“Computer Apocalypse will Take Place in 2038”

In twenty years, the dating of computer systems is likely to go haywire: the consequences could be disastrous.

The computer apocalypse breaks out. Given the fears that had surrounded the famous Millennium Bug of 2000 – due to which, among other things, aircraft should have crashed in every part of the world (but thanks to a little ‘maintenance did not cause particular problems) – the risk it is above all that the new bug that threatens to overturn IT systems is taken too lightly.

First of all, what is it? The problem of the year 2038 (as it is called) is caused by the limitations of 32-bit computer systems, which are able to calculate a maximum value of 2,147,483,647. Since computers measure the time from January 1, 1970, here on January 19, 2038, the seconds that the system is able to calculate will run out. At that point, all the watches managed by Unix will take on a negative sign (-2.147.483.647); a value that computers will interpret as December 13, 1901.

Nobody knows exactly what consequences this problem could entail: most systems could simply report the date incorrectly, other systems could stop working. And considering that computers play a key role in areas such as finance, defense, security, flight control and the management of crucial infrastructures of various kinds (such as power plants), this could be a big problem.

“Banks could go haywire and not be able to execute transactions, the home alarm could go crazy, GPS systems could stop working,” said IT expert Mikko Hypponen last year. But is it really inevitable that all this happens? “The answer is no,” wrote Samuel Gibbs on the Guardian. “Not if IT systems are updated in time. Most modern computer processors today run on 64-bit systems (which move the problem forward by 290 billion years). And although many Unix systems used for servers and for managing other hardware use 32-bit systems, over time most of them should be replaced. ”

The problem, however, is that there are hundreds of millions of 32-bit devices on the market, many of them in integrated systems that can not be upgraded – used for example in transport systems – and which must therefore be replaced. As Hypponen pointed out, it is difficult to be sure that all the necessary work will be carried out in time.

A little taste of this was four years ago, when the video of Psy Gangnam Style surpassed the two billion views on YouTube, breaking – so to speak – the 32-bit counter of the platform and forcing the engineers to replace it with a 64-bit one. “We never thought that 32 bits would not be enough to count the views of a video,” explained the YouTube technicians. “But this was before we got to know Psy”.

In a sense, then, it was the author of the catchphrase that has long plagued us to have shown how the 32-bit systems really risk going haywire in 2038. The good news is that we have plenty of time to deal with the problem: if human beings were to prove incapable of finding a definitive solution to the problem, within two decades there will surely be some artificial intelligence that can do it.