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Inside Risks: Computers: Boon or Bane?

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Predicting the long-term effects of computers is both difficult and easy: we won't get it right, but we won't see ourselves proven wrong. Rather than try, we present some alternatives allowing readers to make their own predictions.

  • Computers play an increasing role in enabling and mediating communication between people. They have great potential for improving communication, but there is a real risk they will simply overload us, keeping us from really communicating. We already receive far more information than we can process. A lot of it is noise. Will computers help us to communicate or will they interfere?
  • Computers play an ever increasing role in our efforts to educate our young. Computers can help with certain kinds of learning, but it takes time to learn the arcane set of conventions that govern their use. Even worse, many children become so immersed in the cartoon world created by computers that they accept it as real, losing interest in other things. Will computers really improve our education, or will children be consumed by them?
  • Computers play an ever increasing role in our war-fighting. Most modern weapons systems depend on computers. Computers also play a central role in military planning and exercises. Perhaps computers will eventually do the fighting and protect human beings. We might even hope that wars would be fought with simulators, not weapons. On the other hand, computers in weapon systems might simply make us more efficient at killing each other and impoverishing ourselves. Will computers result in more slaughter or a safer world?
  • Information processing can help to create and preserve a healthy environment. Computers can help to reduce the energy and resources we expend on such things as transportation and manufacturing. However, they also use energy and their production and disposal create pollution. They seem to inspire increased consumption, creating what some ancient Chinese philosophers called "artificial desires." Will computers eventually improve our environment or make it less healthy?
  • By providing us with computational power and good information, computers have the potential to help us think more effectively. On the other hand, bad information can mislead us, irrelevant information can distract us, and intellectual crutches can cripple our reasoning ability. We may find it easier to surf the Web than to think. Will computers ultimately enhance or reduce our ability to make good decisions?
  • Throughout history, we have tried to eliminate artificial and unneeded distinctions among people. We have begun to learn that we all have much in commonmen and women, black and white, Russians and Americans, Serbs and Croats. Computers have the power to make borders irrelevant, hide surface differences, and help us to overcome long-standing prejudices. However, they also encourage the creation of isolated, antisocial, groups that may, for example, spread hatred over networks. Will computers ultimately improve our understanding of other people or lead to more misunderstanding and hatred?
  • Computers can help us grow more food, build more houses, invent better medicines, and satisfy other basic human needs. They can also distract us from our real needs and make us hunger for more computers and more technology, which we then produce at the expense of more essential commodities. Will computers ultimately enrich us or leave us poorer?
  • Computers can be used in potentially dangerous systems to make them safer. They can monitor motorists, nuclear plants, and aircraft. They can control medical devices and machinery. Because they don't fatigue and are usually vigilant, they can make our world safer. On the other hand, the software that controls these systems is notoriously untrustworthy. Bugs are not the exception; they are the norm. Will computers ultimately make us safer or increase our level of risk?
  • Most of us are so busy advancing and applying technology that we don't look either back or forward. We should look back to recognize what we have learned about computer-related risks. We must look forward to anticipate the future effects of our efforts, including unanticipated combinations of apparently harmless phenomena. Evidence over the past decade of "Inside Risks" and other sources suggests that we are not responding adequately to that challenge. Humans have repeatedly demonstrated our predilection for short-term optimization without regard for long-term costs. We must strive to make sure we maximize the benefits and minimize the harm. Among other things, we must build stronger and more robust computer systems while remaining acutely aware of the risks associated with their use.

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David L. Parnas is the director of the Software Engineering Program, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Peter G. Neumann moderates the ACM Risks Forum.

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0300  $5.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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