Question of the Week

Could we cope without computers?

Thu, 21st Mar 2013

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show The Future of Digital Storage


Martin Harris asked:

We rely increasingly on computer networks. If a solar storm or malicious virus hit the network, could our current civilisation dependency on computer networks be damaged irreversibly?


This week, we contemplate a rather doomsday scenario…

Martin -   Hi.  My name is Martin Harris and I live in Chilton.  My question is, we rely increasingly on computer networks.  If a solar storm or malicious virus hits the network, could our current civilisation’s dependency on computer networks be damaged irreversibly?

Hannah -   So, could it spell the end of the world as we know it if all computers across the world crashed or could it lead to worldwide liberation?  First up, what could cause our computers to conk?  Listener Evan Stanbury from Australia got in touch with this…

Evan -   A widespread computer virus could impact our computer networks temporarily perhaps for hours or days.  Geomagnetic storms caused by solar flares can damage the electricity grid and cause widespread blackouts lasting days or even weeks especially in regions near the poles.  High altitude atomic explosions can cause an electromagnetic pulse that could shut down the electricity grid and fry the electronics in our computers, mobile phones and car ignition systems.

Hannah -   Not invincible then and computers don’t just sit on our desks as Mike Muller from computers chip design company, ARM explains…

Mike -   There are lots of different types.  They're in mobile phones, anti lock brakes, TVs, traffic lights, railway signal systems, and maybe the digital radio that you're listening to this on, and they're all joined together by computers and satellites, and once that run the internet.

Hannah -   So, what could the effect of a computer wipe-out be?  Stuart Coulson from the online security company Secarma said this…

Stuart -   I think the biggest fear would be medical devices.  If they were to fail, well that’s loss of life straightaway, critical care patients, they're unlikely to survive, alarm systems for vulnerable people, they're going to fail.

Hannah -   Plus, there's this…

Jonathan -   Hello.  My name is Jonathan Bowers.  I'm the MD of UK Fast, an internet hosting company.  I think the biggest area that would be affected would probably be the financial sector.  There’d be no more international trade, so day payments, things like immediate cash transactions or a stock exchange.  We’d have well, what you might call a socio-economic breakdown.

Hannah -   Plus, on the forum, listeners got in touch, highlighting computer crashes causing mayhem on the roads, transport failures, system shutdown, and inevitable food shortages.  But Jonathan also adds…

Jonathan -   On lighter note, evenings would be interesting with no more TV and an end reality TV at last.  So in that way, it possibly is a good thing.




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I don't think we'd wean ourselves off computers ever, but the potential impacts can be huge - just look at how much their recent computer glitch has cost Natwest. chris, Sun, 26th Aug 2012

Yes and no, although most equipment today has chips and transistors, much of that is non-software type programming. It is just logic circuits, and has no communication system to allow someone to reprogram it, from off site. You might be able to shut it down from off site. Or even turn it on from off site. But you cannot reprogram it. Most are made to be bypassed in an emergency. However more and more today I see the use of more and more complex systems.

Some companies in order to save money and stop their employees from cross firing heating and cooling systems. Have hired outside companies energy management companies to come in and take control of the heating and cooling units by satellite controlled systems. I installed many of them years back, with coworkers here in the Metropolitan area and on Long Island. We cut into thermostat wiring, so the people in the store cannot control the system. We monitor the amps the compressors and fans draw, we monitor the return duct temperature, and the supply duct temperature. Basically we take control away from the people in the store. And let a computer in California manage it. It is wild, when I am done hooking a system up, I call California and ask them for a packet 96, and in about five seconds, eight huge rooftop units, shut down with a powerful clunk. Showing that they have control of the system. Pretty scary that the workers were wasting on average about $3,000 a month, having some of the systems in the same building calling for heat and others calling for Air conditioning. Some workers are cold in the summer and some are hot. Some workers are cold in the winter and some are hot. Madness. 

Now they are making city stairwells, what they call positive pressure stairwells. They run ducts up the side of the building to the roof of the building, and penetrate each floor into the stairwell, to supply a gentle positive pressure in the stairwell. The systems that they are installing, have a fan cooled logic system, with a plastic housing. That gets partially mounted in a stainless enclosure. And is partially exposed to the outside weather. A fellow had noticed that on a hot day, on the roof, that the temperature of the equipment is probably too high for any kind of long term survival.

There is also a duct smoke detector installed inside the cabinet to shut the system down incase smoke is detected entering the air inlet on the roof. It seems like a cool idea, I just doubt the new technology is up to the task at hand. Plastic in sunlight is not my first choice it warps. Even the high heat in the stainless steel Hoffman cabinets will probably cause distortion of the duct smoke detectors housing. Chips getting cooled by outside or outdoor air is also not my first choice. 

You would be surprised how useless many computer systems are today for critical applications. Many systems get bypassed and what you see when you walk into a control room, is a fancy display of lights, led's, and piezo buzzers. With humans actually monitoring the equipment on site. Almost the whole control room is bypassed. You have no idea of the collapse of our infrastructure. Often the most complex computer systems and control panels, end up being a timer, or dry contact activated, single input alarm. 

Electromagnetic pulses would probably wipe out civilization as we know it. Because they would or could, send an abundance of particles of electricity, to gates in triacs shutting some transistors off prematurely. Or create a shortage of particles of electricity to the gate, and turn them on prematurely. More then likely frying a lot of transistors and chips either way. We see this all the time from ARC's in electronics systems. The smallest ARC from low voltage, can wipe out an entire system.

It is pretty wild out there.

I was just working in a place that has a problem with corrosion. There are no more working emergency phones in the most critical of places. There are no more fire alarm pull stations that work near these areas. A couple of the phones were ripped right out of the boxes by people probably frustrated that they found an emergency phone not working. It is a scary place out there.


                            William McCormick 

William McCormick, Sun, 26th Aug 2012

To some extent, the internet was originally conceived as a resilient network which can route around broken links and routers.

However, a widespread impact from events such as you describe could disconnect large sections of the population from communications. Our city-based society is rather fragile, and working on very lean margins - the average supermarket only stocks a few days of food. Without effective transport, communications, electricity, water/sewage and banking systems, things could get very bad, very quickly.

Geomagnetic storms can damage the electricity grid and cause widespread blackouts:
Military actions could cause EMP:
...and terrorists are always looking for vulnerable spots in the fabric of society.

Fortunately, the military has equipment designed to be used off-grid in electrically hostile environments, so they could do some coordination in many of these conceivable scenarios. evan_au, Fri, 31st Aug 2012

You can knock out most military planes with electronic weapons. Certainly with parabolic radio transmitters. The military has a bunch of junk. We could have made really cool stuff for our boys, back in the late fifties and early sixties, when the whole plant was on the same page with reality. Today though most people are half in the boson, cyber world and half in reality. It takes the minds of everyone in a plant to plan out a good project, and everyone has to be on the same page.

You need the equivalent of at least three walls of steel to block out a magnetic pulse. There has to be enough space between the walls to accomplish the re-acceleration, or positive acceleration, of the magnetic field you wish to protect against, back to natural ambient radiation levels. The old black box flight recorders were built and designed by a fellow I worked for, and they had three walls of steel. And they always made it home.


                            William McCormick William McCormick, Sun, 2nd Sep 2012

I am really very satisfied with this site and conversation too as it made me understood in a clear way about computers a lot Rohit Kashyap, Wed, 24th Jun 2015

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