by Lindsey Vereen|
A Bug's Life
have in common?
They both depict
fear of technology, a theme that abounds in literature
because it plays on the widespread belief that machines could get out of
hand and do us all in.
The latest iteration of this anxiety has settled
on embedded systems, thanks to the millennium crisis. The
quoted year 2000 watchdogs Rep. Stephen Horn (R-CA) and Rep.
Tom Davis (R-VA) as saying that the millennium crisis would affect chips
“buried in VCRs, microwaves, fax machines, and other devices that
programmed to recognize the year 2000.” Suspicion has
since spread to global positioning systems, telephone networks, elevators,
traffic signals, and a host of other embedded systems.
Ten months ago in
this space I asked for those of you who have encountered year 2000 (Y2K)
problems in embedded systems you’re developing to let me know. In all
of the e-mails I received, no one cited a verifiable problem.
the seriousness of the Y2K problem is hindered by several barriers to its
credibility. The first is that the Y2K problem plays on the fear of
technology. People will leap at the chance to perceive a problem whether
it’s real or not.
Second, the examples offered by Y2K
“experts” are usually hypothetical and often ludicrous. Rep. Horn
notwithstanding, I suspect my microwave oven will continue to reheat my
coffee after the millennium.
Third, it’s difficult to prove a
negative (try proving you’re not a witch). Just because there has
never been a verified sighting
of a flying saucer doesn’t prove that
one won’t be hovering over your house tonight.
Fourth, many of the
people who have raised concerns about the millennium crisis have a vested
interest in it. For example, The
Easterbrook as saying that the millennium could affect infusion systems and
shut down, the implication being that patients would die. Easterbrook is
the operations director of Millennium, a company established to deal with
(read: profit from) Y2K
Fifth, the mainstream press has had
difficulty understanding and accurately presenting assessments of
technologists whom they have interviewed. I know this from having been
egregiously misquoted on this topic more than once. A reasoned position on
the Year 2000 issue doesn’t lend itself to sound bites.
And last is
the thorny issue of Y2K compliance. Is it a problem if a product has not
been certified to be Y2K compliant? Sometimes companies feel compelled to
go through compliance certification
even when compliance is patently
unnecessary. I suspect that fear of litigation, rather than millennium
bugs, has led companies to respond so vigorously to the compliance
The most credible assessment of the millennium crisis I’ve
heard came from Michael Dertouzos, Director of the MIT Laboratory for
Computer Science. He said on
that the Y2K problem (in its
entirety — not just for embedded systems) would be serious but not
nearly the catastrophe that some people predict.
Because technology does
hold its share of dangers (5,900 people are seriously injured each year in
escalator accidents), it’s wise to assess this issue thoughtfully
without being swayed by doomsayers and falling prey to panic.