LONDON — Britain plans to train 20,0000 "bug busters" to tackle the looming computer crisis known as the "millennium bug."
The "bug" threatens computers that use only two digits to designate the year. If the software isn't fixed, when the year changes from 99 to 00, the computers won't know if it's 2000 or 1900.
The problem could affect computers used for everything from traffic lights to tax records.
"If we do not act, the result will be loss of money and influence on a disastrous scale," said Prime Minister Tony Blair on March 30 as he announced the $160 million spending package.
He said the bug could even force some companies into bankruptcy unless urgent action is taken.
His plans include training younger, older, and unemployed people in computer skills necessary to help businesses solve the problem.
Mr. Blair also offered money for an international public awareness campaign and a World Bank trust fund to help developing nations cope with the bug.
"We need to act internationally because, in a global economy, other countries' problems are our own," he said.
"In a recent survey by the World Bank, only 37 out of 128 borrowing member countries said they were aware of it," he added.
Awareness of the problem among businesses is nearly 100 percent, Blair said, "but 25 percent of companies haven't started taking action yet and they need to do it now."
Stock exchanges are leading the campaign against the bug, afraid the programming error will crash computers on Jan. 1, 2000.
Many say firms have a duty to tell shareholders what progress they have made in reprogramming or replacing systems that have the problem.
"Investors have a right to know whether to buy shares in a particular company and if the company is capable of functioning in two years time when the millennium bug could go into action," said Howard Hsu, senior analyst in information technology at market research company International Data Corp in Hong Kong.
Although it has been hitting the headlines for almost two years, experts say many firms have still not grasped the full significance of the bug.
The problem stems from shortcuts taken by computer programmers in the 1970s and 1980s, who tried to save valuable computer memory by abbreviating dates to the last two digits.