TechnologyA glitch in the system: a timeline of minor errors with major impacts
Glitches, by nature, are slight errors and temporary setbacks, until they're not. Here’s a brief glance back at some of the massive ones.
Glitches, by nature, are slight errors and temporary setbacks, until they're not. As our world's networks become increasingly complex and intertwined, there's always a chance that a small mistake becomes a big problem, ricocheting in every sector of our infrastructure. From stock markets to missile systems, crucial and ominous parts of our society have been designed to run millions of lines of computer code and could fail from a misplaced semicolon. Here’s a brief glance back at some these massive system glitches.
Pac-Man is believed to be the oldest game with a “Kill Screen” problem, but many others, like Donkey Kong and Duck Hunt had it as well. Basically, the game designers never expected players to get past a certain point in the game, so it just glitches out. According to GameFAQ, “In Pac-Man, starting on level 256, the right half of the screen turns into a jumble of random sprites and numbers. Because this screen only contains nine pellets (not enough to pass the level), this effectively ends the game and creates a maximum high score attainable without cheating (3,333,360 points).”
1991Sleipen A Oil Platform
The Norwegian Sleipen A Oil Platform cost $700 million to build, and it collapsed into the North Sea on August 23, 1991, due to a software error that miscalculated how great a load its base could handle. The calculations underestimated the eventual stress on underwater concrete supports by 47 percent. In the end, a 57,000 ton platform held 40,000 pounds of equipment on concrete walls that were not thick enough, and the entire structure sank to the bottom of the sea causing a 3.0 seismic event on the Richter scale. The platform was a total loss for the oil company.
During the first Gulf War, 28 U.S. soldiers died, and about 100 people were injured when an American Patriot missile failed to intercept an Iraqi Scud missile due to a computer error. A software glitch caused the defense system's internal clock to drift by one-third of a second. At the extremely high speed the missile was traveling, this resulted in a miss distance of 600 meters.
1996Ariane 5 rocket
The European Space Agency first tested its Ariane 5 Rocket on June 4th, 1996. Within 40 seconds of its launch sequence being initiated, the rocket exploded due to a software glitch involving a number needing to be calculated that was more than 16 digits long. The program’s numerical field had a maximum length of 16 digits, so the resulting output was catastrophically in error. The missile cost $500 million to build and $7 billion to develop. A subsequent launch in 2008 succeeded.
While the Y2K bug is considered to be a prime example of overreaction by people who were paranoid about something they didn’t understand, there actually were real world consequences to the most famous software scare of all time.
The basic explanation of the “Millenium Bug” proposed that many computer systems abbreviated the year, with only two digits causing systems that switched over to 2000 to believe the new year was 1900. A number of systems that depended on the current date would potentially go haywire.
The biggest quantifiable cost of the bug was the estimated $300 million spent by governments and corporations to fix systems prior to the millenium. It is not known how many organizations were actually affected by the bug after rolling over to the year 2000, but reported incidents ranged from United States spy satellites transmitting unreadable data for three days to a man in New York receiving a video rental late fee of $91,250– the cost of the film being 100 years overdue.
In May of 2010, the world’s stock market briefly crashed due to poorly-tuned high frequency trading software. A single trade is credited with causing the Dow Jones index to plunge 1000 points, creating chaos in the market. It was the biggest one-day point decline in history at 998.5 points; one trillion dollars temporarily disappeared from the market.
While the official story is still controversial, it seems that an innocuous abnormality caused trading algorithms to suddenly begin dumping stock. The ensuing domino effect exposed just how dependent stock trading had become on software that makes trading decisions in a fraction of a second.
On August 14th, 2003, 55 million people lost power in the Northeast United States and parts of Canada. The outage lasted for two days, and its cause was traced back to a software glitch that prevented an alarm from sounding at FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio. Had the system functioned properly, operators would have known to redistribute power from overloaded lines. The resulting power outage cascaded across the region, and the economic cost of the blackout was estimated to be between $7 and $10 billion.
For a company that built its reputation on perfection, the launch of Apple Maps was especially embarrassing. Along with an assortment of visual glitches and wrong street names, Apple’s map application also sent its users onto the tarmac of an airport in Alaska and left Australians stranded in the wilderness. Within a week of the disastrous software launch, the tech giant’s stock lost $30 billion in value.
The Affordable Care Act website, healthcare.gov, was set up to let U.S. citizens sign up for access to government subsidized health care, but buggy programming made it virtually impossible to use. Poor planning on the part of contracted web designers resulted in servers being overloaded with a flood of traffic, causing many to become discouraged with the program and give up trying. Republicans used the site's problems as an illustration of the whole ACA initiative being a failure. While the site improved with time, glitches have continued.
1.9 million Toyota Priuses recalled
In 2014, Japanese car manufacturer Toyota recalled 1.9 million cars, due to a glitch in its software. The popular electric hybrid vehicle reportedly was suffering a malfunction that caused it to unexpectedly stop for no reason. At the time of the recall, Toyota said that it was aware of 400 incidents worldwide, but no injuries had been reported. Prius owners simply had to bring their cars to a licensed dealership to receive a software update.