For the week of January 6, 1999   thru January 12, 1999  

Coming attractions

The Millennium Bug

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS


It could be the title of a new horror movie starring Sigourney Weaver. The story of an evil little micro-organism as it roars through the world population in retribution for 2000 years of mankind's sins.

It is, in fact, nothing more than a glitch buried in millions of computer programs throughout the world. Depending on whom you talk to, it will bring everything from Armageddon to a few minor inconveniences.

Computer people refer to it as the Y2K bug, which itself perfectly illustrates the cute little acronyms programmers use in their work (Y=year, 2=2, and K stands for thousand, i.e. year two thousand).

In the ‘60s when main-frame programming was just beginning, computers were big, clumsy affairs. Data storage and random access memory were expensive. Computer programmers had to be concise, if not elegant, in their work. So they often used shortcuts, one of which was to shorten year dates from four digits to two (i.e. 1999 becomes 99).

It seems trivial, but when everything has to be converted to what is called machine language, a binary system, the space savings become evident (1999 is represented by 11111001111, whereas 99 is 1100011-- you save four digits every time you write the date).

The rub is that next year computers and chips programmed in this fashion won't be able to distinguish between the years 2000 and 1900 (00 vs. 00).

And when that happens, chaos ensues. How much chaos no one really knows. But to get a feel for the size of the problem, just imagine how many credit cards will be rejected simply because the computer thinks that cards expiring in 2000 already expired in 1900.

It is ironic that this great, complex society we have developed could be hobbled by something as simple as a programming shortcut.

Computers can only be as good as their programmers. People are often under the misconception that computers can magically operate beyond the limits of human intelligence. Computers sort, calculate, simulate, and project faster and more accurately than we do, but that's about it.

Deep Blue, the computer that beat Gary Kasparov in chess, wasn't more intelligent than him, rather the team of human software engineers that designed the program were, collectively, more intelligent.

Anyone who has ever written a software program knows that one of the biggest challenges in the endeavor is anticipating every potential scenario. If one doesn't address every case, the program crashes.

The Y2K date change was not addressed in the ‘60s. The oversight will end up costing the world an estimated $1.5 trillion.

One lesson to be learned here is that there will always be unforeseen situations. It is inescapable. At the very foundation of quantum mechanics, which is itself the bedrock of our understanding of physical reality, is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Roughly, it states that the position and momentum of a particle can never be known exactly. And this tiny uncertainty at the particle level propagates and multiplies itself through all of physical reality. Consequently, we still do not and probably never will live in a deterministic universe.

It follows logically that humans, and by extension computers, will never escape a certain degree of fallibility.

What I find the most alarming about the Y2K glitch is that it illustrates the degree to which our lives have become inextricably dependent upon and woven into not just computers but computer systems. Just about every sector of life, business, government, banking, energy production, the justice system, health care, social welfare, has been computerized. That in itself is not an issue. But that these independent sectors of life are now linked to one another by computer is disturbing.

The immediate danger is that systems are so vulnerable to failure. A failure in one element is a failure in all. Problems ripple through systems.

At present, big businesses are putting a great deal of pressure on their buyers and suppliers to fix their own Y2K problems. The reason being that when one computer crashes it takes down each one it talks to. Likewise, the more developed countries are pressuring the less developed countries to get moving on their computer problems.

The global economy we have constructed is, again, only as strong as its weakest link. The recent Asian economic crisis and its ripple effect illustrates the way in which the world has indeed become smaller and more interdependent.

The day that computers from all sectors of our lives are allowed to share all their data is the day individual privacy is obliterated. Do we want all of the information of our lives to be retrievable from one disk? That is, should there be connections among our financial, health, driving, criminal, political, and educational records? Connecting the dots allows someone to see the big picture of your life. Who should be that someone? The guy processing your taxes? A cop who pulls you over for speeding? Some insurance guy in Hartford?

One final curiosity of the Y2K problem. The reason it is taking so long to solve and is costing so much is that the programs embedded in everything we own have outlasted most of the people who created them. Relatively few people still know COBAL, the programming language of choice in the ‘60s.

This little twist of fate underscores the fact that what we do as individuals does matter. Our works will always outlive us, if only for a little while. Everything we do, small or big, has some effect on others who live later in time. It is worth remembering that it is the individual and independent decisions of billions of people that, in the aggregate, move the world forward or backward.

 

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