Could we cope without computers?

21 March 2013

Question

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?

Answer

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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