Date: 07 Sep 85 1329 PDT
From: John McCarthy <JMC@SU-AI.ARPA>
Subject: The risks of not using some technology
The problem with a forum on the risks of technology is that
while the risks of not using some technology, e.g. computers, are
real, it takes imagination to think of them. A further problem
with newspaper, magazine and TV discussion of technology is that
journalists and free-lance writers tend to run in intellectual
mobs. This biases the discussion for everyone, especially when
the same journalists read each others writings and call it public
opinion. Here are some illustrations.
1. Suppose some organization manages to delay interconnecting
police data systems on some specious civil liberty grounds.
Suppose some wanted murderer is stopped for a traffic offense
but not arrested, because he is wanted in a jurisdiction not
connected to the computer system used by the police officer.
He later kills several more people. The non-use of computers
will not be considered as a cause, and no-one will sue the
police for not interconnecting the computers - nor will anyone
sue the ACLU. The connection will not even be mentioned in
the news stories.
2. No relative of someone killed on U.S. 101 during the 10 years
the Sierra Club delayed making it a freeway sued the Sierra Club.
3. No non-smoker who dies of lung cancer in an area newly polluted by
wood smoke will sue the makers of "Split wood not atoms" bumper
Based on past experience, I expect this question to be ignored, but here's
one for the risk-of-computers collectors. Is a risk-of-computers
organization that successfully sues to delay a use of computers either
MORALLY or LEGALLY LIABLE if the delay causes someone's death? Is there
any moral or legal requirement that such an organization prove that they
have formally investigated whether their lawsuit will result in killing
people? As the above examples indicate, the present legal situation
and the present publicity situation are entirely unsymmetric.
Here's another issue of the social responsibility of computer
professionals that has been ignored every time I have raised it.
The harm caused by tape-to-tape batch processing as opposed to on-line
From the earliest days of commercial computing people have complained
about seemingly uncorrectable errors in their bills. The writers
don't know enough to connect this with the use of tape-to-tape
batch processing. Under such a system when a customer complains,
the person who takes the complaint fills out a form. A key puncher
punches the form on a card. At the next file-update, this card
goes to tape, and a tape-to-tape operation makes the correction.
If there is any error in the form or in the key punching, the
correction is rejected, and the customer gets the wrong bill again.
On-line systems permit the person who takes the complaint to make
the correction immediately. Any errors in making the correction
show up immediately, and the person can keep trying until he gets
it right or ask for help from a supervisor. Not only is the customer
better off, but the complaint-taker has a less frustrating job.
My own experience with the difference occurred in 1979 when my
wallet was stolen, and I had to tell American Express and Visa.
American Express had an on-line system, and the person who took
the call was even able to give me a new card number on the spot.
The Visa complaint-taker had to look it up on a micro-fiche file
and call back, and still they got it wrong. They gave me a new
account number without cancelling the old one.
Perhaps this issue is moot now, but I suspect there are still
many tape-to-tape systems or systems using modern equipment that
still emulate the old systems. Shouldn't computer professionals
who pretend to social responsibility take an interest in an
area where their knowledge might actually be relevant?
Once upon a time, beginning perhaps in the middle nineteenth
century, scientific organizations were active in pressuring
government and business to use new technology capable of
reducing risk and promoting the general welfare. I have in
mind the campaigns for safe water supplies and proper sewage
disposal. Here's a new one that involves computer technology.
Theft can be reduced by introducing the notion of registered
property. When you buy a television, say, you have the option
of buying a registered model, and the fact that it is registered
is stamped on it. Whenever someone buys a piece of used registered
property he has the obligation of telephoning the registry to
check whether the property with that serial number has been reported
stolen and recording his ownership. Repairmen are also obliged
to telephone either by voice or by keyboard.
Unfortunately, too many computer people imagine their social
responsibility to consist solely of imagining risks.