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12:00 AM, Sep 23, 1996 • By LAWRENCE J. SISKIND
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As the Year 2000 approaches, so does an epic collision with technological shortsightedness. The impending disaster is already a hot topic in the world of high tech, but more of us should be paying attention. A coming computer crisis -- call it the Year 2000 Crisis -- says a great deal about the values and philosophy of our society in the waning days of the millennium.

Thousands of computer programs are fast approaching obsolescence. Most date- oriented software -- and that includes programs running everything from pension funds to burglar alarms to personal finances to elevators -- is designed to recognize just six digits: two each for the year, month, and day. Thanksgiving may be November 28, 1996, to you and me, but to a computer, it is 961128. The software running the computer automatically assumes that the first two digits of the year are 19.

At the stroke of midnight on Friday, December 31, 1999, the date will become 000101. Computers all over the world will continue to assume that the first two digits of the new year are 19. They will read the new date as January 1, 1900.

If you were born in 1960, a computer today would figure you as 36 years old by subtracting 60 from 96. In the Year 2000, however, that same computer will subtract 60 from 00 and come out with -60. It will then discard the minus sign as meaningless and conclude that you are 60.

A program designed to sort dates will sort the following dates in the right order: 1901, 1950, 1999. But in 2000, the program will focus on the last two digits and sort them in this order: 2000, 1901, 1950, 1999. A moment after midnight, the world's computers are programmed to start making mistakes. Telephone conversations begun just a few minutes earlier will be computed as having lasted 99 years, generating humongous bills. Hospital pharmacies will automatically lock up as their computers conclude that all prescriptions expired generations ago. Checks dated 1900 will be printed for distribution to shareholders and pension-fund recipients, checks impossible to cash. Air travel will shut down as computers try to schedule century-old flights. Employees will be locked out of security areas. Elevators will stop running. And senior citizens will receive notices from their communities announcing the time and place for their kindergarten enrollment.

Of course, the fact that these errors are programmed to occur does not mean they will actually happen. Very, very late in the game, the world is waking up and taking steps to avert it.

The steps will be very expensive and very painful. Between now and the Year 2000, the world will spend $ 600 billion to engender Year 2000 compliance among its computers systems, according to the Gartner Group, a Connecticut- based information-technology consulting firm. The U.S. government, with its thousands of programs scattered over hundreds of agencies, will spend about $ 30 billion to reprogram its computers. California's 122 agencies operate over 100,000 separate computers. The state does not yet know how much it will have to spend. Its Department of Information Technology is spending $ 4 million just to oversee the efforts of the other 121 state agencies. Even Nebraska plans to spend $ 24 million to address the problem and has earmarked 2 cents of its cigarette tax for four years to pay for it.

The cost of correction for the private sector will be enormous. According to estimates by the Orr Institute and Data Dimensions, Inc., Fortune 50 companies will spend 35 to 40 cents per line of code on their operating programs. That could amount to between $ 50 million and $ 100 million per company. Companies unprepared to meet the challenge will fail. The Gartner Group predicts that 20 percent of the world's companies will go out of business because of the Year 2000 crisis.

Law firms are gearing up for the inevitable tidal wave of millennial litigation. Software producers will be sued by software users, who will be sued by their customers, who will be sued in turn by their customers. All of them face the threat of suit by their shareholders, and all of them will consider suing their insurance companies when those insurers refuse to provide coverage for all the other lawsuits already described. Auditors and law firms will probably also be named as defendants for good measure.