FRIDAY’S computer glitch affecting the air traffic control system covering the UK’s air space did not come as the greatest of surprises. Thousands of passengers experienced delays due to the “IT problem” at the HQ of the privately-owned air traffic control firm, Nats, based in Hampshire, with more than 80 flights cancelled at Heathrow alone.
The “computer says no” moment, which came at about 3pm on Friday, soon spread across the country, with airports from Bristol to Manchester and Glasgow suffering knock-on effects.
The meltdown happened with uncanny timing just a week after the eminent scientist Professor Stephen Hawking warned that: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” His belief is that computers could one day take over as the pace of their advancement is much faster than that of human evolution.
Well, it would seem that partial artificial intelligence is already causing quite a few headaches as it is. A few cancelled flights is just the latest in a run of IT mishaps that give pause for thought as we race down the route of organising our lives according to gadgets.
Here are a few glitches that are surely just a taste of what is to come:
* In 2005 it was discovered that almost one million taxpayer records were mistakenly deleted from Inland Revenue’s computer system (covering the period 1997-2000) due to a software problem resulting in some people being owed £82m and others not having paid £6m.
* In 2008 the London Stock Exchange suffered a computer failure that took almost a full day to repair and affected £17 billion in trades.
* In 2012 Royal Bank of Scotland chairman Sir Philip Hampton admitted “unacceptable weaknesses in our systems” after credit and debit card holders were unable to use cards or access account details for several hours.
* In the same year, the floatation of one of the world’s best-known internet companies, Facebook, was hit by computer glitches in the Nasdaq exchange.
* During the 2012 US Presidential election, in some states, touch screen devices automatically changed voter’s choices from one candidate to another.
* More than 250 United Airlines flights were delayed, with many flights cancelled, due to a software glitch, also in 2012.
* Earlier this year, UK Border Force machines failed causing lengthy queues at airports. “We are experiencing temporary IT problems,” admitted an official.
* Earlier this month, problems with computers used by the Post Office in Britain led to sub-postmasters being accused of theft with 150 claiming to be wrongly prosecuted or made to re-pay money. An internal report found the computers “not fit for purpose”.
These are just a scattering of examples, but then there are the computers that fail before they even begin. Millions have been spent on a Ministry of Defence recruitment computer described as a “botched” job. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been ploughed into an NHS system described by a member of the Public Accounts Committee as “one of the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sector”.
In 2013, the BBC was forced to scrap a £98 million digital production system that the director general Tony Hall said had “wasted a huge amount of tax payer’s money”. The individual responsible for overseeing the software candidly admitted: “We’ve messed up, we’re sorry.”
Put it all together – and add in the countless times when you’re told that “computers are down” or the “internet is playing up” – and it’s easy to see that Stephen Hawking’s fears may be only too real.
If computers can affect world banking exchanges, democratic elections, immigration control, defence systems and government spending, it’s hardly a shock that an airport or two should close due to an IT flare-up. And if, as Hawking warns, “full artificial intelligence” comes – ie, when we possibly hand over decision-making to our hard drives – what happens when the “computer says no” and things go wrong then?
Anyway, I was lucky to miss Friday’s flight delays by a couple of hours, my easyJet plane to Geneva left in the morning. But it made me think about just how much we all now rely on machines that most of us don’t have the slightest notion of understanding.