12 March 1998

One of the most dramatic predictions for the next millennium comes from a computer expert at the University of Queensland.

Professor Paul Bailes is convinced Australia - and indeed most other countries - are heading for major economic and social upheaval when the global clock ticks over to the year 2000.

Professor Bailes, Director of the University's Centre for Software Maintenance in the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Department, is concerned with the fallout from what is commonly known as the Millennium Bug.

The problem is that many computer systems around the world are programmed to represent dates using only two digits.

Thus last year was 97, this year is 98 and next year will be 99. However, the year 2000 will be represented by 00 which may be interpreted by different programs as 2000, 1900 or as an invalid date.

"It most likely will be read as 1900 or invalid. In either case software malfunction is inevitable. We certainly cannot assume it will be read as 2000," Professor Bailes said.

He will discuss the implications of the Millennium Bug at a public lecture on Wednesday, April 15, in the Long Room at the Customs House.

According to Professor Bailes, the level of economic and social dependence people now have on computers means we can expect major repercussions with systems that have trouble handling the new date code.

He believes many government and private organisations will be unable to function, leading to widespread economic dislocation and public inconvenience.

He also predicts business failures and job losses with the threat of a world-wide recession or depression similar to that of the 1930s.

"Businesses, economies and nations that fail to invest in solutions to the year 2000 problem are likely to be eclipsed by those that do make the investment," he said.

He compares the doomsday scenario which may engulf Australia at the turn of the century to an earthquake or similar national emergency in which government intervention is an essential response.

Professor Bailes said few areas of everyday life would escape unscathed from collective computer malfunctioning.

Banking, credit cards, insurance and the financial sector would all be affected to varying degrees; air traffic control, hospitals and emergency services were vulnerable; public utilities such as water and electricity depended heavily on correct computer software dates.

A million and one other things we take for granted, from pay cheques to the use-by dates on food in supermarkets, could all be thrown out of kilter, according to Professor Bailes.

Professor Bailes said there were no easy answers. "There is no one way. When it comes to computer software, each program is a law unto itself and does what it has been programmed to do.

'Compounding the problem is the fact that many organisations do not have standard software programs while perhaps as many as one third have lost their original source codes.

'The sheer magnitude of the task is daunting but what really turns this problem into a crisis is the lack of time left . There's suddenly a potential use-by date on the world's software."

He said the cost to organisations in countering the effects of the Millennium Bug had to be measured against the cost of not finding a solution.

'The University's research centre has been tracking the problem for some years. Generic software tools are being developed to help correct or convert existing technology and staff are offering expertise in a consultative role,' he said.

Professor Bailes has served as a consultant to a number of major organisations, developing re-engineering tools for a wide variety of applications and programming languages.

Professor Bailes said he would like to see the government and major industries reassuring the public about what steps they were taking.

His message at the April lecture will be that some organisations still have time to beat the bug, perhaps by upgrading their software in stages. But his general advice to the public is: prepare for the worst.

For further information, contact Professor Paul Bailes (telephone 3365 3869).