Saturday, October 27, 2007

Cory Doctorow's "0wnz0red": Software to tone up your body!!

My first impression on reading this novelette was - "insane"! Even if it were made technologically feasible, no way I am going to trust software running on my Windows notebook for anything life critical.

It has been about 2 weeks since I read it, & it no longer appears as crazy - who knows if far off in future, it won't be possible.

The unspellable title is meant as programmer-speak. When troubleshooting or (less often) trying to understand, a program, programmers often edit, midway through the program run, some aspect of program's state via a piece of software called "debugger". Many of these changes involve numbers - e.g., a code that means "enable a certain feature of command X". Programmers that learned their art before GUIs became popular often prefer hex numbers, an arcane looking representation of ordinary numbers that is a bridge between human way of thinking about numbers, & that of computers.

While I don't recognize the specific character sequence used in title, & it's not a hex number, the spirit appears to be the same. Forcibly edit some aspect of system state through means not available in normal user interface. It also reads like "zeroed" - which often means "set the system's state to default" or "to forget the current state".

The story involves software running on ordinary PCs that can edit the state of your brain, e.g., to make the body burn fat!!

There is a separate thread early in the story explaining technicalities of IT industry's efforts to build a "foolproof" copy-prevention system to appease Hollywood.

Full text of this story is available for download.

Story summary.

Two friends - Liam & Murray Swain. They both work as programmers for Global Semiconductor, Mountain View, CA, USA. They have also worked on military contracts in the past for the same firm.

Liam is very sick - in a vegetable state at some hospital. Murray goes into depression, loses touch, begins losing interest in job, ... Everyone at office comes to believe Liam is dead.

One fine day, Murray finds Liam near his car at office parking lot. Alive & very healthy! How did the miracle happen?

Looks like military have found a way of directly interfacing the human brainstem to a PC, & taking over the vital bodily functions performed there via software running on external PC!!! "we give you a bug. It's a controlled mutagen that prepares your brainstem so that it can emit and receive weak electromagnetic fields that can be manipulated with an external microcontroller... There's no surgery involved. The interface regulates immunoresponse in the region ... to prevent rejection. The controller has a serial connector that connects to a PC that instructs it in respect of the governance of most bodily functions."

Actually, there is at least one scene where the subject requires medical treatment of the region where the interface gear contacts body surface; but let's ignore the process of its implant - surgical vs simply worn as headphones.

Anyway, the effect is - for almost any injury, you no loner need surgery; just tell the body to heal itself! Ditto for pretty much anything - ask dying heart to regrow the tissue, regrow the tooth ready for root canal, tone up the muscles, burn body fat, ...! Never mind what happens when software or hardware misbehaves. In fact, no subject has survives the equipment to-date. Military apparently wants to built super-soldiers.

Liam, on his deathbed, is offered the treatment. He accepts, & sees a fellow patient die. Figures out a way of getting into the software, tinkers with it, & ends up healing himself in double quick time - without any help from hospital staff!

He steals the software source code, & hardware that connect his head to computer's data port. That is when he goes to meet his friend - a criminal on the run.

Liam has quietly infected his friend Murray with a a viral strain - in anticipation of tone up the the friend, but without his permission!

He finds refuge in friend's home. There is some fight when Murray discovers his infection. But obvious & quick improvements to body render all arguments futile.

They both hack the software, fix bugs here & there, make additional interfacing hardware from easily available components by hacking the old one - so both friends have their separate head gear.

The plan is get out of the country & startup a company for this business. Who will not want to become a superman? Software, including source code, will be put on the internet for free - so military cannot put the genie back in the bottle. They will be making the head gear, probably bundled with their build of software.

Only they get caught by authorities before escape. Liam breaks down, & will work for military. Murray refuses, & is eventually released. In the end, we see him stealthily moving out of country to do the startup.

Fact sheet.

"0wnz0red", short story, review
First published:, 28 August 2002.
Rating: Time well spent A
Nominated for Nebula Award 2003 in novelette category.