Computer errors from space

Going to great lengths to shield a data center from cosmic rays, such as covering it with lead, would be very expensive. It is much easier and cheaper to maintain geographically distributed data backups. If the worst happens, clients can be transferred to the backup server, says Grayson.

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

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

Morin declines to elaborate on the exact approach his company has taken to making computer chips that are unaffected by neutron interference, except to say it has to do with materials and circuit design.

Obviously, not all applications require such high protection. Nor is it possible to achieve this with all types of computer memory, adds Morin. But for organizations that put planes and satellites above our heads, this is obviously an important consideration.

The technology that virtually all of us depend on today has varying levels of risk associated with it. But it is important to note that as computer chip transistors become smaller in newer and more advanced semiconductors, they become more susceptible to electromagnetic interferencetoo.

“The charge required to invert a state is smaller,” says Rech. If only a very small charge is required, the chances of a subatomic particle inducing such a charge increase, in principle. Additionally, there are a growing number of computer chips, in devices ranging from phones to washing machines. “The global area that can be corrupted actually increases significantly,” says Rech. The subatomic rain that falls on our devices always has more targets to hit.

The consequences of this could be disastrous, but so far it’s unclear how much it could harm us or the systems that power the modern world. For Marie Moe, the odd behavior of her pacemaker on that flight to Amsterdam six years ago led to increased knowledge of the device that is so important to the proper functioning of her heart. He even helped his research in pacemaker cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

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

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

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