Computers and Society

By Marek A. Suchenek

Professor of Computer Science


    Computers are everywhere
    The era of modern computers began during World War II when opposing forces tried desperately to use computing devices to accomplish a prosaic information-theoretic task: to break the enemy's codes that guarded (we say: encrypted) sensitive military information. A few programmable digital electro-mechanical computers were designed then, and several inventors and scientists contributed to rapid progress in this new area of technology shortly thereafter, but I would like to think that it was John Neumann's idea, outlined in 1945 in his "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC" (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) [1], of a processor with an access to a memory with stored data and program that marked the conception of the modern computer.
    Since then, computers and computer-based technology experienced explosive progress and proliferated to perhaps every aspect of human life. From scientific computations and modeling to electronic commerce and banking to telecommunications to the entertainment industry to military applications to schools and ordinary households (the list here is far from being complete!), computers rooted themselves within our society to the extent that many think it is no longer possible for us to function without them. (As a matter of fact, if you know of a significant area of human enterprise that has not utilized computer technology yet, then I would like to hear from you.) They allow their users to store, process, search, and retrieve unimaginable amount of digitized information quickly (well, relatively quickly) and reliably, a critical activity that gave birth to a new discipline often referred to as information technology - a computer-centered conglomeration of science, engineering, and mathematics.
    The recent emergence and fast growth of the world-wide net of inter-connected computers, and the accessibility of the Internet that runs on them, created opportunities that were unimaginable just a decade ago, but also brought some serious problems of an ethical, legal, and political nature. Indeed, the virtually unlimited access to information distributed over the the Internet and the ease and speed with which large groups of people can share that information provided individual members of society with real power at their fingertips challenging that of the traditional media (press and TV) and the government. Just think how convenient it is to Google-up an insightful article from the Internet or e-mail a query to your professor, as opposed to tediously searching library catalogues, never mind staying ignorant instead and trying to make best guesses in the absence of relevant information. (See [2] for an example of recent tendency towards replacing traditional personal computers with Internet-based ones.)
    For some, it looked like there were no limits on what computers could do. In the mid-1950s, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell created at Carnegie Mellon University what was acclaimed as the first "thinking machine," and the era of "the sky is the limit" in use of computers in problem solving in general, and in information processing in particular, began. Their advancement, particularly in such trendy areas as artificial intelligence and information technology, has been spectacular.
    Most of us are aware of "intelligent" computers that are capable of winning chess games with world champions and proving mathematical theorems, or recognizing the face of a known terrorist on a digital photograph. Perhaps everyone is familiar with speech recognition systems that replaced many directory assistance operators, never mind a myriad of "smart" contraptions (for instance, an automatic transmission in your car may belong to that category) that are capable of learning what a particular user expects from them and then "self-program" and act accordingly. But there are also some facts that may make one skeptical about the extent to which computers and the information they store and control can benefit us, or even if they are that beneficial for humanity. Indeed, knowing the limitations on and dangers of using computers is an indispensable part of computer literacy that holders of today's college degrees should possess.
    Interestingly, a rigorous theory of computability that allows one, with mathematical precision, to figure out (at least occasionally) what a computer can do and what it cannot, was developed years before the emergence of the modern computer. In 1936, Alan Turing, invented a model of a universal computer (nicknamed the Turing machine) and discovered that his hypothetical machine was inherently incapable of solving some seemingly straightforward, if tedious, problems. For instance, he proved that there is no Turing machine that could correctly predict whether or not an arbitrary given Turing machine will fall into an endless loop on one of its inputs. And that discovery, although disappointing for many of us today, was not quite surprising.  
    Those familiar with the liar's paradox (for example: "Once I thought I was wrong, but I was a mistaken") or Goedel's sentence (that, in paraphrase, says: "Einstein could not prove this sentence without contradicting himself") will have no difficulty in recognizing a form of diagonal reasoning that Turing used in his proof (if they study Turing's proof, that is). And since Einstein could not prove the sentence mentioned above, while every Math major worth his degree can prove it in one paragraph (I urge everybody to try it, it's very entertaining), then that is quite a limitation, indeed, on what a genius can accomplish. There is no reason to believe why computers should do any better.
    Shortly after Turing's invention, Alonzo Church postulated that anything that any effective computing device can compute can also be computed by some Turing machine, albeit not necessarily in the same time and fashion, as well. This has often been referred to as Church's Thesis, and despite many decades of serious attempts, no one has been able to disprove it. As of today, it seems, all the "authorities" in the area of computability believe that Church's Thesis is true. It forms a conceptual foundation for a theory of uncomputable functions, that is, things that no computer can correctly ever compute. One of the best known examples of the uncomputable arises in a surprisingly simple, albeit mathematical, subject: the arithmetics of apples and oranges.
    We have all solved an untold number of problems like "John has 5 apples and Mary has 3 apples, etc., etc., ...". They involve, what is called, arithmetical sentences. Some of them are true, like "2 plus 2 equals 4" or "1,234,567,891 is a prime number", and some of them are false, like "5 times 7 equals 57" or "For every n, n is less than 17 or n is greater than 17". It would be nice to have a computer (or a calculator) which could accept any meaningful arithmetical sentence (like, say, "Every even number greater than 2 is a sum of two primes") and, after hesitating for a finite amount of time, tell its user whether the sentence in question was true or false. (Certainly, having a contraption like this in an arithmetic class would help many of us improve our grade point averages, to the delight of our parents.)
    Unfortunately, as Kurt Goedel proved around 1931, no computer can ever accomplish this (assuming - of course - that Church's thesis is true), no matter how fast we make it, how much of a super fast memory we allocate to it, and how ingenious a program in the best possible programming language we equip it with. Not now, not 100 years from now, not even in a trillion years, never. And this is one of many firm, if somewhat theoretic limitations on what computers can do.
    Add to the above, all the errors (sometimes referred to as bugs) that computers and the programs that control them have gained notoriety for. One famous computer scientist (I think it was Edsgar Dijkstra) put it this way: "A human being can make a computational error once every ten seconds; a computer can make a hundred thousand errors per second." Indeed, the omnipresence of bugs in computer software, paired with an intrinsic inability to effectively decide which programs are bug-free and which are not (deciding programs' correctness is another example of a task that computers cannot do), should make us really cautious about our growing dependency on computers, and take the results of their actions with a grain of salt.

    One of the most notable examples of skepticism of this kind that led to a heated controversy between scientists is a question of whether predictions of future catastrophic climate changes over a period of, say, several decades, based on computer models of Earth's climate and computer simulations that use such models, are accurate. Yes, I am talking about the global warming theory whose predictions based on computer simulations are meaningful only if one trusts that the software used in these simulations is error-free and that the measurement error and the bias of the sample data used by that software does not invalidate the results; a belief that - according to the limitations I just motioned above - may be all but impossible to prove beyond a doubt (with mathematical precision, that is).

    Possible dangers
    But there are even grimmer aspects to the proliferation of computers are than their limitations and fallibility. With all their benefits for a civilized society, computers may harm humans, too. We hear almost every day about hackers who steal and destroy information that has been stored in computers of others. Illegal drug dealers would not be able to circumvent the efforts of law enforcement agencies if they didn't learn how to use computer-based technology (remember, a typical cellphone has a computer inside that is more powerful than "professional" computers of half century ago) to synchronize their illegal activities and track the activities of the DEA. Identity theft is becoming one of the largest plagues of American society that is committed through the use of computers. Add to this the frightening and dangerous aspect of computer use, such as the massive governmental surveillance (of questionable constitutionality) of ordinary citizens that would not be practical if it weren't for computers with terabytes of memory and effective programs for search and retrieval of information from such gargantuan memories, and you see the gloomy picture I am painting here.
    The Internet and the information technology that it proliferates transformed our society into an information society where knowledge is power. But it also shook the very foundations of the traditional ethical, legal, and political systems that we and our ancestors used to take for granted. It has created an illusion of a borderless global society within which individuals all over the world can communicate and collaborate with each other as if they were living in the same neighborhood. But the fact that the Internet transcends physical boundaries of nation-states, cultural regions, and zones of political influence, has not nullified these boundaries, nor has it alleviated problems and conflicts that come with the reality of a politically and culturally partitioned world.
    For instance, what in the United States may be considered a simple exercise of a person's Internet free speech right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution may become a criminal offense in the People's Republic of China where the laws are generally more restrictive than here in America, and governmental censorship of the Internet is commonplace. This is not just an abstract or imaginary problem, as some users of the Internet have learned the hard way (see [3]).
    Not even the Golden Rule, the venerable "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", is a universally safe approach to interacting via the Internet with other people anymore, as what is desirable or fun to you may be hateful to a person of a different culture, religion, or nationality. Just think of how much resentment you might stir if you joined a blog in, say, Saudi Arabia, and began introducing its users there to the blessings of equal rights for women.
    Computer harm
    I can't help mentioning one specific aspect of the harmful use of computers. It is plagiarism and intellectual property theft. With the Internet readily available to almost anyone who can point and click, unauthorized and unacknowledged copying of someone else's intellectual property has became a huge problem these days. As harmless as it might seem, it is unethical behavior, in the least serious cases, or a criminal act, or even a felony with penalties that can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines or years of imprisonment (or both) in the most serious cases1. And it's not just the criminality of unauthorized or unacknowledged copying that makes it wrong, for if it were so, we would just legalize unauthorized and unacknowledged copying and the problem would have been taken care of (which clearly is not the case).
    In my CSC 301 Computers and Society class, I use this example of actual harm done to innocent people by those who infringe on someone else's copyright. Imagine yourself, a student at CSUDH, working nights in your rented garage on a software program that would predict major earthquakes with, say, 90 percent accuracy, based on past and current readings of a system of seismographs. In addition to committing some of your resources to studying (tuition, textbooks, etc.), you have to support yourself, your wife, and two kids. But you couldn't study, work on your software project after hours, and keep a regular job. So you take the risk, say "goodbye" to your employer, and borrow money, instead, hoping that the proceeds of future sales of your program would allow you to pay off your debts and provide a comfortable life for you and your family.
    Well, you have succeeded, at least partially. You managed to design and implement a reliable earthquake prediction software program. The problem is that a jerk has managed to hack into your computer, copied your program, and posted it on the Internet. Now, no one wants to pay you anything for the fruits of your laborious works, and you are stuck with a debt of hundred grand. And when you see the sadness in your wife's eyes and watch your young children for whom you cannot provide the needed necessities, you fill as though someone has ripped you off big time. And you are 100 percent correct.
    It is amazing how many otherwise law abiding individuals, who would never steal someone else's wallet or a book, not even a pencil, have hardly any problem with plagiarism or intellectual property theft. It's not that these individuals are evil or immoral. In many cases, they just cannot imagine the potential or real harm that their unauthorized copying may cause for another. "We are not taking away anything from anybody," they think. Well, it isn't quite so. This is why we, college faculty members, must do a better job of sensitizing our student to the potentially devastating effects of this seemingly harmless activity.
    A gift of fire, indeed
    The author of the textbook [4] that I use in my Computers and Society class, Sara Baase, compares the invention of the computer to a gift of fire. This comparison has a lot of merit. Computers today, like fire hundreds and thousands of years ago, allow a civilization to achieve astonishing technological progress without which its very survival would be doubtful. As with fire, though, there are some serious limitations on what one can accomplish with computers and what one cannot. Computers, like fire, can only be utilized well by those who have learned how and when to use them (think of a combustion engine as an "educated" application of fire). And finally, computers, like fire, can inflict irreparable harm to humans and property.
    So we have our gift of fire (figuratively speaking), and it's up to us if, and how much, will we benefit from it, or if we will harm ourselves and others, instead.


    All those prospective students interested in learning more about this fascinating subject and related issues, for instance, about how to use computers and computer and information technology for the betterment of the society as well as for enhancement of their own careers, or, perhaps, how to contribute to the body of knowledge and progress in computer and information technology and its applications, may wish to visit the Department of Computer Science website. We currently offer two Bachelor degree programs and one Master's degree program, so there are plenty of interesting classes to chose from.  

    I hope to see you around there.  

January 26, 2009


    I would like to thank Dr. Vanessa Wenzel and Dr. George Jennings for reading and correcting a draft of this paper, and Donna Cruz for an invitation to write it.

Footnote 1 Plagiarism, or unacknowledged copying, is a violation of CSUDH academic honesty policy, and can result in a disciplinary action against the perpetrator that may lead to expulsion from class or even university. [back]


[1] John von Neumann's 1945
First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC

[2] Google plans to make PCs history
[3] Yahoo 'gave the Chinese evidence to help jail dissident'

[4] Sara Baase:  A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computers and the Internet, (3rd ed.), Prentice Hall, 2008