Thursday, 19 October, 2000

Air Traffic Control System Crash

The FAA's air traffic control computers rejected last night's software upgrade, causing flight delays and cancellations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.  LAX was completely shut down for 4 1/2 hours.  A national ground stop order was issued for all flights to the southwestern states.  The problem was fixed before noon on Thursday (they reverted to the old software), but by then the damage was done.  Flights into the southwest were delayed or canceled, causing further delays and cancellations throughout the United States.  Some international flights into LAX were diverted to other airports because there was no more room to park airplanes at LAX.

The system that crashed is one part of the computer network that tracks aircraft through the nationwide air traffic control system.  There are 20 regional systems that cover the entire country.  The only one that failed was the one that covers the Los Angeles region.  All of the others received the same software upgrade and continued to work.

What caused the crash?  The new software wasn't able to handle data that was input manually.  When the system received data from a controller in Mexico, which doesn't have an automated system, it crashed.  They restarted the system about 90 minutes later, but it crashed again.  I suspect that there's at least one programmer who's deeply embarrassed.

The point?  Although the ATC system is complex, it's nothing compared to the software required to create useful cybernetic implants or nanobots that actually do useful work.  Extropians would have us believe that we're within a few decades (some say as early as 2020) of creating truly intelligent technology.  I have serious doubts.  To create systems to do what the Extropians want requires understanding and controlling software projects that are larger and more complex than anything ever attempted.  There is no evidence that computer programmers and project managers are capable of tackling projects of that scope.