Interview with Mark Ludwig
Reading the following text from the article published in Crypt Newsletter No 22, I got curious. Yes, I have heard the name Mark Ludwig earlier, but it always had some negative connotation. This article was somewhat different...
[ IN THE READING ROOM: "COMPUTER VIRUSES, ARTIFICIAL LIFE AND EVOLUTION" BLASTS EVOLUTIONARY SCIENCE WITH THEORETICAL PHYSICAL METHODS
Just after Christmas, on December 27th, Addison-Wesley France was served with a temporary legal notice prohibiting the distribution of its recently published French language edition of Mark Ludwig's "Little Black Book of Computer Viruses, Volume 1." Entitled "Naissance d'un Virus" or "Birth of a Virus," the French edition was selling for about $50 cash money. The company is also distributing a disk containing copies of Ludwig's TIMID, INTRUDER, KILROY and STEALTH viruses separately for a few dollars more.
However, before the ink was dry on the paper a French judge dismissed the complaint, said Ludwig between laughs during a recent interview. Addison -Wesley France, he said, subsequently worked the fuss into good publicity, enhancing demand for "Naissance d'un Virus."
Almost simultaneously, Ludwig has published through his American Eagle corporation, its follow-up: "Computer Viruses, Artificial Life and Evolution," which will come as a great surprise to anyone expecting "The Little Black Book of Computer Viruses, Part II."
For those absent for the history, "The Little Black Book of Computer Viruses," upon publication, was almost uniformly denounced - by the orthodox computer press - as the work of someone who must surely be a dangerous sociopath.
Most magazines refused to review or mention it, under the working assumption that to even speak about viruses for an extended length - without selling anti-virus software - only hastens the digital disintegration of the world. Ludwig found himself engaged in a continued battle for advertising for his book, losing contracts without notice while the same publications continued to stuff their pages with spreads for cosmological volumes of pornography. This has always been a curious, but consistent, hypocrisy.... ]
...Later in the same text there were few words about the author...
[...Not surprisingly, the controversy has kept sales of "The Little Black Book" brisk since its initial printing and financed the expansion of American Eagle.
Which brings us, finally, to "Computer Viruses, Artificial Life and Evolution," a book which takes a hard scientific look at life and the theory of evolution, and only incidentally contains working viruses.
To grapple with the underlying philosophy behind "CVAL&E," its helpful to know Ludwig was a physics major at Caltech in Pasadena, CA, at a time when Nobel-laureate theoretical physicists Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann were in residence. The ruthlessness with which these scientists dealt with softer disciplines not up to the task of thorough theoretical analysis coupled with the academic meat-grinder that is Caltech's reputation, casts its shadow on "CVAL&E."
Ludwig writes in the introduction:
". . . Once I was a scientist of scientists. Born in the age of Sputnik, and raised in the home of a chemist, I was enthralled with science as a child. If I wasn't dissolving pennies in acid, I was winding an electromagnet, or playing with a power transistor, or . . . freezing ants with liquid propane. When I went to MIT for college I finally got my chance to totally immerse myself in my first love. I did rather well at it too, finishing my undergraduate work in two years and going on to study elementary particle physics under Nobel laureates at Caltech. Yet by the time I got my doctorate the spell was forever broken . . . I saw less and less of the noble scientist and more and more of the self-satisfied expert."...]
...Well, at this point I decided to contact Mark Ludwig and ask him some questions. Here is he, answering exclusively for "Alive":
Why did you get interested in computer viruses?
I thought they were interesting as genetic, self-reproducing entities, and I just wanted to learn something about them, as a scientist. What little I could find out about artificial life seemed very much skewed toward the evolutionary point of view, which is in my mind more philosophy than good science. Since computers are universal simulating machines, I think one thing AL [Artificial Life] researchers can get into is a sort of programmatic story telling which has little to do with reality. I mean, of course you can design something to evolve (Lamarkian or Darwinian) just because you have an universal simulating machine. But does that have anything to do with real life?
I saw viruses as a real-life phenomenon, rather than a laboratory construct. Perhaps they are the only "life-form" apart from earth's carbon-based life we will ever meet. Laboratory AL experiments tend to be contrived because the researcher's intelligence inevitably enters in. Viruses, as a phenomenon, are somewhat different. They're in the wild. What do they do there? Do they evolve? Can they evolve? The whole question just seemed fascinating to me.
When did you start to deal with computer viruses and could you describe shortly your work?
About 1988 or 1989. Given the above interest, the natural thing to do seemed to be to get some viruses and learn about them. That proved to be a real challenge though. Technical knowledge of this field was very hush-hush then. I ended up solving the problem by setting up a BBS and announcing that I'd send people $20 if they'd send me a virus. So I got a few that way. But I realized it was going to be hard to discuss my scientific interests with anyone if no one understood the technology behind viruses. Furthermore, I did not believe that this silence was best for mankind in the long run. I mean, here is this brand new technology -computers & information science- and a brand new phenomenon -viruses- and all anybody wanted to do was to make it go away. As a scientist, I was much more inclined to explore the possibilities. Yet I knew I couldn't possibly do that alone if we're really going to find out what uses these things might have, or what understanding they might actually contribute to other scientific disciplines. Science doesn't work like that now-a-days. The knowledge has to be more generally available before anyone could even begin to think along these lines. So I set out to make that knowledge accessible.
Why did you write "The Birth of a Virus" ?
"The Birth of a Virus" is the French edition of "The Little Black Book of Computer Viruses." I plainly wrote it so that the average programmer could learn the basics of how a virus operates. That was published in 1991. It is not intended to be a compendium of all the tricks virus programmers use, or anything like that. It is an introduction. The viruses discussed in the book (4 of them) are pretty basic, but they get some of the basic techniques across, and illuminate the issues which a virus must face to reproduce.
Why did you write "Computer Viruses, Artificial Life and Evolution"?
CVALE is a first stab at discussing my original interest in viruses. It discusses questions like "Are viruses alive?" and digs into viral evolution, comparing viruses to real-world organisms, etc. It's about more than just viruses, though. It's about the whole Artificial Life movement, as well as science and philosophy. Really, I think what I've seen in 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're 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. The one thing you have to be careful of is the universal nature of the computer. What you don't want is to create some kind of science that will always confirm itself. Looking at viruses can teach us how to impose some of the checks and balances that science needs to be valid.
Do you think that your work is unethical or illegal?
Illegal? Some people tell me that it is in some parts of the world. Certainly it is not illegal in the US.
Unethical? That is a more difficult question. I don't think so, but I'm open to correction. I mean, I realize that by publishing viruses, somebody could use that information to hurt somebody else. It's not my intention to empower would-be criminals. At the same time, I think a lot of people can get hurt because people who should have the technical expertise to deal with malicious viruses don't have it and have a hard time getting it. The idea that you can combat a human intelligence with a piece of software is ludicrous. Anybody who just installs an anti-virus and sits back on his laurels is asking for trouble. At least some virus writers are intelligent people. And the only way to combat a human intelligence is with human intelligence. In other words, you start with first hand knowledge of what viruses are and how they work. Given that first hand knowledge, you can reasonably choose anti-virus software to protect your systems, etc., but you don't just pick the program based on some advertisement, or some review that purports to be unbiased, albeit written by an a-v developer or by some peon at an advertiser-driven magazine. Thus, I see my work as being potentially very beneficial in that it brings education and light where darkness has been.
The only way I can see to answer the ethics question is to weigh the merits and dismerits of what I'm doing. I've always taken the attitude that I'll do this on a tentative basis, but if it proves out that people are taking my stuff and wreaking havoc with it, I'd be the first one to condemn it. Now, 3 years after the release of The Little Black Book, I think I can say safely that people are not, for the most part, running out to destroy the world with it. They are behaving responsibly.
We do not make it illegal to manufacture hammers or knives because people do, occasionally, kill other people with those implements. We do not call the knife manufacturer immoral or unethical. Killing someone or not with them is the responsibility of the user, not the manufacturer.
I fail to see why viruses should be treated differently. The a-v community argues that there is no such thing as a good virus, ergo there is no benefit side to the equation, as in the case of a hammer. Even if they were right on that point, though, it would not be logical to conclude, therefore, that making information about viruses available is therefore also bad. Someone who learns about viruses -who gets the first hand knowledge about them- is going to be a whole lot better at facing a malicious virus running amok in a network than somebody who simply sits back and lets somebody else, e.g. an anti-virus company, do his job for him. The second person will in all likelihood need expert help to get rid of the virus. The first will be the expert to begin with. Thus it seems reasonable to suggest that even if all viruses were only evil (which I do not believe), it could still be very good to make the knowledge of them available, because in so doing you are teaching people how they work and giving them the expertise to fight them better. As far as I can see, the benefits do outweigh the dangers here.
I think when considering the ethics of all of this, we have to realize that the a-v community is trying to partake of a new ethic which, if carried to its logical conclusions, will have a chilling effect on all innovation and all human initiative. You see this new ethic throughout society. It damns anything which could potentially be harmful before you even know whether it will be beneficial or not. I don't care whether you're talking about a-v or environmentalism or about the latest drive to socialize medicine in the US, this mindset is behind it. The bottom line is an attempt to create a risk-free socialist world controlled by a technical elite. Now, you can't stop hammers with this approach, but you can sure stifle anything new, because you can magnify the risks, and diminish the benefits, and people don't have an intuitive feel for it.
The truth is that people who reason this way are trying to make gods out of themselves. They are not content to let their opinions be opinions. Rather they try to elevate them into moral truism. A lot of people in the west still have a love-affair with socialism, so they buy into this risk-free attitude without questioning it much. We shouldn't be deceived by such propaganda though.
What problems did you have in presentation of your work?
Well, nobody wanted to print it. But it was not that big of a deal since I already owned a publishing company which published other books for university classes. I just had to decide whether we should get into this line or not. I've had enough experiences in other fields of science to know that if you want to do anything new you're going to meet resistance. I haven't run into any problems I didn't expect from the start.
Why people are willing to reject the concept of beneficial viruses or artificial life in general?
Most people don't reject the idea of a beneficial virus if you discuss it with them intelligently. Rather, they become open to it rather quickly. 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. Once you get past that, it's not a problem.
Now, obviously, I won't say the same of the anti-virus community. Here you have a case of group-think where everyone just echoes everyone else's opinion. It's kind of like an extreme political party. Breaking ranks will get you ostracized. They are the ones who've been trying to brainwash people, and they want to keep it up because they are pushing an agenda that puts them in the driver's seat. They know full well that to make any concession in their position is to open the floodgates. How will you ever pass legislation against the free dissemination of virus-related information once you admit that some of it might be beneficial? You won't. So they'll fight the idea of a beneficial virus to their dying breath.
Artificial Life is a different matter, though. I think a lot of people reject the concept in its strong form for religious or philosophical reasons. Furthermore I think those reasons are completely valid. I mean, IF you accept the idea that life is nothing more than atoms and physics, it makes sense to define life functionally and then design something functionally equivalent and call it life. However that IF is a big if. There are plenty of reasons not to do that, both philosophical and purely scientific. Most of the people doing AL work just leap right in like good positivists and sweep the deeper questions under the rug. If AL is ever to garner widespread support, those who study it are going to have to be more sensitive to the philosophical issues. I tried to do that in my book, though I haven't gotten a whole lot of feedback as to how well I succeeded.
Are there persons in virus/anti-virus field that you respect and why?
Technically there are quite a few people I respect. Writing viruses and anti-viruses is kind of like a programmer's version of a grand master's chess game. You need both a good deal of skill and a sense of the art of it to play on either side.
Intellectually, I don't have very much respect for many of the people who've made a name for themselves in a-v work. Many of them aren't thinking for themselves anymore. They've made up their minds and they won't hear new ideas. They're like politicians who are so committed to a movement that they don't dare change, and they stagnate intellectually as a result.
There are a whole lot of people a step below the big names, though, who are just good people trying to keep the computers in their companies clean and what not. They aren't pushing an agenda - they're just trying to get their job done. They're open minded and they will listen to new ideas. I respect these people a lot, and it's my sincere desire to help them get their job done. By making technical information about viruses available, I'd like to believe that I'm doing that.