It sounds like a movie plot: a computer virus comes alive and threatens all life on Earth. However, the reality is a little different when you check on the biological attributes of life. Let us explore and answer: Is a computer virus alive?
A computer virus’s attributes can loosely fit within the scientific definition of life. Like biological viruses, it is unclear if computer viruses can be considered alive. Renowned scientists like Stephen Hawking grapple with this classification without a definitive, yes-or-no answer.
Using a student’s biology textbook, let us compare the seven characteristics of life and see how closely a computer virus fits within the established criteria. We will also explore the possibility of infecting a human with a computer virus.
7-Point Comparison: Biological Virus vs Computer Virus
In biological studies, seven primary determinants define life. Using this Cambridge University Press excerpt, let us compare a computer virus to our current understanding of what defines something as living.
Living things take in materials from their surroundings that they use for growth or to provide energy. Nutrition is the process by which organisms obtain energy and raw materials from nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
Biological viruses take over the machinery of their host cells using the cellular constituents or components. They are not capable of ingesting exogenous materials for use within their processes.
The biological virus is an apt parallel to computer viruses, which also depend upon infecting host operating systems for resources. Alone on a disconnected removable media like a USB drive, a computer virus is just dormant code.
However, there is a divergence:
In a biological system, an infectious virus injects its DNA or programming into a host cell to alter what the cell does.
Computer viruses take in data from their environment or host computer. For example, computer viruses take in the files or emails on the host computer. This information nutrition is vital for the virus to perform subsequent tasks.
The virus may then choose to release the results or outputs of its work on the nutritional inputs.
Respiration is the release of energy from food substances in all living cells. Living things break down food within their cells to release energy for carrying out the following processes.
Computer viruses process email messages or digital files, releasing the value from the stored data on an infected computer.
The virus may
- replace files with encrypted versions (ransomware)
- transmit data to the virus’s maker (exfiltration)
- send emails to a user’s contacts for replication (worm or botnet)
Computer viruses have different objectives. For example, a class of viruses called cryptojackers uses background processing power to earn the virus maker cryptocurrency. This type of virus does not consume files as nutrition but rather processing time as its input.
There are waste byproducts excreted from this respiration or digital processing.
All living things excrete. As a result of the many chemical reactions occurring in cells, they have to get rid of waste products which might poison the cells. Excretion is defined as the removal of toxic materials, the waste products of metabolism and substances in excess from the body of an organism.
Biological viruses do not produce waste of their own from within their body.
Despite receiving nutritional inputs and producing desired outputs, computer viruses do not produce waste byproducts after processing.
An infected computer does excrete more waste than a computer without a virus. Symptoms like slower processing, degraded internet performance, and increased electrical use can be interpreted as wastes but are not directly sourced from within a computer virus.
A few early computer viruses would also consume an increasing amount of space on a computer’s internal storage. The objective was to make the system unusable by growing.
Growth is seen in all living things. It involves using food to produce new cells. The permanent increase in cell number and size is called growth.
Depleting a host computer’s storage capacity might be considered the growth of the computer virus’s footprint, a waste byproduct of processing, or even a primary objective categorizing it as respiration output.
Some computer viruses can evolve and/or mutate themselves. They contain metamorphic code allowing the virus to reprogram itself to be more resistant to detecting or changing their function. This evolution or growth is similar to some biological viruses that mutate as they infect cellular organisms.
Both biological and computer viruses do not grow in size only in numbers. They both have a goal to spread to other hosts.
All living organisms have the ability to produce offspring.
While biological viruses replicate themselves in numbers within host cells, computer viruses usually maintain only one copy on host operating systems.
A computer virus has a secondary objective, usually spread to other host systems.
Computer viruses used to be spread person-to-person through software sharing. Viruses today utilize a host’s email program or internet connection to transmit a copy of itself to remote systems.
This reproduction cycle or replication tactic also allows the virus some movement around the internet.
All living things move. It is very obvious that a leopard moves but what about the thorn tree it sits in? Plants move in various different ways. The movement may be so slow that it is very difficult to see.
In addition to moving around the internet, a virus moves within a computer. It usually migrates away from a loading point to a location elsewhere on primary storage.
The virus code may initially come from a removable media device like a USB drive, downloaded from a website or received via an email attachment, but shifts to other portions of the host system.
The virus may also need to avoid detection by antivirus software. It may need to move location frequently on the primary storage. Often a virus may hide in places inaccessible to anti-malware software as a means of staying active.
All living things are able to sense and respond to stimuli around them such as light, temperature, water, gravity and chemical substances.
A computer virus might have a rudimentary level of sensitivity to the host environment. Most computers have at least some security software to detect, quarantine, and remove computer viruses and malware.
A cleverly programmed computer virus would need to account for attempts to remove or disable it.
Can a Computer Virus Infect a Human?
A computer virus cannot infect a human. Computer viruses are technological and do not directly interface with biological systems. Computer malware might be capable of disrupting embedded technology within the human body, impact mental health, or attack medical technology used to treat humans.
Humans have become adept at repairing our bodies using technological solutions.
Established devices like hearing aids, heart pacemakers, and glucose injection devices may be susceptible to a computer virus.
Most of these devices are industry hardened or do not possess the necessary computational power needed for a virus to mount an attack. Nevertheless, these devices may be impacted if they contact an external computer system that alters their designed operation.
Warning: The body-hacking movement needs to take heed. This group of enthusiasts applies…
the hacker ethic to improve their own bodies with do it yourself cybernetic devices or introducing biochemicals into the body to enhance or change their bodies’ functionality.Wikipedia
External technological systems that we use daily to (hopefully) improve our mental health may also be susceptible to computer viruses.
Wellness services like fitness trackers or meditation apps influence our mental well being. Social media apps affect our mental health. If these systems are unguarded from computer viruses, their real-world impact on our psychological state may manifest.
Medical Care Technology
In September 2020, The New York Times reported what prosecutors acknowledge as the first fatality attributed to a cyber attack.
Technological systems that we use internally and externally of the human body are at an increased risk of being infected by computer viruses or malware. The hacker’s threat surface expands as we repair and augment our biology with medical technology.
I think computer viruses should count as life … I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.”Stephen Hawking, Macworld Expo, Boston, 1994
The debate continues amongst evolutionary biologists about the classification of biological viruses as a form of life. Likewise, computer viruses are not easily categorized as artificial life though many of their traits can be interpreted in a biological analogy.
The Science Elf YouTube channel produced this excellent video (6m23s@2x) about the history of computer viruses starting after the early 1949 work of John von Neumann.