The Best of Creative Computing Volume 1 (published 1976)

Page 67 << PREVIOUS >> NEXT Jump to page:
Go to contents Go to thumbnails

The Computer Threat to Society

graphic of page

one or more bugs even after years of successful operation.

The bug may be in a subroutine that is used only
infrequently or it may be in a very complex set of
calculations where it is difficult to recognize an error. (You
may say, but isn't the program tested and debugged when it
is written? ln theory, yes. But where there are millions of
possible paths through a program it generally is checked by
another computerprogram - and what if there is an error
in that one?)

What are the consequences of such errors? In a word,
scary! They're unpredictable, potentially very damaging,
and, even after they occur, may not be correctly identified
or even recognized. Not only that, but they could well
cause physical harm as well as the more common
inconvenience and financial loss. For example, the
computerized control system on BART failed to take into
account the possibility of a certain type of malfunction in a
sensor. Result - a very damaging crash.

What about the computer diagnostic systems used in
virtually every large pathology laboratory? Let's say you
return from Zaire feeling poorly. You go into a large
hospital and the doctor orders blood tests, etc. The  
computer then diagnoses your illness - incorrectly. You're 
then treated for the wrong disease and you die four days later.

Not a very pleasant consequence of a computer bug.  
Not only that, who would ever suspect the computer    
program? So the error goes on for years unchecked.

Other Problems     

The problems mentioned above are only a few of the  
many threats to society facilitated by the computer. We      }
also have possible threats to national security when   
compromised timesharing systems are used for advanced  
defense or weapons research. We have the invasion of 
privacy which goes hand in hand with larger and more   
comprehensive data banks (criminal, medical, credit,
consumer opinion). We have pranks and practical jokes such
as the McDonald's contest in Southern California and the
student who insured the life of his goldfish. We also have
the threat of becoming excessively dependent on the
computer to do things that we used to do via experiment.

Thus an engineer or scientist today may be deprived of the
practical and valuable learning experience which results
from an experiment which fails.

Are these undesirable problems the fault of the
computer? Emphatically, NO. They occur more easily
because the computer exists. The impersonal, mechanical
computer is a convenient scapegoat to blame when the real
problem may lie with the input data, the system's design, or
the execution of the program. We must recognize that as
the computer extends our intellect it also extends our
capability and speed of making errors, of committing crime,
of forcing change, of invading privacy, and of causing
inconvenience. We must also recognize that along with the
computer's tremendous power to facilitate beneficial
advances for society is an equal power to cause problems.

David H. Ahl

[image] IT IS WISE TO 

Page 67 << PREVIOUS >> NEXT Jump to page:
Go to contents Go to thumbnails