Professional Responsibility in Computer Science

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In Donald Gotterbarn's article, "Informatics and Professional Responsibility," he argues that "although informatics has been undergoing a rapid development, there has been no corresponding development in the concept of responsibility as it applies to computing practitioners" (107). Gotterbarn believes that computer professionals should be perfect and are responsible for any effects caused by their coding. I disagree with Gotterbarn on this matter. In this essay, I will show that Gotterbarn's thoughts and beliefs on professional responsibility in computer ethics are unreasonable and therefore should not be applied. Gotterbarn begins his article with examples of problems that resulted from software developers. In 1991, there was a major telephone outage that occurred because three lines of code were changed by a computer programmer in a signaling program. Since it seemed like such a small change, it was not tested. Also, a New Jersey inmate was able to escape because when he removed his electronic anklet it called a second computer, but received a busy signal and did not call back at all. The inmate murdered someone while free.

Gotterbarn says that since the early days, "computer practitioners sought immunity from blame for their failure to develop reliable systems" (108). He says that programmers that made mistakes in their programs called them "bugs" in the code instead of accepting responsibility for the error. Gotterbarn states that, "If the specifications are precise and the client cannot be used to exempt the developer from responsibility, the fact that ‘no program can be proven to be error free' is used to excuse critical system failures" (108).

Gotterbarn created an example to examine about professional responsibility. In his example, he states that three people are involved in creating a more efficient accounting system for a country that has a very complex system and wastes taxpayer's money. A consultant, a manager, and a software engineer created the new system. They were provided information on what the required inputs and outputs would be. The software engineer was asked to design the user interface for the new accounting system. After it was complete the accounting system has passed all the necessary tests, but the user interface was so complicated and the staff complained so much that they went back to the original accounting system.

Now, Gotterbarn attempts to examine who is responsible in this situation. Gotterbarn says, "I believe that there are two primary reasons why computer practitioners side-step the assignment of responsibility, especially after a system failure or a computer disaster" (109). He says that the first reason is that "responsibility is not related to a computer practitioner because computing is understood by many computer practitioners to be an ethically neutral practice" (110), and that the second reason "is based on the belief that responsibility is best understood using a malpractice model which relates responsibility to legal blame and liability" (111). Gotterbarn goes on to say that one reason computer practitioners do not blame themselves is because they are trained in that way. He says that computer practitioners are trained to solve problems just as you would solve crossword puzzles because like crossword puzzles, "there is no responsibility beyond solving the puzzle" (110). He then provides an example of a program that was written for an X-ray device. The program was written to raise and lower the X-ray device above the table. The programmer completed the program and it successfully moved the device. Gotterbarn says that the problem with the program was that the programmer did not consider the consequences it could have on the user because a patient was crushed to death after the technician lowered the device to "table-top-height." Gotterbarn believes that the programmer viewed the problem as a crossword puzzle because the program only did exactly what the user specified...
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