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A challenge for everyone

"The computer is incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Man is unbelievably slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. The marriage of the two is a force beyond calculation." Thus does economist Leo Cherne aptly describe one of the most powerful factors reshaping our world. A technologically driven revolution is upon us whose implications are at least as far- reaching as were those of the internal combustion engine or the telephone. Some prophets would liken its potential for social change to that of the advent of agriculture.

Computers themselves are not new. But the transforming impact they now are beginning to exert on work, on education, on how individuals gather and use information, and even on our concept of man as an intelligent being is truly revolutionary. That is why this special section focuses on the social implications of computers rather than merely dramaticizing the wonders they perform.

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As the articles explain, the implications of this new technology are both promising and sobering. The potential for helping people achieve a greater degree of individual fulfillment and productive work is enormous. Yet the certainty of a need for massive job redesign to avoid job displacement is clear, as is the potential for abuse.

There are serious issues of individual and corporate privacy to be considered. Much formerly private information now is held in data banks which clever computer operators can easily access. Likewise, such operators have new and larger opportunities for embezzlement as banking goes all-electronic.

The threat of election fraud also is enhanced. Subtle changes buried within a complex computer program that tabulates votes could switch a few votes here and there to give a candidate an extra 1 or 2 percent edge that could be crucial. Such fraud would probably not be noticed and might not even be detectable if the election were investigated.

Meanwhile, the problem of lack of standards is also severe. Programs written for one computer will not operate on another. Standards have been set for computer communications over the telephone, but there is no compatibility in other media such as magnetic diskettes. Information stored by one computer on a disk or tape cannot always be read by another.

The computer revolution is developing so fast even its prophets cannot be know exactly what is happening, let alone foretell where it is taking us. It is little wonder that standards and safeguards are being left behind. There is need for the industry, for government, and for individual citizens to face this challenge and, to the extent it is possible, to guide the course of the revolution. This section is designed to help readers think about these issues.

Meanwhile, we conclude that:

1. Since there appear to be more -- and more subtle -- opportunities for manipulating elections when balloting is managed by computer than are possible with paper ballots or voting machines, the use of computers for recording, sorting, and counting votes in elections for public office should be prohibited, until there are guarantees that electronic election fraud can be prevented.

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2. Since there seems no way, at this stage, to ensure that electronic transfers of large sums of money are free from embezzlement to the degree this could be ensured with paper transfers, the US Comptroller of the Currency should give priority attention to establishing more effective safeguards for electronic funds transfer between financial institutions.

This will be a matter of constant vigilance since the technology is changing so fast that procedures deemed adequate today may well be unsatisfactory within a few years.

3. Since the issues of privacy have not been adequately resolved, the two houses of Congress should appoint a joint task force to study the problems of safeguarding privacy of data banks and recommend effective legislation to ensure this.

4. Since there may be many job changes requires as the computer revolution develops, industrial companies, labor unions, and federal and state governments should work together to aid and retrain displaced workers.

5. The federal government, through an appropriate agency such as the National Bureau of Standards, should establish minimum national standards of compatibility (between different models of computers) for computer software.

Beyond present challenges, which these recommendations would deal with, the computer revolution offers major avantages among the many changes which it will make in our society, as articles on the following pages indicate.

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