Friday, November 9, 2007

Unreliable Software vs. National Security

The Clear and Foreseeable Danger

The security of a modern nation is a function of its scientific and technological know-how. As we all know, nowadays, nothing gets done in R&D circles without the use of computer software. Software is without a doubt the lifeblood of science and technology. In an ideal world, there would be no limit to how complex and sophisticated our technologies could get. In the real world, however, software unreliability places an upper limit on the complexity of our systems. For example, we could conceivably have cars that drive themselves and airplanes that fly themselves by now but concerns over safety, costs and liability will not allow it. In the meantime, over 40,000 people die every year in traffic accidents in the US alone.

Software unreliability is the biggest problem of the technological age. It handicaps society by condemning it to a sort of chronic mediocrity. As I have repeatedly said in the past, the price that we have paid and continue pay, as a result, is staggering. And it will get worse. But what if there were a solution to the software problem and an enemy nation got a hold of it first? Freed from the shackles of unreliability, they would suddenly possess the ability to develop systems of arbitrary complexity and unlimited sophistication. Soon after, their technological advantage would turn into technological superiority, both economically and militarily. A shift in the world’s balance of power would ensue and therein lies the danger.

Technological Race

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, I have witnessed a major realignment of allegiances around the world. From my vantage point, the world is increasingly becoming divided into three major blocs: the Christian and secular West, the loose confederacy of Islamic nations, and Asia. Both the West and Asia have invested heavily in technology. The Islamic nations have for the most part relied on their oil revenues and have neglected R&D. However, there are strong signs that this is about to change drastically. It may seem that they have a lot of catching up to do but this is not necessarily true. Their late entry in the technological race might give them the opportunity to leapfrog obsolete or outmoded technologies and start with the best. This could mean the building of a state of the art infrastructure in a relatively short time. The point that I am driving at is that the world is not a friendly place. Many nations have embarked on a renewed arms race, one that is heavily dependent on science and technology.

Radical Change Ahead

I may be accused of using an alarmist tone in order to promote my own agenda and there might be some truth to it. I am certainly biased since I have my own goals in mind. However, I am convinced that the danger is very real and I invite everybody to take a good and impartial look at what I am proposing and make up your own minds. I believe that there is indeed a solution to the software reliability problem, one that will usher in the true golden age of automation. I have been writing about it for years. I have made only a handful of converts but that is because the solution I am proposing will require a radical change not only in the way we construct our programs, but also in the way we build our computers. I am asking for the reinvention of the computer. Nothing less will do. In my work, I have bluntly criticized some of the most revered names in the history of computing and this has not gained me many friends in the industry and the computer science community. Still, I believe that this is the sort of self-criticism that the West must have the courage to engage in if it wants to solve some of its most pressing problems including the software reliability crisis.

Taking Sides

In conclusion, I would like to say that I was born and raised in the western hemisphere. Regardless of my religious, philosophical or political convictions, I must choose sides. I choose the West. One of the problems that I see is that the western world is too conceited about its supposed intellectual superiority. They have elevated their most famous scientists to the status of demigods whose wisdom (good or bad) must never be questioned. This, too, is dangerous because the rest of the world, including our enemies, is not constrained by this mindset. They have every reason to look for holes in our wisdom and use them as opportunities for advancement. Unless we wake up and realize the clear danger that I mentioned above, we may have to face an unpleasant future.