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The grand debate about beneficial viruses and artificial life

Suzana Stojakovic-Celustka
Alive Vol I, Issue 1
July 1994

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In the previous articles, three more or less different viewpoints about beneficial viruses and artificial life were presented. The topic is undoubtedly interesting. Could computer viruses be beneficial? What is artificial life? Are computer viruses the form of artificial life or not? Is it ethical to play with such things?...etc...The questions are numerous. The answers, opinions and approaches can vary widely - from the scientific (and somewhat controversial) interests of Fred Cohen and Mark Ludwig, pragmatic (and somewhat sceptical) approach of Vesselin Bontchev till vague and possibly confused opinions of "average computer user" and spurious intentions of anonymous virus writers today.

There is a lot of confusion in the computer virus/anti-virus society today. Many things are not clear. For example, do we know what are we talking about when talking about computer viruses and/or artificial life? Do we talk with each other or it is a heap of monologues without anybody listening carefully? Where are the limits between scientific research and criminal activity? What is the science and what is marketing and media hype? Who can tell the difference? Are there connections between research in artificial life and hyper production of computer viruses (with possibly malicious purposes) today?

I would like to put some order in the confusion. On the pages of "Alive" everybody will have a right to give his or her opinion, regardless if he or she is an anti-virus expert/producer/researcher or "average user" (whatever it means) or virus writer. I would like to invite all to Grand Debate about Beneficial Viruses and Artificial Life to present your opinions and eventual work in computer virus and/or artificial life field. However, I prefer a little calmer atmosphere than it is on some public forums, at least the discussions without pointless personal attacks. In fact, it is the only rule for the Grand Debate. Everything else is free. By this I announce officially that Grand Debate about Beneficial Viruses and Artificial Life is opened.

The purpose of the Grand Debate is to give some answers, if possible. The subject is complex and there is no unique answer. For example, Fred Cohen said: "...viruses are only part of a pair - the life form and its environment..." According to Mark Ludwig viruses are "...a real-life phenomenon, rather than a laboratory construct..." and perhaps "...the only 'life-form' apart from earth carbon-based life we will ever meet..." Vesselin Bontchev thinks that viruses are "...challenging, doing something which is unusual and clever...", but he doesn't believe that " viruses are a form of artificial life..."

Talking about beneficial viruses Fred Cohen stated: "A benevolent virus is simply a virus that is used for good purposes, but then this is a matter of context...Good and bad are relative. Most of the viruses I discuss as benevolent are in fact reproducing symbol sequences without any known malicious effect..." Mark Ludwig thinks: "There's a certain amount of inertia you have to overcome to get people to actually install a beneficial virus, though, because they've been brainwashed into believing that virus = bad..." Vesselin Bontchev says that "...what most people understand under the term of 'computer virus' cannot be beneficial..." and that "...'real' computer viruses are always bad..." Furthermore, he gives the definition of "real virus" and average user's understanding of the term. At this point it seems that the problem of good definition of computer virus is the most important problem to solve.

What is artificial life? According to Fred Cohen there is no difference from real life and "the word artificial is really only a side effect of people's egos requiring a special name for things they create..." He is talking "...about foundations for the understanding of life in the general sense, an expansion of biology into the general informational domain, drawing parallels between our biosphere and the infosphere, understanding the implications of the changes in our environment through information systems before we experiment on our children..."

Mark Ludwig said that "...staring hard at viruses might be very valuable in bringing about a revolution in evolutionary biology. Using carbon-based organisms is a horrible way to study evolution. They are too complex and we don't understand them well enough. The time frames of evolution are too large. And deep philosophical questions rear their heads all over the place. Inside the computer, most of these difficulties just vanish..."

Although not talking about artificial life Vesselin Bontchev gives very good points to think about in his "Dozen reasons..." When experimenting with potentially dangerous things which have ability to reproduce and to modify themselves the question of controllability of such "creatures" is very important. "A virus that claims to be beneficial should provide means to be controlled..." and "...the user of the beneficial virus should actively invite (e.g. install) the virus on his/her system..."

The brief conclusions from these introductory discussions are:

  1. a good definition of computer virus is needed
  2. beneficial viruses are possible, but it is hard to change the negative meaning which term "computer virus" already got in public
  3. the research in computer viruses and artificial life can bring us to better understanding of life in general
  4. it is important to know how to control experiments and practical use of self reproducing entities (with eventual possibility of modification of themselves and their environment).

It seems that this is quite a lot for the beginning. I expect that in further discussions more questions and problems will arise, before some answers appear. After all it is all real life. Maybe, the computer viruses are in the world to teach us something. Computer viruses are not only pointing to vulnerabilities in today's information systems, but also in vulnerabilities in human society. In the smaller extent everything can be seen here. I am not sure that there is an exact answer to question why people want to hurt other people or to destroy something. The destruction due to malicious computer viruses is not really the same as destruction in war. The writers of malicious computer viruses are not the killers. Anyway, they want to tell us something. What is that we have to find out by ourselves. Maybe we will also find the way to learn how to put the human dimension in our everyday life.

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