The Viral Professor

I’ve never met a Nigerian spammer. I don’t know who wrote the first pop-up ad. But apparently I know the inventor of the computer virus well. It’s Gregory Benford.

This has never been a secret but in the File 770 tradition of it’s-news-to-me I only learned about it after Jo Walton extolled John Brunner’s predictive powers in “The Net Before the Net: John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider — such as his mention of a kind of computer virus.

What people remember about The Shockwave Rider is that it predicts ubiquitous computing—in 1975—and some of the problems that come with it. It’s pre-cyberpunk, and it’s cyber without the punk. Reading it now, it’s impressive what it got right and what it got wrong. … There are “worms” that are like viruses only more so, before there were real viruses.

Not so, Gregory Benford corrected in a comment, saying Brunner heard about the concept from him when they visited in 1969. Benford told Brunner about some experiences using the ARPANet, like how bad code might be accidentally shared, and his realization that it also could be done on purpose.

[While a postdoctoral fellow at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California] I programmed computers often…  There was a pernicious problem when programs got sent around for use: “bad code” that arose when researchers included (maybe accidentally) pieces of programming that threw things awry.

One day I was struck by the thought that one might do so intentionally, making a program that deliberately made copies of itself elsewhere. The biological analogy was obvious; evolution would favor such code, especially if it was designed to use clever methods of hiding itself and using others’ energy (computing time) to further its own genetic ends.

So I wrote some simple code and sent it along in my next transmission. Just a few lines in Fortran told the computer to attach these lines to programs being transmitted to a certain terminal. Soon enough – just a few hours – the code popped up in other programs, and started propagating. By the next day it was in a lot of otherwise unrelated code, and I called a halt to matters by sending a message alerting people to the offending lines.

Benford developed the idea in his own 1970 short story, “The Scarred Man” (a free read online.)

Do all viruses trace back to Benford’s idea? Who knows? As Victor Hugo said, “There is no army so powerful as an idea whose time has come,” (the translation quoted in an old episode of Mr. Novak.) When the New York Times tried to figure out who invented e-mail the answer was that several people had done it independently after recognizing the capability was inherent in the computer systems they used. But since Benford regularly contributes to this blog, count on me to uphold against all rivals his claim to being the inventor of the computer virus!

2 thoughts on “The Viral Professor

  1. So, if we lock up Greg Benford and throw away the key, viruses will be a thing of the past? Sorry, Greg, but … viruses? Our computers … you know how it is. We’ll miss you and send you email on our new, perfectly safe internet.

  2. While Brunner is to be commended for doing his research, the Shockwave Rider can’t be considered really visionary — Brunner is simply commenting on things that were already happening. Email was invented in 1971, the PLATO network (originally intended for computerized education) unintentionally invented bulletin boards and social networking in 1973, and the phone phreak community was the inspiration for Nick Halfinger’s telephone-based hacking skills. Hearing Aid is based on a the anonymous party lines that the phreaking community had created by exploiting the AT&T network. The first public access computer bulletin board, “Community Memory”, began in Berkely in 1973. In other words, all you needed to write “Shockwave Rider” was to pay close attention to what was going on at the time.

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