2000: the end of the world
When that first second of the year 2000 arrives, all kinds of catastrophes have been predicted. These range from massive bank, stock market and hospital computer failures through devastating power outages and disruptions of air travel to failure of the US Emergency Alert System. The latter at a time when it may actually be needed. Predictions of a computer Armageddon abound.
Some may think that this system breakdown is nothing much to worry about. However, one must consider how many occurrences of dates occur in computers in business, in government, in various electronic apparatus such as microwave ovens, aeroplane computers, and so on. In general, any kind of activity, performed on any computer, anywhere in the world involving dates after 1999 could be affected. Anything involving forward planning, tax processing, scheduling, sell-by and expiry dates, metering, billing, all kinds of records and transactions, communications; in fact any aspect of our lives touched by a computer. Manufacturing plants, food processing, waste treatment and water treatment plants, all could be affected to a greater or lesser extent.
Perhaps an even bigger problem is contained in the embedded computer chips which inhabit our watches, cell phones, refrigerators etc. It has been estimated that there are billions of these items throughout the world. If just 1% of, say, 3 billion chips have a Y2K problem we are talking about 30 million problems.
Many elevators for example have safety programmes that disable the elevator if it hasn't been serviced recently. The elevator goes down to the basement and stays there until someone tells it that service has been performed. On 1 January 2000 an elevator could decide that it hadn't been serviced for 99 years and shut itself down. All that would then be needed would be someone to tell the elevator that service had been done. The next such problem will occur on 1 January 2100, if the elevator is still in service.
One estimate of the number of times a date appears in a computer programme is once per 20 lines of code. A line of code being a line of instructions to a computer programme required to perform some activity. A simple calculation of the number of days between two dates requires some 25 lines of code to accomplish which gives you some idea of the enormity of the problem. In fact the problem is largely that, the need to change every single line of computer code which refers in some way to a date and year. A thirty year mortgage for example issued in 1971 will expire in 2001 so to some extent the problem has already been dealt with in part.
What is being done about it?
Well all governments, including our own, claim that they are busy working on it. The US has appointed a
By the end of next year the US Federal Reserve will have printed some
Given the dramatic potential of this Y2K problem, it is surprising that Hollywood has not come out with a futuristic blockbuster movie dealing with the problem. The possibility of an Iraqi or Russian missile being fired, or firing on its own, because their incoming missile tracking systems fail at midnight on January 1, 2000 cannot be ignored. A fine conclusion to the start of the last year of the twentieth century.