Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Artifact April #21: SYNTHESYS.ARC [systemless]

The SYNTHESYS program is found on a series of twenty 5.25" double-density floppy disks with 360 KB storage capacity each.  Each one is marked with a piece of masking tape, and written in Sharpie, labeled "SYNTHESYS #" followed by a number between one and twenty.  None of the disks are missing.

Nobody has enough records to determine the origin of SYNTHESYS, but all evidence suggests that the program would have been created sometime in the mid-1980s, most likely as artificial intelligence experiments regarding expert systems.  The storage medium suggests an old IBM PC.  However, nobody has been able to determine a specific creator, whether that might be an academic institution, a company, or an individual.

When SYNTHESYS #1 is inserted into a floppy disk drive connected to a computer (a difficult proposition these days, although certainly not impossible), and if someone runs SYNTHESYS.ARC, the program will attempt to install on the computer's hard disk (or possibly the RAM if it's one of the older computers without internal storage).  It will prompt the operator to insert the disks in sequence, until all twenty have been installed.

Installing this program irretrievably crashes the hard disk; any time the computer attempts to boot, it will attempt to run SYNTHESYS and crash again.  (If the program is forced to install itself into RAM to execute, it will be deleted when the computer is shut down, just like anything else.)  Unfortunately, the data on the computer is now irretrievable: any attempt to connect the hard drive to another computer and read it will activate the SYNTHESYS program, which will install on the new system and crash it.

Strangely, attempts to load the pieces of SYNTHESYS without installing or inflating them seems to have the same effect — if all twenty SYNTHESYS.ARC files are found on the same system, the first somehow forces the computer to decompress them and crash in the process.

Programmers who have had the opportunity to look at pieces of the program, or have tried to run it in some sort of controlled, virtual environment, have noted that it appears to unpack an extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence program, which crashes any computer onto which it is installed because it is simply too big for the computer to handle.  Nobody knows how the program operates given a rough storage capacity of 7 MB — especially given that it appears to expand to fit the storage capacity of any computer onto which it is placed — but there it is.

SYNTHESYS typically also crashes computers too quickly to upload to any networks — the partitioning of network architecture is enough that the program crashes the first computer before spreading anywhere else.  (It's entirely possible that people have uploaded pieces of the program to their home systems or to cloud storage, but if the whole program ever exists on a single system somewhere, it runs and crashes that system.)

For now, it's just a curiosity, and an excellent sabotage tool if you can get into direct contact with the system you want to render unreadable.  (You'll also need to connect a 5.25" floppy drive to the system you want to sabotage, although that's doable.)  Of course, that's just because nobody has ever tried to load SYNTHESYS.ARC on any of the arrays with more than 1 PB of storage space — if somebody takes it over to one of the big data installations like Google or Facebook, or IBM Almaden's 120 PB storage array, or Cray's Blue Waters Supercomputer whenever that one's done, then the program will have enough space to finally run...

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