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The Foresight Saga, Redux

By Peter G. Neumann

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 55 No. 10, Pages 26-29

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Short-term thinking is the enemy of the long-term future.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the January 2013 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2013/1/158757).
--CACM Administrator

Peter G. Neumann's "Inside Risks" Viewpoint "The Foresight Saga, Redux" (Oct. 2012) addressed how to provide security but fell short. Though security requires long-term approaches and research advances, traditional incentives target quick rewards. I teach a graduate course on IT strategy and policy largely focused on this dilemma. When technology moved slowly, slow acquisition and delayed delivery caused minor losses. Now, however, along with improvement due to technology innovation, delays in exploiting advanced technology incur exponentially increased opportunity costs. Most businesses cannot wait for high-trust solutions or systems that significantly surpass state-of-the-art quality. Likewise, most government systems are already too costly and too late, in part because they try to address an unreasonably large number of requirements.

The risk-management problem necessitates a portfolio-management approach. In the context of IT systems for business or government, it would be more affordable and practical to create multiple alternatives and fallback options and not depend on a single system where failure would be devastating. In addition, applications should be separated from research and funded appropriately. It would be great to have a secure Internet, unbreakable systems, and uniformly trained people, but such goals are not practical today. The focus should instead be on risk mitigation, resilience, and adaptation, even though the incentives for moving quickly are often irresistible. "Ideal" systems are indeed the enemy of practical portfolios built to withstand a range of risks.

Rick Hayes-Roth
Monterey, CA

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