As tragic as it is, the Panama incident does not stand alone. In all, Baseline has found no fewer than a half-dozen cases in which software has contributed to loss of life. (See Eight Fatal Software-Related Accidents, Baseline, March 2004.)
At least three deaths were blamed on a software glitch that crippled the East Coasts power grid last summer. In 1997, the safe-altitude warning system at Guam International Airport inexplicably generated an excessive number of false alarms that planes were flying too low. As a result, air-traffic controllers cut back the distance scanned by the system from 54 miles to 1 mile.
The change prevented controllers from warning pilots of Korean Airlines Flight 801 that they were flying toward a mountain. The crash killed 225.
There are also scores of personal injuries in which software was at least partly to blame.
A rider on a gyroscopically controlled Segway scooter suffered a head injury because of a software-design gap and, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 476 people have been hurt because of a problem with a General Motors anti-lock braking system in use from 1991 to 1996. GM said the braking system wasnt designed to check for certain drive-train variables.
Certainly, deaths and injuries that can be in some fashion tied to software are statistically rare. Overall, software quality is "generally pretty good," says James Gosling, a Sun Microsystems vice president. But Gosling, regarded as the father of the Java programming language, which can be used to build applications that can run across diverse computers, says code-writing in many cases is still flawed.
Many specifications and designs arent thought out well enough. Programmers, no matter how good, make logical mistakes. In addition, testing procedures often arent rigorous enough, he says. And today, with so many software programs interacting with other software programs, theres no way to predict what will happen when two pieces of code come in contact with each other for the first time.
"The quality fight is never-ending," he says.
The threat of physical harm and crippled lives is escalating, now that software drives not just healthcare machinery, but our cars and our household appliances as well. It runs elevators and amusement-park rides. It controls just about every manufacturing plant, utility and business office in the country.
As software becomes more pervasive, software quality— long a discussion confined to software-development circles— becomes an issue for business executives, product managers, factory floor supervisors and, as the physicists in Panama found out, anyone who uses software in the workplace.