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Course: Online Cyber Security and Safety

Lesson 1-1 - The Theory of Automata

In 1948, John von Neumann, a American-Hungarian mathematician, gave a lecture titled: The theory of automata. The lecture compared, to a point, neuroscience with computer science, that of self-healing computers and machines that could reproduce themselves.

Before we look any further at his lecture, you have to remember what computers were like when he gave his lecture. Colossus – the first ever digital computer computer range used by the British to crack the Lorenz cipher during the second world war – was built only 5 years earlier. Computers of this age were digital, but the transistor had not yet been invented and valves, their predecessors, were the size of your hand.

CISRAC Mainframe - 1949









A single computer was the size of a room. 

What is of interest to us is his discussing the idea of self reproducing automata.

Self reproducing what?
Remember, it’s 1948. What Neumann was talking about, in the context of computing today, might have been computer programs that can replicate themselves in the same way as biological cells can reproduce themselves…

…and I’ve got news for you. They can! We call them worms. These are programs that, once run for the first time, will continue to run, making clones of themselves and spreading to other computers and other networks. And if the intent of the program is malicious, which is most likely, then it (they?) can wreak havoc across the world.

Do you remember Wannacry/Wannacrypt/Wannacryptor (or whichever name you prefer to call it)? That was a worm…

(and don’t think Wannacrypt, the effects of Wannacrypt or anything similar have passed – resigned to the history books! It hasn’t! This threat is, along with new, similar threats, still very much alive)

So, even with the electronic computer age still in its earliest years, when a single computer needed a large room, several staff to operate it and could communicate with anything or anyone outside of the room it was housed, even then, we were thinking about the possibility of computer programs cloning themselves and spreading autonomously.

I can bet Neumann had no idea how right he would be!