A new beginning

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Copyright ) 1999 The Seattle Times Company

Opinion/Editorials : Sunday, January 23, 2000

A new beginning

by Steve Woodward Newhouse news service ``Y2K ... the last headache of the 20th century, not the first crisis of the 21st.'' - President Bill Clinton State of the Union Address Jan. 19, 1999 Wrong, Mr. President.

Y2K was just a dry run for the 21st century.

By most reports, we're about to witness the evolution of a world once inconceivable to a 20th century mind: machines as reliable and minute as molecules, computers that are finally smarter than the tinkerers who gave them life, software that solves its own problems.

But until we reach the Holy Grail - that is, technology that really works - humans have to live in the here and now: computers that crash, software that quits unexpectedly, networks that stop speaking to one another.

And as the globe becomes one giant Web-based, e-commercial, Java-scripted, real-time, virtual community, we also become more vulnerable to our own - and everyone else's - technological incompetence. A boneheaded mistake somewhere becomes a boneheaded mistake everywhere.

The Y2K doomsayers were right, in a way. The year 2000 computer problem was, in fact, The End of the World As We Know It. But rather than plunging the entire planet into a Dark Ages gloom, Y2K cast an astonishing light on the world's technology. It illuminated the fragile footings upon which we have spent 50 years erecting history's first computerized civilization: PCs are lashed to mainframes. DOS is painted over with a thick coat of Windows. Networks are tethered by wires and phone jacks. Databases are duct-taped together by college dropouts writing programs in languages as distant and dead as Sumerian.

It wasn't bad work for amateurs.

But by the end of the century, the structure had grown so precarious that a simple logic problem - the inability of many computers to process "00" as 2000 instead of 1900 - threatened to topple much of what we had hammered together.

"We build our computers the way we build our cities," programmer-philosopher Ellen Ullman mused recently in Salon.com. "Over time, without a plan, on top of ruins."

Here are five lessons to ponder until the next Y2K strikes:

Lesson No. 1: Machines keep getting smarter. Humanity doesn't

Y2K wasn't a logic bomb devised by mysterious multinational corporations, shadow governments, terrorists or invaders from outer space. It was a temporary, cost-saving shortcut hatched by clever programmers. It became a $300 billion logic bomb when the human race agreed, by default, to wait until the last minute for someone else to do something about it.

The price of human folly, unfortunately, is rising. That's because the stakes are growing and margins for error are shrinking. Human experience has come to be measured in nanometers (microchip circuits) and microseconds (international bank interest payments) - quantities parsed so finely they can be comprehended only by computers. A silly human error can cascade into a $125 million fiasco, such as the September loss of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which crashed into the Red Planet when engineers failed to convert English units to metric.

But machines won't put up with human error for long. Quantum computers, soon to move from the lab into production, will use subatomic probability "clouds" to process data in quantities and at speeds that today's hard-wired microcircuitry can't touch. Such computers will learn to exercise quality control over their own operation, mopping up after mistakes and learning from experience.

"We will have the raw computing power of the human brain, about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, in a $1,000 PC by around 2019," Raymond Kurzweil, a technology visionary, said in Business Week. "By 2030, a $1,000 computer system will have the power of a thousand human brains; by 2050, a billion human brains."

Already, enough tape and disk space exists to store several thousand petabytes of information, a quantity equal to the sum total of all information and human knowledge. Every existing word, sound and picture can be uploaded and saved, computer scientist Michael Lesk writes in his 1997 study, "How Much Information Is There in the World?"

"The typical piece of information," Lesk says, "will never be looked at by a human being."

Lesson No. 2: Contingency planning is not a one-time event

Nearly three of every four Americans polled in November by Reuters agreed that the year 2000 computer problem showed we have become too dependent on technology.

Sorry, folks. Too late to reverse course.

Case in point: A few hundred thousand U.S. doctors now rely on pagers to stay within one phone call of emergencies. For one day in May 1998, almost every doctor lost pager contact when a controller failed aboard PanAmSat Corp.'s Galaxy IV communications satellite. An estimated 90 percent of North America's 45 million pagers went silent.

The one-step-backward alternative to pager dependence: Ask doctors to sit by a hard-wired phone. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

The one-step-forward alternative: Ask doctors to develop contingency plans for the next time vital technology breaks.

And break it will.

Our lives are now supported by rickety infrastructure, the billions of dollars in satellite controllers, communications software and the like that continue to pour forth from entrepreneurs' garages, without benefit of building codes or municipal inspectors. Y2K was an X-ray machine that exposed the most obvious weak welds, brittle joints and invisible cracks.

"We must build to infrastructure standards," William H. Murray says in Information Security magazine. "Infrastructure does not fall down all by itself. It does not fall under normal load. It does not even fall under easily anticipated abuse or misuse.

"This is a very different standard than the one to which we've been building information technology for the last 40 years."

Riveted into the current infrastructure, unfortunately, are the remaining vestiges of Y2K itself - deeply buried data that contain millions of dates that span the boundary between the 20th and 21st centuries.

"Because of the vast amounts of these, the complex intertwining among them and our less-than-complete understanding of the whole, it will take years for the infrastructure to `calm down' after Y2K impacts themselves and the impacts of the sometimes frantic and misguided changes we have made to it," the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers wrote in a June 1999 letter to Congress.

"The current prevention phase is only the beginning."

Lesson No. 3: It's the network, stupid

Y2K didn't care whether your computer lived in a pricey penthouse in Manhattan or a low-rent bunkhouse in the Argentine pampas. Y2K revealed that logic, data and communication pathways are the world's new geography. Highways and navigable rivers are giving way to transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP), which is the standard that allows the world's computer networks to talk to one another. Street addresses are yielding to domain names, which identify hubs on the Internet.

A few months ago, my daughter and her seventh-grade friends learned that the latest in the popular series of novels about boy wizard Harry Potter initially would be released only in the United Kingdom. So the girls simply popped over to England: They ordered the book by logging on to Amazon.com's British World Wide Web site.

They did it without a second thought - and their very casualness was striking. To my parents, the United Kingdom is an island nation separated from us by 5,000 miles of longitude and two centuries of history. To me, the U.K. is a $1,500 plane ticket and 14 hours in an economy-class seat. To my daughter, it's a ".uk" at the end of a Web domain name.

In our children's new virtual world, there will exist a single "place" - the Internet - and a single "time" - now.

Lesson No. 4: The new world is only as secure as the nearest teenage hacker

Forget the three-day winter storm analogy, which was used by government to describe the potential effects of Y2K-caused disruptions. Think instead of modern information warfare, where the "enemy" is unseen, unpredictable and disruptive, the weapons are Trojan horses and logic bombs, and the damage is corrupted data and network instabilities.

Moreover, the "enemy" often turns out to be us.

The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, is struggling with a ham-handed installation of a buggy, $100 million personnel system. The breakdown, which might cost another $100 million to repair, has left 600,000 employees and contractors waiting indefinitely for security clearances.

The kicker? Managers pulled the plug on the old system before knowing whether the new one would work. A terrorist couldn't have been more effective.

That's the nature of the post-Y2K world: Damage is the same, whether it's perpetrated by terrorists, hackers or poor quality control.

Consider a 1994 break-in at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., which investigators were convinced was the work of high-level foreign agents. Two hackers, Datastream Cowboy and Kuji, stole passwords, broke into more than 100 computers, downloaded secret military reports and infiltrated a South Korean nuclear research lab.

The reality? The hackers were a 16-year-old London schoolboy and his 18-year-old online pal, out for a joyride.

Lesson No. 5: What doesn't kill us will make us stronger

For the first time since the invention of computers, the world paused to take inventory of the systems that had grown up helter-skelter over decades. People discovered things they never knew they had, such as entire departments that produced reports no one read. They threw away what they no longer needed. They fixed what was broken. And they thought long and hard about the technology that would carry them furthest into the next century.

"So the century ends with the greatest technological housecleaning of all time," Leon A. Kappelman, co-chairman of the Society for Information Management's Year 2000 Working Group, wrote in Information Week.

The challenge will be to design systems that are both reliable and simple - and don't contain logic bombs of our own creation.

"In essence, the lessons of Y2K boil down to two words: quality and simplicity," Kappelman said. "With proper quality practices, in fact, the Y2K problem never would have happened in the first place, at least not to the degree that it did."

On the other hand, Y2K was perhaps the kick in the rump that the world needed.

"In the end, if Y2K proves to be a historical turning point between one era and the next, it won't be because of what Y2K is, but because of what it told us about the status quo and the need for change," wrote the authors of a U.S. Naval War College study, "Year 2000 International Security Dimension Project."

"In short, it's not about what Y2K destroys that will be important, but what it illuminates."

Steve Woodward is a staff writer with The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. http://archives.seattletimes.com/cgi-bin/texis/web/vortex/display?storyID=388b4fe274&query=problem+and+computer

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 24, 2000

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