclusion then that the networking of lab equipment could be a real issue.

  20. @TechtropesMatt

    Awesome website. One day when I am less mobile dependent and have a screen larger than my palm I’m going to dig in and find what scares me enough to do a short story.

  21. @TechTropes Matt: It’s worse than just networking lab equipment.

    Within the last year, some US agency published a report to the effect that the US “beltway bandits” (military/government contractors) weren’t doing anywhere near enough to produce actual security for their networks. This did not come as news to me. What did come as news to me — though I predicted it about 2 years ago and probably so did lots of other folks before me — was that when a penetration originated from a Chinese IP address and got into some classified systems, it didn’t just stop there. Like the Stuxnet worm, it went anyplace it could go, sort of like a UDP packet on the internet. What had me on the floor laughing was that the invasive ‘warez took up residence in the digital climate control system in various secure facilities. See also my blog post about how Your House Is Talking About You.

  22. There are too many critical sectors where security is theoretically a thing, but completely at the mercy of people who have no personal stake in implementing that security.

    From what I’ve seen, academia and small business, tend to have absolutely zero security unless they randomly hire a crypto geek.

    The real problems are that most people with sensitive data, don’t actually undestand why it’s sensitive to start with, and that it’s impossible to have a conversation with your boss that mentions “chinese hackers”, without him thinking you are crazy. :-)

  23. @Techtropes Matt: Sometimes I suspect that there’s a studied and intentional effort to propagate the meme that anyone who believes in Chinese (or Korean, Russian, you name it) hackers is inherently not the sort of person you leave in charge of network security. I just wonder who could possibly be behind it. ;)

    Thus, don’t ever mention the {insert nationality here} hackers. Tell them, instead, that the hackers are teenagers. Most people actually believe in that. With a little coaxing, the boss will give a raise to the person who swears they can defend against “you know, like those ones that toilet-papered your house, only these ones are computer geeks with Mad Skillz. Didn’t you ever see War Games?”

  24. Dmytry:
    “I don’t think evolution would work well for computer viruses. We’d probably rid ourselves of any viruses if the immune system was not itself dumb evolution of antigens via somatic hypermutation. The software world is transparent; you can look inside the virus; there’s no evolving the membrane as in flu and cold.”

    I think that evolution’s tenacity and autonomy will be able to hold ground and even advance against “smarter” opponents on a complex terrain (such as modern technological networks). Software evolution is as dumb as “fleshy” one (but probably will be much faster), but it is completely autonomous and very, very tenacious, and those two gotta live a mark, especially when that side also gets a notable speed advantage.

    Think of the “evolution” process (at the scale of population) as a dim-witted, but nonetheless functional AI.

  25. Speaking of going viral, two out of three Ad Astra panels attended today mentioned Peter Watts (and he wasn’t even in the room!).

    (Sorry about the double post. Wireless here leaves something to be desired).

  26. N. Bohde: two out of three Ad Astra panels attended today mentioned Peter Watts

    I’m actually afraid to ask about the context.

  27. “Peter Watts said it made him impotent for a week.” —David Nickle plugging his new short story at the “What Scares Us?” panel

    And Blindsight being used in classes (for a subject that historian dude whose name escapes me would not take) in the SciFi and academia panel.

    And the number climbs to three. Zombie panel mentioned both Blindsight and Echopraxia (though I may have cheated on that one since I brought it up).

  28. Excellent choice in beer, BTW. What was that? Something Red?

    Surprisingly no problems, not even a hangover. Two of my incidents with digestion last month were after just two beers, so for several days after I couldn’t even stand the smell of the stuff. It seems I recover quickly.

    http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=1793