*Y2K: Computers On LSD?

Commentary, Disruption, Frontier Centre

The millennium bug is coming. And some folks are getting nervous.

At its worst, the "year 2000" or Y2K problem would cause a widespread failure of the older computers that were programmed long ago to save memory by recognizing only the last two digits of the year. The catch is that they will read the year 2000 as 00 or 1900, which will make them behave like Windows 95 on LSD, i.e. malfunction or shut down.

Are we at risk? Will society plunge back into the Dark Ages? Where some foresee unimaginable calamities others see only hype. The fact is that computers control everything from the lowly table toaster to the operating systems that regulate our electric utilities.

A worst case scenario finds communities shivering in the dark without electricity, heat or water and with their transportation systems paralyzed. January in Manitoba is no joke at the best of times. January with -30°C weather and interrupted power supplies would make Manitoba uninhabitable.

University of Winnipeg business professor David Erbach has raised a series of incisive questions about local Y2K challenges.

  • Can Manitoba Hydro guarantee that its own power system will work? A tricky problem is the software embedded in stand-alone devices. Consolidated Edison of New York recently tried moving up the date on one of its power plants. The plant shut itself down when its fail-safe triggers clicked in after monitoring devices concluded there hadn't been any maintenance carried out for 99 years. Does Hydro know that won't happen here?


  • How vulnerable is Manitoba Hydro to problems that arise elsewhere in the North American power grid? Manitoba has plenty of power of its own, but the grids are highly inter-connected. Can Hydro assure us it is able to isolate the province from outside breakdowns? Does it know? Without power, the pumps that supply both natural gas and water would be in jeopardy. Without gas for heating, water pipes would freeze and burst, and without water the city would be in dire straits.


  • Without electricity, the pumps at gasoline stations wouldn't work. Without the ability to refuel easily, how could we maintain truck traffic and the distribution of food?


  • The delivery of many crucial commodities, including the coal that fuels some power plants, depends on the railways. Would they continue to function despite the loss of power? Would they even be able to keep track of their rolling stock under those circumstances?


  • The air-traffic control computer system in the US is due for replacement, but the companies that might undertake the costly upgrade are afraid of the new system's liability implications. How vulnerable is Canada to air-traffic control problems?


  • With reduced air and land traffic, highly perishable medical supplies would be more difficult to distribute. When one realizes that Denmark, for example, manufactures half the world's insulin, the question arises: Can hospitals ensure an adequate supply of critical and perishable medicines?

These are life and death issues. Even a few days' disruption would be disastrous. Montrealers discovered that the hard way last January, when some people actually died after a freak ice storm caused infrastructure to fail. The city had to evacuate entire neighborhoods. At the time, Montreal was the only city with the problem.

In a Manitoba January, people cannot survive for very long without power, natural gas and water. Suppliers of these essential services must be open with the public. Do they know they can continue operations despite the Y2K rollover?

The public has a right to know. The clock is ticking.