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Deep Accountability, Beyond Even Liability

By CACM Staff

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 56 No. 10, Pages 8-9

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I am a Colorado licensed professional engineer whose area of practice is software and who found no cause for disagreement with the first half of Vinton G. Cerf's "From the President" editorial "But Officer, I Was Only Programming at 100 Lines Per Hour!" (July 2013). The second half was another matter.

I concur with Cerf's statement: "I think many of you would agree that a test or questionnaire is not likely to provide assurance that a 'certified professional' programmer's work is free of flaws..." to the delight of my liability insurance provider, who repeatedly admonishes me to avoid giving guarantees or warranties against errors in my work. But "free of flaws" is an unrealistic expectation for any human being, even a licensed professional software engineer. What my professional license (together with the PE exam and years of education and decades of professional practice behind it) does provide the public is assurance that my work is relatively free of sophomoric programming errors like buffer overflows, opportunities for SQL injection, memory leaks, and race conditions that infest the products of the more junior software developers I often must clean up after. Yes, I still make mistakes, but I make them more rarely and at a much higher level than the typical "code monkey."

Cerf also said "...it is very tempting to imagine a balance between certification and liability is worth some consideration." But if he were a patient on a treatment table under the aimpoint of a Therac-25 [radiation therapy machine], where would he prefer that balance to be placed?

And "I take pride in believing that I, and many colleagues, see themselves as professional in spirit if not in name, and that we strive to deliver reliable code." I take the same pride, but I must also contend with the "It ran okay once, so ship it!" mentality of the typical "Let the free market decide"-oriented manager.

Moreover, "So accepting liability that the code won't break or be broken is a pretty scary thought." Okay, what if this entire discussion were about bridges and structural engineers, not code and software engineers? Professional bridge designers somehow manage to perform their work competently, accepting possible liability without living their lives in constant fright. They do so by virtue of careful design through proven principles, incorporating lots of margin into their construction, and performing rigorous testing. So it can and should be with professional software engineers.

And finally "We are so dependent on an increasing number of programs, large and small, it is difficult to believe the software profession will escape some kind of deep accountability in the future." This is one of the best endorsements for software engineering licensure I have ever seen.

Lawrence Stalla, Colorado Springs, CO

Vinton G. Cerf's view (July 2013) of "registered" and "professional" designations (and lack of standardization) among U.S. software engineers made me wonder if a model could not be borrowed from an overseas friend, the British Computer Society (http://www.bcs.org/). In the U.K., industry can often ignore BCS qualifications, but where safety concerns require a "responsible engineer," suitably qualified, it is the BCS that sets the bar. The U.K. government has delegated issuing registered- and professional-type designations to bodies like BCS that belong to the U.K.'s Engineering Council (http://www.engc.org.uk/). Though this practice may represent a vestige of a medieval guild system, "professionalism" in these terms would be judged instead by a jury of one's peers. Yes, there is indeed the possibility of elitism (setting the bar high to exclude newcomers), but, at least where safety is concerned, better too high than too low.

Without knowing the details of each U.S. state's program, it is impossible to assess the complexity of establishing a single standard, but in the 1990s accreditation by the BCS required a minimum level of work experience, passing a written exam (or exemption for certain college degrees), providing documentation to demonstrate experience and career progression beyond "entry level," and submitting to a panel interview.

It does not seem unrealistic for ACM to help define minimum education and experience criteria for a "responsible engineer" accreditation in IT; ACM is after all an organization of IT experts and practitioners, many of whom (I would hope) to whom it would apply. ACM could administer the process itself, with lobbying to have each state recognize it (perhaps eventually a de facto national, or even global, standard); alternatively, it could be provided more simply as recommended guidelines.

Stephen Garriga, Blairsville, GA

Vinton G. Cerf (July 2013) discussed professional licensure, a controversial topic in the computing community. While our aim here is not to explore the larger question of licensure, we would like to suggest the community would benefit from practices that promote professional awareness and self-accountability, the way the Hippocratic Oath promotes self-accountability among medical doctors beginning their careers in service to society. Engineers in the U.S. have long used an obligation ceremony sponsored by the Order of the Engineer (http://www.order-of-the-engineer.org/) in which graduating seniors pledge to uphold the standards and dignity of the profession through an oath including parts of the Canon of Ethics of major international engineering societies. The oath and the ceremony are not tied to the licensure of engineers in any way but are meant to inspire young professionals toward a consciousness of the profession and remind older professionals of their responsibility receiving, welcoming, and supporting them.

An organization called The Pledge of the Computing Professional (http://www.computing-professional.org/) founded in 2010 at Ohio Northern University and the University of South Florida aims to recognize graduates of computing programs as professionals in service to society, as the Order of the Engineer does with graduates of U.S. engineering programs. Today, 26 U.S.-based institutions conduct The Pledge rite-of-passage ceremony as part of their graduation activities. Graduates taking The Pledge sign a certificate both publicly and in the presence of their peers and are then presented a pin (http://www.computing-professional.org/symbol.html) that serves as an additional reminder of their commitment to self-accountability through ethical and moral behavior within the profession.

The Pledge has been endorsed by the Order of the Engineer, the ACM Special Interest Group on Computers and Society (http://www.sigcas.org/), and the ACM Committee on Professional Ethics. For more, please see http://computing-professional.org/ or contact any of us directly.

Ken Christensen, Tampa, FL
John K. Estell, Ada, OH
Ben Kuperman, Oberlin, OH

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Author's Response

I appreciate very much these readers' thoughtful comments and the points they make. Some of the best programmers I have known have lacked formal training, having come by their expertise through field experience. However, those points persuade me an effort might be made to say something about minimum curriculum and performance, if not an actual examination like the bar exam for lawyers or board certification for medical professionals. Evidence of continued education might also give credibility to the credentials of a professional software engineer. While it may not be inevitable, it seems sufficiently plausible that some kind of licensing will be proposed, in which case ACM might contribute positively to the development of credible course content and perhaps also testing standards for professional software engineers.

Vinton G. Cerf, ACM President

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What Evidence of IT Acceleration?

In his Viewpoint "Could Artificial Intelligence Create an Unemployment Crisis?" (July 2013), Martin Ford repeatedly assumed "Information technology will continue to accelerate..." But nothing accelerates indefinitely, and many technologies, including transportation and space flight, have not seen accelerated progress in decades.1 It is quite possible that progress in information technology will likewise reach a plateau of incremental improvement. Ford's apocalyptic vision may come about but should not be based on assumptions for which there is no evidence.

Moti Ben-Ari, Rehovot, Israel

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Author's Response

As Ben-Ari says, acceleration does eventually slow down and it is reasonable to assume IT will likewise experience such deceleration. However, it is also not likely to occur soon. Even if advances in hardware (per Moore's Law) were to plateau, progress could continue to accelerate along other fronts (such as software performance, parallel computing, and new architectural breakthroughs). Even if the doubling period for IT acceleration would lengthen significantly, it would still imply rapid progress in light of performance levels already achieved.

Martin Ford, Sunnyvale, CA

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Free Ismail Cem Bakir

As former vice-chair of the ACM Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights, I would like to call your attention to the violation of human rights of Ismail Cem Bakir, a student at Istanbul Technical University in Turkey. The Committee of Concerned Scientists (http://concernedscientists.org/) (I am vice-chair, computer science) is an independent organization of scientists, physicians, engineers, and scholars devoted to the protection and advancement of human rights and scientific freedom for colleagues worldwide. We are concerned for Bakir, as well as for other students arrested during antigovernment demonstrations in Turkey in June.

On July 16, The New York Times reported (http://nyti.ms/14WJUt7) the Istanbul Bar Association said the police, citing terrorism laws, had issued a temporary order withholding legal assistance to these detainees, as well as access to their families. Bakir, who was studying computer engineering, was arrested in July. His sister said the police confiscated computers, books, and magazines and even threatened to charge the lawyer assisting his family. This set of events seems to confirm the Bar Association's complaint concerning the police.

Denial of access to counsel is expressly prohibited by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory, as well as by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party. Bakir's right to peaceful protest is also protected by the Covenant.

The Committee of Concerned Scientists has urged the Turkish government to investigate Bakir's arrest and detention, as well as that of others denied legal assistance and access to their families. It has also urged the government to arrange Bakir's immediate release (if he is still being held in jail) on the basis of his right to peaceful protest and expression of opinion, allowing him to resume his studies.

I urge you to help advocate Bakir's scientific freedom and human rights. Please send letters of support to

His Excellency Abdullah Gül
Office of the President
Çankaya, Ankara,
Republic of Turkey


His Excellency
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Prime Minister
Office of the Prime Minister
Basbakanlik 06573
Ankara, Republic of Turkey

Jack Minker, College Park, MD

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1. Ben-Ari, M. The end of science revisited: The case for incrementalism in the future of science. Skeptic Magazine 13, 2 (2007), 2027.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor of the January 2014 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2014/1/170857).
-- CACM Administrator

My letter "Free Ismail Cem Bakir" (Oct. 2013) concerned Istanbul Technical University computer student Ismail Cem Bakir, who had been arrested and illegally imprisoned by the Turkish government in July following anti-government protests in June. I am now pleased to say he has been released, with all charges dropped. I sent the letter to my colleague, Vladimir Lifschitz, of the University of Texas, who was to lecture at the 29th International Conference on Logic Programming in Istanbul, August 2429, and who then took time to speak on this violation of Bakir's human rights.

Several weeks later, a computer scientist, fluent in Turkish and who attended Lifschitz's lecture, informed him the Turkish government had indeed released Bakir, finding this information in a search of the Turkish website "ITU Gezi Forum #8"; Gezi is the park in Istanbul that was at the center of anti-government protests.

The translation he sent said 29 people, mostly university students, including Bakir, had been arrested and held illegally for four days, quoting Bakir saying " . . . he was in the stands to watch the graduation ceremony on July 8, and that he noticed plain-clothes police officers, summoned by the administration, taking photos of him and of many others like him. He said that might be one of the reasons he was taken into custody. He thanked his professors and friends who didn't leave him alone during his time in custody and in the alayan courthouse."

Publicizing information on and support for our colleagues can be critical when their scientific freedom and human rights are at risk. As seen from Bakir's statement, his colleagues helped his cause and improved his morale while doing no harm. Publicity in Communications and other journals is also extremely useful.

Jack Minker
College Park, MD

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