PARIS — The so-called millennium bug, or Y2K, was the first time many began to understand the full potential of malfunctioning software to do harm. Of course, the predicted December 31, 1999 disruption of the internet, electricity, banking systems, and transportation didn't come to pass in the end. Still, the threat of bugs (and not the crawling kind) is very much still a reality, as the world has witnessed recently with the crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX planes in less than five months, and subsequent grounding of the aircraft around the world. On Thursday, investigators in the Ethiopian Airlines crash eliminated human error from the equation, increasingly the likelihood that software was to blame.
The total death count of 346 between the Lion Air Flight from Jakarta in October and last month's Ethiopian Airlines Flight taking off from Addis Ababa is a sobering reminder that even the most intricate software systems can cause grave harm to humans. In recent decades, similar such incidents have occurred around the world:
Dhahran Missile Attack
During the first Gulf War, on February 21, 1991, a ballistic missile struck a US army barrack in Saudi Arabia, killing 27 and injuring 98 after a software error of the Patriot defense system created a lag of 8 milliseconds, preventing the missile from being intercepted. The Patriot relies on complex split-second computations tracking the target's speed, trajectory & predicted course. One of the two batteries were shut down to repair a radar malfunction. One battery was thought to be enough protection but there were multiple computer problems coupled with four continuous days of operation which caused a shutdown just a few minutes before the attack.
U.S. military personnel search through the rubble after missile attack in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Mull of Kintyre
On June 2, 1994, a British RAF (Royal Air Force) Chinook helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, killing all 25 passengers and four-member crew. This crash is considered to be one of the worst peacetime disasters suffered by the RAF as almost all Northern Ireland intelligence experts were on board. As a part of an update to the Chinook helicopters, FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) equipment was being integrated. A subsequent investigation by Parliament revealed that after examining only 18% of the code, they had found 586 anomalies.
The Therac-25 was a radiation therapy machine available in Canada and the U.S during the 1980s, offering a revolutionary dual treatment designed to use software based safety systems rather than hardware controls. The machine produced two types of beams; the first fired low-energy election which do not penetrate far into the body used for killing at shallow tissues such as skin cancer, and the second fired radiation via high-energy X-ray photons that travel further and are suited to treat deeper issues such as lung cancer. The removal of hardware safety measures caused the death of three patients from radiation overexposure of almost 1000 times the intended dose.
In 2018, a software miscalculation during a test run in Arizona of one of Uber"s self-driving cars killed a pedestrian, the first official death from an autonomous vehicle. The cars were constructed to include a lidar (acronym for light detection & ranging systems) sensor to help the car detect the world around it at any level of darkness. Although the car initially identified the pedestrian, the software registered her as a "false positive," thinking it was a can on the street — and kept driving.
Uber's selfdriving car postcrash — Photo: US National Transportation Safety Board
Ariane 5 Rocket
European Ariane 5 rocket was launched in 1996 to deliver a payload of satellites into Earth's orbit off the coast of French Guiana. However after only 37 seconds after its launch, the rocket flipped 90 degrees and began to veer off its path. Aerodynamic forces ripped the boosters off of the main stage, triggering a self-destruct safety measure. After a two-week report, it was found that the cause of the crash was a software error in the inertial reference system that reused the same code from the launch system's of the predecessor rocket, Ariane 4. The crash cost approximately $370 million, making it one of the most expensive software failures in history. In this case, at least, nobody was killed.