Could PC viruses infect humans?

Originally published in PC Plus, November 2005

Of all the threats facing humans, viruses are the most dangerous. The prospect of Avian Flu jumping species is truly terrifying, but if that doesn’t get us there’s always MRSA and other “superbugs”. Worse still, developments in computer science could lead to new forms of virus infection: not from biological viruses, but from computer viruses.

Today’s computer viruses can only affect us by damaging our data, but as bytes and biology come together the prospect of hybrid machines – computers that integrate with the human body – grows nearer. The potential is incredible, but so is the potential for disaster.

Transhumanists believe that in the not-too distant future we’ll upload our consciousnesses to giant neural networks and live forever; cynics believe that the Transhumanists will last about ten minutes before a passing virus powers them off permanently. It’ll be several decades before we’ll discover which group’s right, but while the risk of computer viruses infecting humans is currently zero, new frontiers in computer science are creating the potential for all kinds of unpleasantness.

PC viruses haven’t been able to cross over to humans for one very simple reason: we’re not made of the same stuff as our silicon servants. However, as the lines between man and machine blur, the potential for viruses to do real damage to humans increases.

There are two key vectors for virus infection: Human Computer Interfaces and bio-molecular computers. The field of interfaces is a wide one, ranging from replacement parts (hearts, muscles, eyes and so on) to new ways of communicating; some pundits believe that within our lifetimes, we’ll go online by sticking a jack plug into the back of our necks.

Sticking computers into people only becomes a problem once those computers are networked, especially if they’re networked to the Internet. If you can locate something you can attack it, and while the prospect of implants causing Dr Strangelove-style tics is an amusing one, if the implanted device is there for live-saving reasons then any infection or hacking attempt could be catastrophic. In the case of the much-mooted jack plug in the back of your neck, a virus could drive you daft.

The risk of hacked implants is already here: Reading professor Kevin Warwick concealed the IP address of his arm implant during recent experiments where he controlled a robot arm on the other side of the world. The professor was concerned that if people could find the IP address of his implant, they’d try to hack it. Warwick is a big fan of networking humans and computers together, but warns: “We’re looking at software viruses and biological viruses becoming one and the same. The security problems (will) be much, much greater.”

He might be right, particularly as scientists turn to organic rather than silicon computers – machines that one day could live inside our bodies. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s based on science fact: after all, computers are simply arrays of switches, and as the human brain shows, you can end up with very complex computational devices made from little more than meat.

In 2003, Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science unveiled a biological computing device. It didn’t look like a PC – it was a litre of salt solution – but it contained three trillion DNA computers, which taken together could perform 66 billion operations per second. As Udi Shapiro of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science told CNN, “the ultimate application would be a ‘doctor in a cell,’ where a bio-molecular computer operates in the body.”

Bio-molecular computers are specifically designed to interface with living material – our cells, our nerve endings and so on – and their potential is stunning; as Shapiro explained to CNN, such machines could identify problems in our bodies and synthesise the appropriate drugs to solve the problem. If on the other hand they became compromised, we’d be in deep trouble.

The good news is that such machines are decades away, and even when they do arrive it’ll take more than a socially awkward teenager with a virus writing kit to infect them. Compromising the micro-machines would take a massive amount of scientific expertise, equipment and money, which would be beyond the reach of anyone bar governments and well-funded terrorist groups. It’s ironic: for years, we’ve spoken of terrorists as “the enemy within”; thanks to computing science, that’s exactly what they may become.

So are we safe in the short term? Possibly not. While viruses that can infect humans are a long way off, viruses that can *affect* humans aren’t hard to imagine – or to engineer. As we automate everything from medicine to motorways the potential damage from a rogue virus increases. For example, the government’s very interested in a satellite system that could automatically adjust the speed of every car on the road. Imagine the chaos – and carnage – if someone got a virus into that.