Science Questions

With no humans, how long would automated systems run?

Sun, 11th Sep 2011

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Question

Vince Mills asked:

My girlfriend and I were having a discussion recently about how automated society is becoming. She posed the question. "If humans were wiped out overnight or very quickly by some kind of virus, how long would the automated manufacturing systems and computer systems continue to operate.?"

 

Vince Mills

Answer

Paul -   Well actually, we ran our previous supercomputer, which was a Sun, for probably about 3 months without human intervention.  (I won't go into why that was!)  Our current machine would probably run for a couple of weeks.

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The History Channel had a special called "Life After People".
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_After_People
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aftermath:_Population_Zero

Their conclusion was that the power grid would fail very quickly, perhaps within a few hours or days.  However, that is likely dependent on the actual power source and the amount of automation.

A coal or oil fired plant would run until its accessible fuel would be exhausted, probably on the order of a few hours or days.
A hydroelectric dam or wind turbine might run on "autopilot" for years.
A nuclear plant would also likely do well for a period of time, but would eventually decrease its power output over a few years due to fuel degradation. 

I don't know about safeguards and redundancies built into these systems that would require human input (or likewise would be independent of human input).

Thermostats, clocks, and etc all depend on the power sources.  Some things like some smoke detectors have battery backups that could last a decade or so without input from humans.

Certainly within a decade or so most power systems would be degraded and power distribution lines would be lost.

A few local solar systems might still be active, but even their battery backups would be failing.

I don't believe that we have any computers that would be capable of learning and autonomously expanding their role in society, however it is not inconceivable that over the next century or so we will develop some completely autonomous, and intelligent computer systems that potentially could endure in perpetuity, and potentially begin self-replication if allowed to do so. CliffordK, Thu, 2nd Jun 2011



What makes you think they haven't already developed sentience and are just biding their time? 

Congrats on the 1K posts imatfaal, Thu, 2nd Jun 2011



Have you used microsoft software? These sentient computers must being very, very subtle :-)

Electronic equipment has a finite life too and so do all the components. There are hosts of potential failure mechanisms with a variety of "activation energies" that determine their life vs temperature. There is a large element of statistics involved, so generally, complex systems will fail first as they are only as good as their weakest link. Even with in-built redundancy, failure will occur eventually. The spread on failures for different equipment is large so it is difficult to generalise, but I would hazard a guess that general computers (PCs etc) would die within a period of weeks, assuming no power failure, mainly because of a random, software-unrecoverable glitch (a hardware soft error that has not been predicted). Specialist equipment and computers, with very good software systems, may last some years with random failures gradually whittling them away (perhaps some would keep going up to 50 years or so - hard to predict). graham.d, Thu, 2nd Jun 2011

Vince Mills asked the Naked Scientists: My girlfriend and I were having a discussion recently about how automated society is becoming. She posed the question. "If humans were wiped out overnight or very quickly by some kind of virus, how long would the automated manufacturing systems and computer systems continue to operate.?" Vince Mills What do you think? Vince Mills, Tue, 13th Sep 2011

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