Should we even call computer problems 'viruses' anymore?

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We are fixated on viruses. They are in the news, in our vocabulary, in our military arsenal and in our hard drives.

Ebola rages out of control in parts of Africa; in the US, Enterovirus D68 is sending thousands of kids to hospitals in 27 states; going "viral" on the web is the modern version of 15 minutes of fame; and cyberwarfare, in which a computer virus is wielded as a weapon, has become an increasing threat to international security and civilian infrastructure. The US is thought to have used something like a virus against Iran's nuclear weapons program.

The original creators of computer viruses were inspired by the workings of biological viruses. But are these twin threats to humanity really akin to one another? Maneesh Agrawala, a computer scientist and a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur "genius grant" says they are — to a point.

“A biological virus infects a host, self-replicates and then goes out to infect other hosts," he explains. "A computer virus shares that idea. A computer virus is a program that's designed to infect a computer, self-replicate on that computer and then go out and infect other computers.”

But where biological viruses are a part of the natural world, computer viruses are created. And you might be surprised to learn that computer viruses weren’t invented to be evil or disruptive. They’ve actually got an impressive pedigree.

“The idea of self-replicating computer code was initially developed by John von Neumann,” Agrawala explains. “Von Neumann was a very famous mathematician and one of the founders of the field of computer science.”

In the 1980s, computer scientists began seriously exploring the idea of self-replicating code and built the first working viruses. “By this time, the Internet and its precursor were becoming widely known and computer hackers and others wanted to test this idea that code [could] be designed to search out ways to move through the network to infect other machines on the network,” Agrawala explains.

In 1988, a particularly aggressive virus was unleashed onto computer networks by a graduate student named Robert Morris. Because it was so new, it took some time before the best computer security minds — one of them Morris's own father — figured out how to stop it. Affected computers spent all their processing power replicating the code and machines were freezing up all over the country. It was the first time a computer virus became mainstream news.

Though a computer virus has the potential to wreak havoc, it differs from a biological virus in a couple of crucial ways, Agrawala believes. “A computer virus is fought by another piece of code,” he says, “whereas a biological virus is not typically fought by another virus. Biological viruses mutate, and in the process of mutation and selection of the fittest, they evolve."

In the late 1980s, as the fledgling Internet was brought to its knees by the Morris computer virus, the world was trying to come to grips with the virulent biological virus behind AIDS — HIV. Today, we are grappling with a new set of viruses: Ebola, Enterovirus D68 and West Nile, for example. But this is the other crucial difference: Computer viruses, at least for now, do not have agency. They can't act on their own. It still takes the act of a malevolent human to start and spread one.

“Computer viruses do not evolve, but in a sense they do change over time,” Agrawala says. “The creator of a virus learns from the first virus and may use some of that knowledge to design the next virus and make that next virus more robust. It’s more similar to intelligent design than natural selection and survival of the fittest.”

The design may be “intelligent,” but, like many of humanity’s creations, it doesn’t seem like such a brilliant idea when it gets into the wrong hands.

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

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