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For the past 50 or so years, 2000 has loomed ahead as the ubiquitous deadline, of sorts, for everything technological. This deadline wasn't so much set by scientists and engineers of that day and age, mind you. It became more a part of our collective consciousness--a natural milestone that was within our grasp, yet so much on the horizon, there was plenty of time to accomplish whatever it was we hoped to do. With the year 2000 being only a few months away, where do we stand on our readiness to cope with its possible impact?

Y2K Problems

Welcome to the Year-2000 problems. No, it probably will not be the 'end of the world,' but there are reasons to have concerns. For example, will your alarm clock go off, and your TV turn on? Will the bank still be open, as well as the roads? Will telephones ring? Will checkout lines flow? Will airplanes fly? Will your car doors unlock, and your engine turn over? Will you still have investments, accounts, and a job? If we are attacked by a foreign nation, can our forces response? Yes, we have big problems...the Y2K problems or the Century-Date-Change problems.

Y2K is not a single, simple software problem. It is a host of problems triggered by computers unable to cope with the year ending in "00" or "99", dates out of range, and leap year calculations. There are in fact several major Y2K problem classes involving: two-digit years, embedded dates, embedded logic, embedded systems, leap-year calculations, register rollovers, and millennium viruses. Embedded systems (also called microchips, controllers, firmware, etc.) are computing elements used to control or assist the operations of devices for which they are components. It should be noted that the failure in any component of a system can cause the entire system to fail.

Why is This Such a Big Deal?

Computers permeate our life, helping us to obtain schedules for classes, heat for homes, synchronization for traffic lights, money transfers for banks, automatic routing and switching for railroads, communications for police, management of city utilities.., computer chips are in blow dryers, dashboards, refrigeration units, fire truck ladders, security systems, oil tankers, and satellites. Over 25 billion microchips populate and control the way in which we live. Just think of the grave consequences if our telephone system failed.

Obviously, we could survive for a while without the social use of telephones, but many large businesses, Wall Street, railroads, and the nation's banking are highly dependent on reliable telecommunications.

Similarly, a shutdown of the telephone system means, for all practical purposes, that the Internet and the World-Wide-Web, along with the fascinating electronic mail, grinds to a halt. Every sector of the communications industry - broadcast, cable, radio, satellite, wireline and wireless telephony - could be affected by the Y2K problem. All sectors of the global economy, including financial markets, depend upon reliable telecommunications. It therefore is critical that telecommunications networks continue to be able to handle national and international financial markets.

As can be seen, the Y2K problems manifest themselves in many systems which are prevalent in industry, government, education, and other settings, including the home. Fortunately, there is no real reason to push the panic button, as a fairly aggressive plan has been implemented in most of these organizations to fix the Y2K problems. This has been done at the expense of a sizable workforce, costing billions of dollars. Tremendous pressure was placed on organizations to be Y2K compliant by a specified deadline. For example, 92 percent of the government systems met the March 31, 1999 government wide goal for Y2K compliance. Congress is now requesting government agencies to be 100 percent compliant.

International Concerns & Impact

The year 2000 problem will touch much more than our financial systems and could temporarily have adverse effects on the overall economy as well as the economies of many other nations, if not properly addressed. Canada and Mexico for example, rely on the U.S. for roughly 75 of its exports. If the U.S. economy slows down, there will be less domestic demand for Canadian goods, and this will have a negative impact on international economies. In addition to our closest trading partners, the economies of Western Europe and lap an will also be affected negatively. Meanwhile, these same countries will be dealing with their own Y2K-induced unemployment problems. Since Japan's economic and financial markets are not very strong, the Y2K could potentially push this nation into a deep depression, and severely harm its status as a global superpower. Aside from Japan, the economic situation in the rest of Asia is also quite bleak. Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Thailand have all suffered collap ses in their equity markets.

If Americas Y2K progress seems frustrating and in some cases disorganized, here is the bad news: Europe is roughly a year behind us, Asia is so preoccupied with its financial crisis that it is even further behind, and Africa and South America are sound asleep. It is anticipated that the international economics and financial markets will have some impact on the U.S. The impact of the U.S. economy on other countries is obvious, realizing that the U.S. is a big importer. If the U.S. falls into a recession because of Y2K, we will import fewer goods and services from international economies. Similarly, the U.S. also relies on the economic strength of other countries for its exports (though the U.S. has run a trade deficit for the past several years). The consensus of most American Y2K experts is that Europe will be able to complete its Y2K related computer work in time for the deadline.

In Eastern Europe, the overwhelming story is Russia, which is unequivocally in the worst of times. The Russian computer industry is in an unfortunate spot, as very few companies or government agencies have the money or the sense of urgency to focus on Y2K as their most important problem to solve. While it is impossible today to precisely forecast the impact of this event, an enormous amount of work has been done to fix Y2K problems in anticipation of the rollover, with the U.S. and Europe being in the best shape.

Y2K Problems' Impact on Jobs

Clearly, it was necessary to expand our technical work-force in businesses, government, and other organizations by 6-8 percent to address the fixes required for the Y2K problems. Accordingly, new job opportunities (especially for COBOL programmers) were made available to a large number of people. Because of the existing personnel shortage of employees with technical backgrounds, this increased personnel (about 6-8 percent of the total workforce) will most likely be retained by their respective companies. Of course, it may happen that the fallout from the Y2K problems could cause some temporary disruptions in several systems, thus resulting in people out of work for short time periods. If such unemployment increases and persists for long time periods, then it will depress the economy, and manufacturers will cut their production and this will cause a decrease in the nation's economic output.

Y2K Comments from Selected Leaders

Recently, President Clinton spoke before the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., alerting people to the problem and saying this is "not a challenge that is susceptible to a single government program or an easy fix. It is a complex test that requires us all to work together every government agency, every university, every hospital, every business, large and small." Bill Gates of Microsoft doesn't have the magic on the Y2K topic, as implied by this quote, "The Y2K issue is not difficult to understand from the technical point of view. It is the scope of affected systems and business processes that make the problem so challenging". Microsoft mentions the scope of the problem, and one way to convey the vastness of this issue is to recognize the several billion dollars already spent for fixing the problem.

Bruce Webster, co-chair of the Washington, D.C., Y2K Group, said "we are dealing with complexity, not just one system with humanity, not just technology; and simultaneously, not just one event. What is coming is a downpour, not a drip. There will be chain reactions with varied effects. There will be cross-product effects think multiplication instead of addition, think earthquake during a hurricane. It will not be a one time "flagpole" event, but a bell curve of effects peaking in January 2000; although problems will occur before and after that date".

Sally Helgesen, author of The Web of Inclusion says this about our society today: "The combination of increasingly dense populations living together in close proximity, linked ever more closely by powerful technologies, has pushed us all into a profound state of interdependence. We now share by default in one another's successes and failures, all of which prove more beneficial, or costly, as they affect ever greater numbers of people. The very nature of our world is high reliability." The last sentence could just as easy read "the very nature of our populous and computerized world is high trust in people."

In summary, the most optimistic predictions say there will be problems, but that they will be minor bumps in the road. The most pessimistic predictions forecast the end of the world. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Dr. Herman D. Hughes is a professor of computer science at Michigan State University. His research involves the quality of service issues related to high-speed networks.
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Author:D. Hughes, Dr. Herman
Publication:The Black Collegian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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