Computers' Mistakeover

In Japan, Citibank computers botched 274,800 transactions in a single week.
In Japan, Citibank computers botched 274,800 transactions in a single week. (By Koji Sasahara -- Associated Press)
By Leslie Walker
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Just as technology amplifies our human strengths, it can also showcase our weaknesses.

Don't believe me? Go to Google News and type in "computer glitch." I do this whenever I need a high-tech horror story for a speech.

When I ran the search last week, up popped stories about recent computer "glitches" that caused Citibank to make 274,800 incorrect banking transactions in Japan; led an Indiana gas station to sell gas for two-hundredths of a penny per gallon; and shut down security checkpoints at the Atlanta airport for hours, costing Delta Airlines $1.3 million.

Over in London, a "computer glitch" was blamed for the British government incorrectly labeling 1,500 innocent citizens as criminals because their names were confusingly similar to those of convicts. The disclosure followed a similar slip-up in which the British government accidentally set free more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who should have been considered for deportation.

In computing, "glitch" has a technical meaning: a false data output triggered by a sudden surge of electrical power. But in conversation, people use it to mean: "The computer screwed up, and I have no idea why."

In glitch stories, it's often hard to tell whether computers or humans are really malfunctioning. Technology enthusiasts insist computers are pure math machines and don't make mistakes. Rather, their "glitches" are due to erroneous programming instructions from their owners, who, after all, are mere mortals.

But one thing these glitch stories make clear -- we mortals are becoming more dependent on computers at a time when our machines are becoming more complex. And our increasing dependency magnifies the impact of any computer failure, regardless of its origin.

Plenty of high-profile computer projects have flopped, such as the FBI's attempt to create a massive "virtual case file" and the Federal Aviation Administration's attempt to update its air-traffic-control system. But it's the little electronic mishaps that get me.

Everyone has his own computers-gone-haywire tale. One that made me shake my head took place on a recent business trip when I went to check out of my hotel. "Sorry," the hotel manager calmly told me. "I can't tell you how much you owe or give you a receipt. Our computers are down." So I left my name and address and requested a receipt by mail, though I didn't like authorizing charges I couldn't review. A week later, when no bill or receipt had arrived, I called the hotel. Sounding harried now, the manager said: "Sorry, our computers were down for four straight days. It's been a nightmare getting everything straight."

When I told a pal about my close encounter of the computing kind, she said: "Same thing happened to me in the grocery store last week. We stood in line for an hour waiting for the cash registers to come back up."

That got me curious; I expanded my "computer glitch" search beyond Google News, limited to stories published in the past 30 days. Digging deeper into the Nexis database of newspaper, magazine and wire stories turned up a mix of seriously annoying, darkly comical and horrific "glitches" blamed on computers.

I chuckled over a new software system that inadvertently sped up the internal clocks of computers tracking parking permits at the University of Arkansas in January. Folks who had paid for parking were unable to leave the garage because the computer controlling the exit gate thought they had already left.

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