The Computer. Threat to Society? An Interview with Senator John V. Tunney Senator John V. Tunney of California has long taken a major interest in the protection of individual rights and has continually proposed legislation to meet these goals. He is currently Chairman of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and also the Subcommittee on Science and Technology. Senator Tunney recently took time from his busy schedule to respond to some questions posed by Creative Computing. CREATIVE COMPUTING. On one hand the computer is a powerful tool for extending man’s intellect. On the other, it is a monstrous dehumanizing force. Which will prevail? Why? TUNNEY. Obviously, the computer has an enormous ability to make our lives more rational and convenient. ln industry after industry, the arrival of the computer has facilitated the provision of services on a scale that was beyond imagination only a few years ago. Yet many Americans are concerned, quite rightly in my opinion, that the technological imperatives that flow from the rapid spread of large computers and telecommunications networks will gradually overwhelm traditional democratic values, leading ultimately to the loss of individual autonomy and the concentration of extraordinary power in anonymous and unresponsive bureaucracies. Congress seems to be aware of these dangers, which are so reminiscent of the nightmare visions of Kafka and Orwell. If the current level of Congressional concern remains constant, then the American people stand a good chance of gaining control over the powerful technologies of computer science. CREATIVE COMPUTING. Large data banks of credit rating information are one of the most visible "computer threats" to individual privacy. Yet these data banks have probably prevented millions of dollars of fraud and stopped thousands of people from going into debt beyond their ability to pay. ls this a worthwhile use of computers or does the possibility of misuse outweigh the benefits? TUNNEY. Few will complain about the inclusion of objective "ledger" information about a person's financial history in a computer databank. However, any attempts to computerize subjective opinions about an individual's personal habits raise substantial doubts. The computer's phenomenal speed, availability, efficiency, convenience, low cost and long-distance capabilities all combine to pose serious questions about our present ability to protect innocent citizens from the devastating and lasting consequences of inaccurate or malicious information. CREATIVE COMPUTING. Most computer errors are actually human errors in programming the computer. These are commonly referred to as "bugs". It is a rare program that doesn't have some bugs even after years of successful operation (the routine with the bug may be very infrequently used or a small error in a complex set of calculations may not be recognized). Most pathology departments in large hospitals use computers for analysis and diagnosis today. Would you feel comfortably in such a hospital suspecting you had recently picked up an unusual disease from the Far East? TUNNEY. I would feel comfortable in such circumstances if I could be assured that the computer would serve only in an assisting role and not become a substitute for the doctor's professional judgment. CREATIVE COMPUTING. In one sense a computer is a tool just like a hammer or lathe. But a very powerful tool that can replace low-skill jobs. Do you think computers will create as many jobs as they eliminate? Will the new jobs require specialized training? If so, will people who have lost their job to a computer be able to get such training? Will they be willing? TUNNEY. I think it is logical to conclude that in the long run the computer industry will create as many jobs as it displaces. However, it seems equally logical to assume that particular individuals who lose their jobs because of automation will not necessarily be able to find another in a computer-related industry. Obviously, some kind of re-training is advisable. CREATIVE COMPUTING. From small-sample public opinion surveys, computers have been programmed to predict the outcome of entire elections. Do you feel that such predictions unduly influence the actual voter later on? TUNNEY. No, I do not believe that early predictions necessarily affect the outcome of elections. CREATIVE COMPUTING. By making projections from early-reporting precincts, computers predict on TV the outcome of elections long before all the ballots are cast on the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii. Do you think voters in these areas are unfairly influenced by these predictions? TUNNEY. In Presidential elections I do not believe that computerized projections should be announced until all polls have closed. In 1964 and 1972, for example, I believe that voters in the West, after hearing projections of Presidential landslides lost interest and didn't vote. This absenteeism especially affects statewide and local races and issues. CREATIVE COMPUTING. High School students have repeatedly cracked the passwords and access codes of timesharing computer systems thereby demonstrating that the most secure computer systems are not at all secure. How do you feel about the fact that research on some of our most advanced military systems is done on the ARPA computer network to which thousands of college students also have access? (Educational users supposedly do not have access to research accounts but - ) TUNNEY. I have been assured by Defense Department officials in hearings before my Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights and my Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Technology that ARPANET is not used for classified work. If that testimony is incorrect, then I am greatly concerned. CREATIVE COMPUTING. We have no information that classified work per se is being done on the ARPANET; the point we were trying to make is that there is no such thing as an absolutely foolproof, secure computer system. One last question - do you feel that the functions and applications of computers are beyond the understanding of the average individual? TUNNEY. Any reasonably informed person can understand computer functions and applications if they are explained in plain English. Unfortunately, computer specialists are like all professionals and tend to cloud their explanations with opaque jargon. CREATIVE COMPUTING. One of our goals is to cut through this jargon and to bring facts and information about computers to students and, indeed, to people in all walks of life. TUNNEY. Thank you for devoting so much time and consideration to these matters and thank you also for the opportunity to contribute to Creative Computing. CREATIVE COMPUTING. Thank you Senator Tunney.