OneMachine Doppelganger

Kevin Kelly has long discussed the OneMachine: the essentially unified, single distributed computer built up from all our networked PCs, PDAs, cell phones, digital cameras and other personal electronics (see e.g. “Tap Into the 12-Million-Teraflop Handheld Megacomputer,” Wired, vol. 16, no. 7, June 2008; “Dimensions of the One Machine,” The Technium, 2 November 2007; “One Huge Computer,” Wired, vol. 6, no. 8, August 1998).

Last week The New York Times ran an article on how below the surface, and running on the very same computers as the productive, life-enhancing OneMachine is a nefarious parallel network, OneMachine’s dark doppelganger, the BotNet (Markoff, John, “A Robot Network Seeks to Enlist Your Computer,” 20 October 2008, p. B1):

Botnets remain an Internet scourge. Active zombie networks created by a growing criminal underground peaked last month at more than half a million computers, according to, an organization that tracks botnets. Even though security experts have diminished the botnets to about 300,000 computers, that is still twice the number detected a year ago.

The actual numbers may be far larger; Microsoft investigators, who say they are tracking about 1,000 botnets at any given time, say the largest network still controls several million PCs.

“The mean time to infection is less than five minutes,” said Richie Lai, who is part of Microsoft’s Internet Safety Enforcement Team, a group of about 20 researchers and investigators. The team is tackling a menace that in the last five years has grown from a computer hacker pastime to a dark business that is threatening the commercial viability of the Internet.

I have already written about how when the singularity occurs, it may not be what we expect. My suspicion is that either it will be overtly evil, or merely a recreation of the chaos of biological nature in a more durable, powerful and virulent form (“A Few Heretical Thoughts on the Singularity,” 19 August 2008).

What do phenomena like the BotNet suggest about the singularity? What comes will grow out of what is and what is will bequeath its characteristics to what comes — at least initially. Between the various military establishments and the criminal underground, we are instilling our machines with hostile, aggressive tendencies. But we are also making numerous, competitive systems. Will there be “the singularity” or will it, like in the novels of Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross, come in secretive, uncertain fits and starts? Will there be multiple singularities? Will one system cross the threshold, followed by another, then another. It makes sense to speak of “the singularity” when one is imagining a unified system, but when one is considering a multitude of contending systems, crossing the threshold of the singularity is but one move in a strategic game. Perhaps the machines will be hostile to predecessor biological life, but perhaps they will be so consumed in competition with their fellow AIs as to be merely indifferent to us, as we are to, say, pigeons or squirrels.

And how goes the strategic competition between OneMachine and BotNet? We ought to know. What portion of computational capacity, bandwidth, energy consumption, hours of their masters’ time are the two consuming? Qualitatively, how are they matching capabilities? Kevin Kelly has managed to make some calculations for the former, but what of the latter? Of course this would subject to the usual problems of surveillance of those who do not want to be surveyed.

Organizations like McAffee, Norton and the International Botnet Taskforce are attempting to build something akin to an immune system for the Internet, but the billion-year persistence of the arms race between host immune systems and the various infectious agents suggests that dampening catastrophe is probably the best outcome we can hope for. It’s an example of co-evolution where competition between host and agent drives the development of one another. Viruses don’t kill their host by design, they merely seek to hijack their reproductive machinery to their own purposes. Killing the host, or at least killing them too quickly, or the epiphenomenon of killing too many of them too quickly, are all suboptimum in that they result in diminished opportunity for continued infection and reproduction. Ebola gets it wrong. HIV gets it really right. But virus behavior as a whole is not intelligent. Occasionally a virus goes super virulent or hits a particularly vulnerable population and massive outbreak occurs that wrecks havoc for host and infectious agent alike. I presume that BotNets will continue to act something like this.

And since one third of known biological species are parasites and the proportion seems to be growing, it would seem that there is something fundamental about the strategy of parasitism. We should anticipate its continuance, both in genetic and electronic space.