Technology: Invasion of the Data Snatchers

A "virus" epidemic strikes terror in the computer world

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Industry experts are concerned that the publicity surrounding virus ) infections, like the attention given political kidnapings, could invite more attacks. "When we talk viruses, we create viruses," cautions Robert Courtney, a computer consultant from Kingston, N.Y. "We almost make it a self-fulfilling prophecy."

But the ranks of those who would dismiss the virus threat as a Chicken Little scare are getting smaller with every outbreak. Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus Development and now chairman of ON Technology, became a believer when some of his associates were infected. "It isn't the fall of Western civilization," says Kapor, "but the problem is real and the threat is serious." Scientific American's Dewdney has had a similar change of heart. "At first I thought these new outbreaks were much ado about nothing," he says. "But I'm now convinced that they are a bigger threat than I imagined."

The idea of an electronic virus was born in the earliest days of the computer era. In fact, it was Computer Pioneer John von Neumann who laid out the basic blueprint in a 1949 paper titled "Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata." If most of his colleagues found the idea that computer programs might multiply too fantastic to be taken seriously, they can be forgiven, for the paper predated the first commercial electronic computers by several years. But a handful of scientists quietly pursued Von Neumann's ideas, keeping them alive in the scientific literature until they sprang to life ten years later at AT&T's Bell Laboratories, in the form of a bizarre after-hours recreation known as Core War.

Core War was the brainstorm of three Bell Labs programmers then in their early 20s: H. Douglas McIlroy, Victor Vysottsky and Robert Morris. Like Von Neumann, they recognized that computers were vulnerable to a peculiar kind of self-destruction. The machines employed the same "core" memory to store both the data used by programs and the instructions for running those programs. With subtle changes in its coding, a program designed to consume data could be made instead to consume programs.

The researchers used this insight to stage the first Core War: a series of mock battles between opposing armies of computer programs. Two players would write a number of self-replicating programs, called "organisms," that would inhabit the memory of a computer. Then, at a given signal, each player's organisms did their best to kill the other player's -- generally by devouring their instructions. The winner was the player whose programs were the most abundant when time was called. At that point, the players erased the killer programs from the computer's memory, and that was that.

These clandestine battles, which took place late at night when computer usage was low, were quietly sanctioned by Bell Labs' bemused managers, many of whom were senior scientists. The fun soon spread to other leading computer- research facilities, including Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center and the artificial-intelligence lab at M.I.T.

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