Infections, virus and hacking! Oh my!

It’s interesting how medical terminology has been applied to the digital realm; after all, computers are just machines, right? Machines don’t get sick and that’s what we’ve always loved about them and why they’ve effectively replaced human beings as a labor force. Tractors don’t get backaches, mechanized corn-pickers and shuckers don’t suffer from arthritis, robotic welders don’t get burned, and significantly, machines don’t complain, ask for raises or form unions. So if all this is true, why do we talk about computer infections, viruses and hacking?

Well, technically speaking, today’s computers are not machines. Machines are devices with moving parts which replace and/or enhance physical motion. As extensions of the human body machines appropriately scale-up physical speed and increase productivity by using precise repetitive motions. This is not to say machines don’t suffer problems; they break-down, need lubricants, coolants, energy sources and can be very expensive. But what’s also true is that they don’t get sick.

Recent computers, such as an iPad, contain no moving parts. Sure, they have intricate circuits, micro-processors and batteries but none of these or any of the components in an iPad move or require lubrication. An iPad (and all such devices, such as smart phones) is a complex solid-state piece of electronics, in some sense a mildly “intelligent” stone-like chunk of minerals, plastics and chemical components. Early computers, of course, had moving parts like tape-reels and mechanical switches and were very machine-like, but all that has changed. So, if modern computing devices are not machines, what are they?

Computer pioneer John Von Neumann proposed creating “cellular automata” devices modeled on human brains; accordingly, one possible descriptive analog is “neural simulators,” admittedly a rather unromantic-sounding term. The term computer, on the other hand, harkens back to the early reckoning of numbers, a hallmark of ancient civilization. It’s tedious to account for all that modern civilization has bestowed upon us and computing devices replaced legions of desk-bound clerks armed with pencils, adding machines and wearing little green eyeshades. Yet an iPad represents far more than the ability to efficiently crunch numbers; such devices have become a gateway to limitless virtual memory and in this sense enhance not our hands or feet, but brains.

Linked together, the world’s devices, databases, routers, optical fibers and wireless transmissions have become a globalized neural network of non-machines, complex to be sure and dependent upon electricity, but still an evolving simulation and extension of the human brain. Hollywood science fiction has explored the possibilities and pitfalls of this situation of course, and hefty box-office receipts indicate we find such speculation quite entertaining. But that topic is for another column.

Just as our brains have no mechanical moving parts and are organic solid-state organs of perception and memory which can get “sick” so too our global neural network is subject to digital infection, hence the medical terminology. When we create a parallel between our organic brains and our artificial neural network this analogy can be extended to the infection of greed. Greed infects both human minds and our brain-enhancing non-organic global neural network, producing near light-speed means of exploitation and predation. It fuels activity from petty crime to terrorism and raises the pressing question of the hour: is there a digital doctor in the house?

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