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Millennium meltdown
(Filed: 30/12/1997)

PSST! Want some canned tomatoes 92 years past their sell-by date that fell off the back of an automated stocking system? The person who posted the story to the RISKS Forum, a compilation of the dangers of daily life in the electronic era, warns that it could be an urban myth, but the story goes that a British retail food chain found it was dumping loads of cans of tomatoes due to be sold by '05 because the automated system designated them as expired.

Even if the story isn't true, it's a handy example of the kinds of quirk we may all have to live with through the rollover to the year 2000 and beyond.

Most press coverage of the Year 2000 problem has focused on computers - the fact that older software uses two digits to designate the year instead of four so that the computer can't tell the difference between 1900 and 2000, or that some database software uses "00" in the date field to mark records for deletion. What has taken longer to understand is how much more pervasive and difficult the problem really is, because all kinds of system have embedded, date-sensitive electronic devices.

People who don't own computers still own cars - and today's cars have as many as 30 embedded computers, several of which may keep internal date-stamped maintenance logs.

RISKS has been reporting Year 2000 errors ever since 1994: credit card readers that choke on post-'99 expiry dates, a Freecell player getting stuck on a single game when his system date was accidentally changed to 2097 (the random-number generator that picks the games uses a date-time function), and the British library whose card, expiring in '00, was rejected by the checkout system.

"I worked on an infusion pump in 1984-1985 for patient-controlled analgesia," says Bruce Koball, a specialist in embedded systems, "and the one that I worked on used a special time-date chip that had a two-digital year field." In such a device, which is designed to give patients control over their pain medication, the time-date chip ensures that a patient can't overdose. Depending how the device interprets the information it gets from the chip, it could refuse the patient any pain relief. Fix it? The manufacturer may be out of business; or the controlling firmware may be embedded in obsolete chips with no diagram.

Some purely mechanical problems are also only now being discovered. Susan Thomas, director of Unisys's Team2000, discovered that Unisys's 300 Pitney-Bowes mechanical franking machines roll over from "99" to "--". You can't, as Thomas points out in presentations, download a software fix from India; it's the kind of problem that requires replacement parts, which have to be manufactured and deployed. This and other non-computer-related problems affect whole supply chains; Thomas has found thousands of valves and flow control devices, all controlled by microprocessors, in oil's path from ground to your car.

This is the kind of problem that a half-day conference held at the Institute of Civil Engineers earlier this month was convened to examine. Lynn Craig, speaking for the Federation of Small Businesses, warned that the 80 per cent of British businesses made up of two to nine people should think through the consequences for their businesses if any of their key suppliers fails - she includes water, electricity, food, banking, communications, and media.

Alasdair Kemp, the Year 2000 Programme Officer for the Institute of Electrical Engineers, points out that answering the question may not be all that simple. Some systems must not go down: how do you test them? Or a system may keep working when you roll the date over, but then fail to restart the first time you turn it off for maintenance. Or you may fix one thing only to break six or seven others...

My own view is that while computers are the ultimate bureaucrats, humans are - or at least, can be - adaptable. We can look at a mortgage statement showing 100 years of arrears and say yes, that's got to be wrong, and we can buy candles, lay in some canned goods, and haul that old typewriter out of the back room. Equally, we can make problems much worse for ourselves (what happens if we all withdraw cash reserves and the banks crash?). "Have contingency plans," advises Kemp, "and be prepared for the possibility that some things might not work."

The IEE has prepared guidance notes on Embedded Systems and the Year 2000 Problem, available from the IEE at (01438) 313311

29 May 1997: Suppliers given computer warning

27 May 1997: PCs fail '2000 test'

12 April 1997: Millennium computer chaos 'will cost £31bn'

3 May 1997: Computers facing 'catastrophe' in the year zero zero

Last week's Analysis:

29 May 1997: (archive report)
27 May 1997: (archive report)
12 April 1997: (archive report)
3 May 1996: (archive report)
Make or break-up for Microsoft... one day

The Millennium Problem in Embedded Systems Institution of Electrical Engineers
Year 2000 Information Centre
CSSA Year 2000 Information Service
Unisys Year 2000 Home Page
Wendy Grossman's Home Page