Investigators probing two deadly crashes of Boeing Co. 737 MAX airliners are grappling with a hybrid of old and new technology, where a complex piece of software controls hydraulic pumps and motors similar to those used when Lyndon Johnson was president. The plane, first designed in the 1960s and modernized three times, is caked with successive generations of technology superimposed on each other. Digital retrofits to older equipment like the 737 MAX’s anti-stall system—known as MCAS and suspected of having contributed to the crashes that together claimed 347 lives—are increasingly common. From smart-home devices that control oil-burning furnaces to mainframe computers that oversee decades-old power grids, digital controls are popping up everywhere around the mechanical world.
Software has underpinned the internet’s virtual world from inception, of course, and has shown both its potential and vulnerability. Now, with the cost and size of digital sensors plunging and the ability to transmit data ballooning, more physical objects than ever are getting linked through software. Even before the Internet of Things becomes a pervasive reality, tech experts and public-safety professionals are fretting over the intersection of virtual and real in what they call cyber-physical security. The worry is that engineers are putting mechanical systems under the command of computers and algorithms without fully understanding the consequences. Problems include confusion about how controls work, software bugs leading to physical accidents and, most worryingly, cyberattacks on infrastructure like power stations or chemical plants that could cause catastrophes.
Cyber crime and malware have long plagued the virtual world, though data breaches, theft and extortion rarely cause direct physical harm. Software bugs can also arise in physical equipment that is designed from scratch with digital controls, like electric cars, medical equipment and drones. But creators of those systems from the outset link hardware and software, and engineers test the products with both in mind. Retrofitted equipment, experts say, is rarely vetted so thoroughly.
Automation offers huge benefits, even for decades-old mechanical equipment. Computers can run most machinery faster, more precisely and more efficiently than humans. While automation can cost workers jobs, it can also eliminate drudgery and danger. But integrating computers into “dumb” machines poses challenges. Britt Storkson, a designer of electronic controls for industrial pumping equipment in The Dalles, Ore., says careless computer retrofitting of mechanical gear has become “a serious problem you see in industry all the time.” He has seen computer processors locking up, stopping heating and cooling equipment, conveyor belts and industrial-process systems.
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