Comment: Humans are behind those ‘computer errors’

So a computer “glitch” has drastically misreported Grade 12 exam results for about 350,000 B.C. students. Full disclosure — I have been an enthusiast ever since the day in the mid-’60s when I was allowed to walk around inside SILIAC, Sydney University’s first full-size, million-dollar computer.

Since that time, computers, and the people who input the data into computers ranging from my Apple Watch to IBM’s “Summit,” have ruled our lives.

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“Summit” is capable of more than three billion billion (not a misprint) mixed precision calculations per second, which has allowed researchers to run the world’s first exascale scientific calculation.

Computers have also introduced an entirely new vocabulary to explain to laymen why it is computers, not computer operators, that bungle their jobs so often: words like “bug,” “glitch,” “malfunction,” “snafu” and so on.

But the golden rule is still “garbage in garbage out,” no matter how sophisticated the computers become.

Public education in B.C. has often been on the rough end of these “garbage in” misfires, mishaps or flaws.

Not long ago, British Columbia’s new $95-million student information system, MyEducationBC, was found by school district users to be glitchy and slow, causing back-to-school headaches for teachers trying to set up student schedules, take attendance and enter marks.

MyEdBC had been brought in to replace the $89-million BCeSIS student tracking computer, which was expensive and unreliable.

I remember just entering the marks in a book and giving the book to the principal.

Now comes the Grade 12 transcript calamity, caused by a data input “anomaly” in the tabulation of Grade 12 provincial exams written in June.

The Ministry of Education is reviewing every June 2019 exam result to ensure students’ final grades are accurately reflected on their transcripts — transcripts that can affect admission to post-secondary schools.

Good luck. That covers at least 32,000 Grade 12 kids we now know about whose transcripts are wrong.

Student transcripts report both exam and class marks. In order to meet graduation requirements, B.C. students must earn a minimum of 80 credits (four credits per course in grades 10 to 12) and write provincial graduation numeracy and literacy assessments.

That’s a lot of data to process before 32,000 grads even know if they’ve actually graduated, much less where the results will lead them.

But worse things happen when we hand over our futures to the whims of an electronic binary bookkeeper that simply sees our goals and desires as an array of zeroes and ones.

In 2017, the credit reporting agency Equifax explained that hackers had gained access to sensitive personal credit data — social insurance numbers, birth dates and home addresses — for up to 147 million clients, including 19,000 Canadians.

That data breach happened because of a mistake by a single employee, not any computer, according to the credit reporting company’s former chief executive.

Last week, Capital One said that data from more than 100 million American customers and six million Canadians had been stolen by a hacker.

No computer “glitch” this time either, no “bug.” The FBI arrested a 33-year-old tech worker named Paige A. Thompson, who goes by the online handle “erratic.” Indeed.

None of this is really new. Stuff happens all the time with big computers.

In 1991, a software “malfunction” led to the collapse of a 51,700-tonne offshore oil platform — a crash so huge it caused a magnitude 3.0 earthquake.

The collapse was caused by a design flaw from a minor computer “hiccup” in the software program used in designing the megastructure.

In 2011, approximately 450 inmates incarcerated for violence and about 1,000 inmates incarcerated for serious drug and property offenses were set free in California as a result of an “anomaly” in a computer system that evaluates inmate risk levels.

In 2013, to the joy of online shoppers, a computer repriced many items on Amazon to just one cent.

This mistake occurred due to a “malfunction” in the repricing software used by the online retail giant.

And on and on. Airliners crash, cruise ships run aground and, in 1997, the mega-billion-dollar USS Yorktown aircraft carrier lost its navigation and operations system because (wait for it) a “buffer overflow” or an “an engineering local area network casualty” occurred.

This left the giant aircraft carrier crippled, dumb and vulnerable in the middle of the ocean.

So sit back, kids. Relax.

The hundreds of post-secondary schools here and in the U.S. that received the wrong transcript data will, we hope, sort it out.

Your Grade 12 results and your future are safely in the hands of data input processors and the voracious mainframes they feed.

The transcript problem will never happen again.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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