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This chapter is from the book

The Impact of Software on People and Society

The time frame in which computers and software have developed has barely been more than 75 years. Yet their impact on individual humans and on societies has been as important as the printing press, airplanes, television, and automobiles.

Beneficial Tools and Applications

The following is a summary of tools and applications that have transformed the way businesses operate; wars are fought; and individuals gather information, communicate, and use their leisure time. It is surprising that these have all originated within the past 50 years. Probably half of these tools and applications are less than 25 years old.

  • Business tools

    • Accounting
    • Actuarial studies
    • Advertising via the web
    • Agricultural planning
    • Analytics
    • Bar-code scanners
    • Big data
    • Budget analysis
    • Cloud computing
    • Competitive analysis
    • Cost and resource tracking
    • Cost estimating
    • Crowdsourcing
    • Customer relationship management (CRM)
    • Customer satisfaction analysis
    • Customer support
    • Distribution optimization analysis
    • Electric power grid controls
    • Enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages
    • Finance
    • Governance
    • Human resource management
    • Inventory
    • Investments
    • Just-in-time inventory controls
    • Legal support
    • Marketing
    • Oil exploration
    • Order entry
    • Order tracking
    • Planning and scheduling
    • Process controls
    • Reservation systems
    • Risk estimation and analysis
    • Robotic manufacturing
    • Sales support
    • Supply chain management
    • Surveys and opinion analysis
    • Telephone network controls
    • Water purification
    • Web retailing
  • Databases

    • Graphics and images
    • Music
    • Signals and analog
    • Text and numeric
  • Data warehouses

    • Mixed-data forms
  • Education tools

    • Comparative education statistics
    • Curriculum planning
    • Customized e-learning for each student
    • Skills inventory analysis
    • Special tools for the handicapped
    • Student research via the web
    • Virtual classrooms
  • Embedded devices

    • Automotive engines and brakes
    • Automotive security systems
    • Avionic
    • GPS navigation
    • Hearing aids
    • Manufacturing
    • Medical
    • Signal processing
    • Smart appliances
    • Telecommunications
  • Government tools

    • Air traffic control
    • Background verification
    • Budget analysis
    • Census
    • Court records
    • Disaster preparedness
    • Economic analysis
    • Employment statistics
    • Environmental monitoring
    • Financial controls
    • Health and longevity statistics
    • Highway siting, design, and construction
    • Identity verification
    • Land management
    • Law enforcement
    • Legislative records
    • Mandates and regulations
    • National defense
    • Patent analysis
    • Political records
    • Pollution monitoring
    • Prisons
    • Property assessments
    • Redistricting
    • Regulatory agencies
    • Risk analysis
    • Taxation
    • Traffic analysis and controls
    • Unemployment support
    • Voter records
    • Water supply controls
    • Welfare
    • Zoning
  • Leisure

    • Blu-ray and digital video
    • Computer games
    • Digital music formats
    • Geocaching
    • Music playlists
    • Online magazines
    • Streaming video
    • Virtual reality worlds
  • Medical

    • Coordination in real time among medical teams
    • External devices
    • Implanted devices
    • Insurance record keeping
    • Lab tests
    • Patient hospital monitoring
    • Patient records
    • Robotic surgical devices
    • Statistics: national, global
  • National defense

    • Antimissile shields
    • Combat simulation
    • Command and control
    • Cybersecurity
    • Deep ocean monitoring
    • Early threat warnings
    • Encryption and decryption
    • Intelligence gathering and coordination
    • Logistics analysis
    • National Security Agency signal interception
    • Satellite monitoring
    • Secure communications
    • Threat analysis
  • Personal tools

    • Blogs
    • Computers
    • Contact lists
    • Daily news feeds
    • Digital appliances
    • Digital cameras
    • Digital image processing
    • Digital watches
    • E-books
    • Email
    • Graphics
    • handheld full-function digital calculators
    • Handicap support for the deaf, blind, etc.
    • Home finances
    • Instant computer chat
    • Music
    • Natural language translation
    • Presentations
    • Scheduling
    • Search engines
    • Smartphones
    • Social networks
    • Spreadsheets
    • Statistics
    • Tablet computers
    • Text to speech
    • Video processing
    • Web browsers
    • Word processing
  • Professional tools

    • Accounting
    • Analytics
    • Animation and graphic arts
    • Architecture
    • Civil engineering
    • Computer animation
    • Data mining
    • Drafting
    • Economic analysis
    • E-learning
    • Encryption and decryption
    • Engineering
    • Intelligent agents for web scanning
    • Law enforcement
    • Legal support
    • Math
    • Medical support
    • Music composition
    • Music recording, playback, and mixing
    • National security
    • Patent analysis
    • Pharmaceutical
    • Project management
    • Property management
    • Publishing
    • Real estate listings
    • Spell checkers and grammar checkers
    • Statistics
  • Programming tools

    • Application sizing
    • Automatic testing
    • Complexity analysis
    • Configuration controls
    • Continuous integration
    • Cost and schedule estimation
    • Data mining of legacy applications
    • Debugging
    • Inspection support
    • Maintenance and support estimation
    • Measurements and benchmarks
    • Programming language compilers
    • Quality estimation
    • Requirements and design analysis
    • Requirements modeling
    • Reusability analysis
    • Risk estimation
    • Static analysis
    • Test tools (design and execution)
    • Virtualization
    • Website design and construction
  • Protective tools

    • Antispam
    • Antispyware
    • Antivirus
    • Smart alarm systems
  • Scientific tools

    • Archaeological analysis
    • Astronomical analysis
    • Biological analysis
    • Chemical analysis
    • Computer-enhanced image calibrations
    • Computer-stabilized optical devices
    • Deep ocean exploration
    • DNA analysis
    • Epidemiology analysis
    • Forensic analysis
    • Geological exploration (side-scan radar)
    • Linguistic analysis
    • Metallurgy
    • Meteorology analysis and weather predictions
    • Nanotechnologies
    • Nuclear device controls
    • Physics research equipment
    • Self-aiming telescopes for the deaf, blind, etc.
    • Simulations of physical phenomena
    • Space vehicles, rovers, and satellites
    • Visualization

As can be seen from this list, computers and software are making profound changes to every aspect of human life: education, work, warfare, entertainment, medicine, law, and everything else.

Harmful Inventions

Computers and software have also introduced a number of harmful inventions that are listed below, some of which did not exist before. Among the harmful inventions caused by computers and software are identity theft, hacking, and computer viruses. These are new and alarming criminal activities.

  • Browser hijackers
  • Computer botnets
  • Computer keyboard tracking
  • Computer spam
  • Computer spyware
  • Computer viruses
  • Computer worms
  • Computerized customer support
  • Difficulty in correcting errors in computerized data
  • Electronic voting machines without backup
  • Hacking tools
  • Identity theft
  • Phishing
  • Piracy
  • Robotic telephone calls (robo-calls)
  • Robotic weapons systems
  • Smart weapons: bombs, drones, and missiles
  • Spam
  • Special viruses attacking industrial equipment
  • Spyware
  • Stock market software without anomaly shutoffs
  • Unintelligible telephone voice menus
  • Web pornography

These threats are comparatively new and all are increasingly hazardous in the modern world. Indeed, identify theft has become one of the largest and most pervasive crimes in human history. It is also an example of a new kind of crime where the criminal and the victim never see each other and can be separated by more than 12,000 miles when the crime takes place.

These harmful aspects of computers and software have triggered new laws and new subindustries that provide virus protection, hacking insurance, and other forms of protection.

These inventions have also led to the creation of new and special cybercrime units in all major police forces, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, the Department of Defense and the uniformed services, Homeland Security, and other government organizations. The emergence of the Congressional Cyber Security Caucus is a sign that that these new kinds of cybercrimes are attracting attention at the highest levels of government.

Weighing the Risks

Computers and software are making profound changes to every aspect of human existence. Many readers have thousands of “friends” on social networks. Even more readers follow the daily lives and activities of countless celebrities and personal friends by using “tweets” or short messages. Text messages are beginning to outnumber live telephone calls (and also cost more due to new computerized billing algorithms).

Purchases of electronic e-books recently topped purchases of ordinary paper books. Banks now charge extra fees to provide paper bank statements as opposed to online electronic statements. All of our medical and education records are now computerized and stored in databases.

It would not be possible to book an airline flight or a hotel without computers and software. Indeed, after large snowstorms or hurricanes when power lines are down, many kinds of businesses cease operations because they are no longer equipped to handle manual transactions. Computerized games, including massively interactive games with thousands of simultaneous players, are now the preferred form of entertainment for millions of young people. Modern films use special effects with lifelike realism that are generated by computers. It is even possible to create new roles for actors and actresses who are no longer living by means of computers and software.

The impact of computers and software has been a mixture of good and bad. Certainly, the ability to send emails and text messages and to find information on the web are very useful additions to our daily lives. We use GPS maps on our smartphones almost every time we travel, particularly when we travel to new and unfamiliar locations.

The ability of physicians to communicate instantly with colleagues helps medical practice. Computerized medical diagnostic machines such as CAT scans and MRI equipment are also beneficial. Cochlear implants have restored hearing to thousands of profoundly deaf patients. Robotic manufacturing is cheaper and sometimes more precise than the manual construction of many complex devices.

But the ever-increasing odds of identity theft and the constant need to keep our computers and electronic devices safe from hackers and data theft are a source of continuing worry and also a source of considerable expense.

In evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of computers and software, the weight of available evidence is that software and computers have provided more benefits to the human condition than they have caused harm. Of course, those who have been harmed probably disagree.

But statistically looking at all known uses of computer and software in the modern world, there have been significant benefits in the way we can communicate, transact business, and carry out scientific and engineering work. It is doubtful that any scientist or engineer would want to stop using computers and software. The same is true of many other kinds of work such as health care, law enforcement, accounting, and even real estate.

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