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The computer errors from outer space

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Going to great lengths to shield a data center from cosmic rays, say by lining it with lead, would be eye-wateringly expensive. It’s much easier and cheaper to just keep geographically distributed backups of data. If the worst happens, customers can be shifted over to the backup server, says Grayson.

But for some applications, cosmic rays are taken very seriously. Consider the pile of electronics in a modern plane that connects the pilot’s controls to the rudder, for example. Tim Morin, technical fellow at semiconductor firm Microchip, says major aerospace and defense manufacturers use components that are resistant to certain cosmic ray effects. His company is among those that supply these components.

“It’s just immune to single-event upsets caused by neutrons,” he says. “We are not affected by that.”

Morin declines to elaborate on exactly the approach his firm took to manufacture computer chips that are untroubled by neutron interference, except to say that it is to do with materials and circuit design.

Clearly, not every application requires such high-level protection. And it’s also not possible to achieve this with every kind of computer memory, Morin adds. But for organizations that put planes and satellites above our heads, it is obviously an important consideration.

The technology upon which practically all of us now depend has varying levels of risk associated with it. But it’s important to note that, as the transistors in computer chips get smaller in newer, more advanced semiconductors, they get more susceptible to electromagnetic interference, too.

“The charge needed to reverse a state is smaller,” explains Rech. If only a very tiny charge is required, the chances of a subatomic particle inducing such a charge go up, in principle. Plus, there are growing numbers of computer chips out there, in devices from phones to washing machines. “The overall area that can be corrupted is actually significantly increasing,” says Rech. The subatomic rain falling down on our devices has ever more targets to strike.

The consequences of that could conceivably be said but, so far, it’s hard to known to what extent this could harm us or the systems that power the modern world. For Marie Moe, the strange behavior of her pacemaker on that flight to Amsterdam six years ago led to a heightened knowledge of the device that is so important for the healthy functioning of her heart. It even aided her research into the cyber-security vulnerabilities of pacemakers.

If a stray neutron really was behind it all, that’s quite a chain reaction. So at least there can be positive outcomes from bit flips, as well as scary ones.

“I’m really happy, actually,” she says, “that this happened to me.”

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