The Y2K Problem Challenges All of Us

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On January 1, 2000, many computer software programs and embedded microchips, programmed to identify the year by its last two digits, will think it is 1900, causing date-driven computations to fail and computer-reliant systems to malfunction or shut down. In fact, current systems that perform post-2000 forecasting on transactions have already begun to experience failures. If these "year 2000" or "Y2K" problems are not remedied, the disruptions that result could range from delays in airplane flights to interruptions of phone services to business bankruptcies to power failures, to global recession and civil unrest.

A few short months ago, I did not understand that this seemingly trivial computer programming glitch could have such devastating social and economic consequences. Like so many other people, I assumed that the problem could be fixed easily by technological experts and that it had limited relevance to my work. Y2K wasn't my problem.

It is a major understatement to say that I was wrong. Y2K is my problem and yours. Without our fully realizing it, computer systems have become integral to almost every aspect of our lives, whether or not we use computers ourselves. Computer programs and microchips in our country and throughout the world are increasingly part of interconnected systems, so that if one fails, the effects may rapidly cascade and multiply.

Computer scientists and engineers offer no silver bullet for solving the Y2K problem. In fact, they are the first to admit that we have neither sufficient time nor enough personnel to identify, assess, repair, replace, or "work around" the billions of lines of defective code and date-sensitive microchips prior to January 1, 2000. In October 1998, expert testimony by the Gartner Group (to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem) and oversight findings by the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information & Technology have lent credence to this view. As the House report states, "It is now clear that a large number of Federal computer systems simply will not be prepared for January 1, 2000. At the same time, the utilities industry, the financial services industry, the telecommunications industry, vital modes of transportation, and other indispensable industrial sectors are all at risk."

Offshore oil rigs, for example, won't be able to pump oil if they experience the failure of a critical microchip, one of thousands embedded throughout such facilities, including equipment far below the surface of the ocean. Supertankers, refineries, pipelines, and railroads won't be able to produce and transport oil-based products if they aren't Y2K compliant. Power plants (without even considering their own Y2K problems) can't function without petroleum or coal. And your car won't run without gasoline. Of course, if your local gas station does get a delivery, you still have to get the gasoline out of the underground tanks into your car. If the electric power goes down, the pumps won't work. If telecommunications fail, the pumps won't recognize your credit card. But you get the point. We have created a world in which every system is six software programs or microchips removed from every other system.

The United States is ahead of almost every other country in the world in dealing with the Y2K problem, in part through the efforts of my good friend John Koskinen and the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, which Koskinen chairs. But even the federal government and private corporations, which are in the vanguard, are doing triage by focusing only on their own "mission critical" problems. As the report cards handed out by Congressman Horn's subcommittee have made clear, there is a great disparity in how well different government agencies are doing. The Social Security Administration, for example, started fixing its code in 1991 and has a good chance of being Y2K compliant by the millennium. But Medicare has virtually no chance of being ready. The elderly who rely on Medicare will face the year 2000 not knowing when they will receive their next check. Similar delays can be expected in income-support payments.

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