Culture

Scorpion's origin: The real-world story behind CBS's new drama

While stories inspired by reality always take some liberties with the truth, the new prime-time drama "Scorpion" has its roots in a real person: genius hacker Walter O'Brien. We visited the set of the show to speak with him and get the inside story on the show's creation.

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When I was 13, I thought I was pretty hot stuff because knew BASIC programming, self-taught on the family's Commodore 64. One of my crowning accomplishments was writing a silly little program that showed a crudely-drawn Space Shuttle lifting off in a cloud of pixelated smoke.

When computer security expert Walter O'Brien was 13, he found his way into NASA's servers on the ARPANET (the DARPA-funded predecessor to the internet). Once in, he downloaded the CAD files for the real Space Shuttle Columbia. He printed them, hung them on his wall...and later was met at home by a fleet of black cars driven by very serious individuals from the US government who all wanted to know how he'd managed to compromise a supposedly secure system.

UPDATE: It has been brought to our attention that questions have been raised about the accuracy of some of O'Brien's claims regarding his work and personal history. We have reached out to O'Brien directly for clarification.

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The cast of "Scorpion" in the pilot episode. Monty Brinton/CBS

Bypassing barriers and finding novel solutions to problems, then, came early to O'Brien, who would go on to be known by the handle Scorpion across the Internet's various highways, byways, and seedy chatrooms. That handle would later be applied to his computer security firm, Scorpion Computer Services, and is now being repurposed again for a new prime-time drama from CBS. (Complete with some cutsey mock-XML markup in the logo.)

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CBS

"Scorpion" the show follows the exploits of a fictional Walter O'Brien as he and a rag-tag group of experts help to save the world again and again. Along the way there'll be lots of on-screen computer hacking, but Walter promises the show will avoid Hollywood stylizations: "Flying down a tunnel of 1s and 0s is not how hacking is really done. The staff here has been really good about staying away from the cartoony version." Yes, you'll see plenty of terminals and scripts in action, though the execution may be a bit quicker than what you'd expect in real life.

For O'Brien, though, it's less about the specifics of the means of the hacks and more about the creative process that precedes them: "The thinking in the show, the hacker thinking of how do you approach every problem, I think they're hacking life more than they're hacking systems."

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The real Walter O'Brien, on-stage at Comic-Con CBS

It's that hacker mentality that, over the last 25 years, has helped Scorpion Computer Systems thrive in situations ranging from preventing fraud for Las Vegas casinos to running military simulations in Afghanistan.

One of the biggest tools at Scorpion's disposal is called ScenGen, a scenario generator that, when programmed with enough variables and relationships to model a given situation, can quickly iterate through thousands of possible scenarios. It doesn't predict the future, rather laying out a matrix of potential futures that military or corporate leaders can study to ensure all bases are covered. Sometimes literally.

"Humans," says O'Brien, "have a 3 percent human error, and a lot of companies can't afford to be wrong 3 percent of the time anymore, so we close that 3 percent gap with some of the technologies. The AI we've developed doesn't make mistakes."

While he isn't able to talk about many of those scenarios run over the decades, O'Brien does tease that a choice few of them will eventually filter into the show itself. "We have a 25-year head start for the stories of 'Scorpion.' By the time we get to season two and three, the stuff that happened because of season one will actually fuel season three. So it'll become a self-sustainable show. Until the final episode, when Scorpion gets his own show."

That's meta, Walter. Very meta.