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How covid-19 uncovered a major computer disaster

Tangled networks of “legacy” computer software support banks, airlines, welfare systems and more – and the coronavirus pandemic has shown how vulnerable this is


4th November 2020

By Edd Gent

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, it brought with it an unprecedented economic crisis. As firms closed and people stayed at home, the country’s unemployment rate rose from 4.4 percent in March to 14.7 percent in April, adding fuel to a political fire that was already raging in a turbulent election year.

That is known. But the stories of many people who lost their livelihoods and sought help uncovered a slowly burning technological crisis. Outdated computer systems simply fell over trying to deal with the flood of people claiming benefits – and few knew how to fix things.

It’s far from an isolated problem. Decades of entangled networks of computer code, often written in programming languages ​​rarely taught or understood today, support IT systems around the world, in government departments, banks, airlines, hospitals, and others. Coronavirus has taught us a lot about how the systems we believed would support and protect us can fail in a crisis. As the effects progress, it becomes increasingly clear that we need to rethink the computer code that underlies many aspects of our society before disaster strikes.

There are thousands of different programming languages ​​that do the same basic task: translate real-world commands like “import this data” or “do this calculation” into the strings of binary ones and zeros that encode information in computer processors and memory chips. Certain dominate (see “Top 5 Languages”), but new languages ​​emerge as requirements change. For example, Google developed the Go language to streamline the development of large applications.