Saturday, September 11, 2010

Computer Viruses and Language

I can't help but think about Scott's challenge a few classes ago to answer how it is that we consider language, and specifically naming, as being able to create something.  Naming as creation.  I don't know if I have an answer to that, but I do think there are now many clear cases of language creating something, like self-replicating, independently operating objects purely out of language, namely computer viruses and similar things like worms, Trojan horses and wabbits.  These are programs, ultimately just strings of bits, on or off commands, arranged in ways such that the language itself multiplies itself, albeit using a physical structure already provided by logic circuits.  The program is pure language, and in replicating itself it only creates more pure language, but it still functions and operates with a certain degree of autonomy, able to not only work, but move, travel, locomote, from place to place, computer to computer.  Language that not only moves physically (any book can do that) but moves itself from place to place without a human needing to wield it.  In an interesting kind of way, these objects of computer language are almost alive, if that doesn't sound too cliche.  That an  artificial, purely logical language can give birth to something so solid, real, and locatable in space and time is fascinating, and almost unexpected given the abstractness of artificial logical languages.

If you take the idea seriously, it also means that the creators of the first artificial life, the gods of new life, if you will,  are Loki-like, mischievous computer hackers who mostly just wanted to mess around and experiment, and even make jokes.  Consider - the first serious virus in the wild, as they say, was the Elk Cloner, which displayed a simple rhyme merely touting it's ability to clone itself and infect files. The earliest artificial life was literally a joke. Kind of a geeky, bad one.

Here are a few links to some interesting material on computer viruses as artificial life or not, which means in my mind, artificial life created purely from language.
Paper from Purdue University
Introduction to computer viruses
Scientist "infects" himself, via RFID chip, with a computer virus
Conficker: One of the world's largest worms.
Early discussion of "Self-Reproducing Automata"


Scott Abbott said...

This is a question I'm still thinking about, a serious question because so many traditions have stories about creation through language.

The first answer, but surely not the last, has to do with magic. Say the right magic word and you change the thing. Abracadabra is such a magic word.

But it seems that there might be more than magic to the idea of creating through language. If we think of language as the most sophisticated tool we have developed, then it's easy to think of creating things by means of language, just as we might create a house using a saw and hammer.

Libraries are full of creations made with the tool of language, but oddly enough, they are also creations that are language. So the tool replicates itself, not in the direct way your post suggests, but indirectly as the writer uses the tool to create a new version of the tool: another book.

The blueprints for a house, the one that the saw and hammer build, are full of measurements and descriptions and, fundamentally, ideas that are products of language and that are language.

Maybe it's even wrong to describe language and its products as separate. Perhaps we ought to think of language as tool and product, as creation and creator at the same time.

As for self-replicating language, your ideas and links are provocative. I love the fact that computer viruses are thought in the same context as automota -- those somehow animate although inanimate creatures so popular in the 19th century, but thought of longingly and with horror over many other centuries.

Hanum said...

this is the paper related about computer viruses