Embedded chips a grim Year 2000 problem

Question: I have come across a term called “embedded chip testing” on a Year 2000 article. Just exactly what is it? –Eric

Answer: Many people think that the Year 2000 (“Y2K”) bug problem is limited to computers, but it’s not. The problem extends to any device containing an electronic chip that has programming built into it. That’s what an embedded chip is. When embedded chips, also known as firmware, are inserted into electronic devices, the programming on the chip performs simple tasks, like controlling the clock on a VCR.

Look around you. There are probably dozens of electronic devices in the room you’re in right now. Many of those devices have firmware in them. According to The Millennium Bug, by Michael S. Hyatt (Regnery Publishing), more than three billion programmable microchips were shipped in 1995. That number grew to seven billion in 1996.

So what’s the big deal? As you know, the heart of the Year 2000 bug is techno-shortsightedness. Once upon a time, some programmers defined the year in any program using two digits, like 98 instead of four digits like 1998.That’s fine until the clock ticks over from 1999 to 2000. Suddenly it isn’t sure whether it’s 1900 or 2000. All the system knows is that it’s the year is 00. It’s not sure of the century. That causes all kinds of trouble if suddenly an account on a computer system appears as if it hasn’t been paid since 1900. Suddenly, you could start getting credit notices or, worse, your utilities (phone, power, you name it) get cut off for non-payment.

Now extend that date bug to embedded chips. Maybe you don’t care if a chip in your VCR suddenly doesn’t understand the date, especially if it’s been flashing 12:00 since you bought it anyway, but embedded chips are in gas pipelines, power stations, and water treatment plants. They’re also in many medical devices and in your car.

Not all of those chips are at risk. Some were designed from the beginning with a four-digit year. The Gartner Group has estimated that more than “50 million embedded system devices will exhibit Year 2000 date anomalies.” That’s a small portion of the chips that are out there — but it’s a problem if one of them is controlling the morphine drip of a child or Aunt Maude’s pacemaker. Even if only two or three in every thousand chips are at risk, as Hyatt suggests in his book, part of the problem is finding them and, to answer this reader’s question, test them to see if they will fail come Jan. 1, 2000.

“A petrochemical firm tested 150,000 embedded chips and found that 100 were not compliant,” says Hyatt. “Another firm has 10,000 embedded systems buried in the North Sea. It will cost approximately $75,000 (US) to check each chip.”

There are other issues that make embedded chips a problem, says Hyatt. Replacement chips are not always available, especially for older systems. Technology to rewrite proprietary languages on the chips is obselete and not available anymore. Programmers to do the work to fix them are rare and busy. Testing a system with an embedded chip means taking the device that contains it out of production, which can be costly. There are thousands of manufacturers of embedded chips. Some are out of business. Some have changed their names and owners.

The bottom line: We have an enormous problem.

Hyatt’s book is a frightening but easy read. It’s scarier than any Stephen King novel. I recommend that you pick it up, then book a trip to some low-tech nation for New Year’s Eve 1999. Just make sure it doesn’t have an old nuclear plant nearby.

Another book you might want to look at is Time Bomb 2000, by Edward Yourdon and Jennifer Yourdon (Prentice Hall).