From Rossum’s Universal Robots to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “The Matrix,” it’s almost become cliché to fear the day when we humans become subservient to our machines. We haven’t hit the point where we’re enslaved by our contraptions, though we’re getting awfully used to being led around by them (press ‘1’ if….). For the most part, though, machine failures merely inconvenience and annoy, rather than oppress us. In Britain recently, though, a technical malfunction gave a glimpse of that machine dystopia.
A simple software upgrade gone awry sent consumers in Britain back to the barter age this past week, as the Royal Bank of Scotland’s payments processing systems stopped working from Tuesday evening until Friday, creating a huge backlog of problems that are still being dealt with.
The BBC noted that there were ripple effects throughout the UK. People either didn’t get paid or couldn’t make their payments, and online bills didn’t process because RBS and its affiliates NatWest and Ulster Bank could not settle transactions. At least one person spent the weekend in jail because the bank could not transfer funds for his bail.
Outsourcing the culprit?
Outsourcing, the longest four-letter-word in the working world, is familiar to Americans across many industries. Was it to blame for the problem? The Register, a UK technology publication, cited sources saying that it was and fingered workers at an Indian outsourcer who were not experienced with RBS’s technology.
But as this report in The Financial Times notes,
RBS denied that the problem stemmed from having outsourced key components of its infrastructure, insisting to The FT that the problem happened in the UK and with UK staff.
Regardless, executives at other banks have been scratching their heads about how it could take three days to find and fix this sort of software problem. That’s caused a number of critics to point to a huge cost-cutting and outsourcing program at RBS, which may have put it in a position where a critical system was not staffed properly.
Reuters reported that RBS could face £100 million (around $156 million) in costs as it deals with the aftermath. The bank opened 1,200 branches on Sunday to help customers deal with problems and is running extended hours this week.
Imagine what would happen if your bank just stopped functioning — you can’t even make a run on the bank, in that case. It’s a shocking problem, worsened by RBS/NatWest’s status as a bailout bank, now 80 percent owned by the UK government. The bank’s head, Stephen Hester, had to forgo a £1 million bonus after a public outcry earlier this year. This glitch, which The Daily Mail called “probably the worst incident of its kind since computerisation was introduced into banks back in the 1960s,” almost certainly means he won’t get one this year, either.
Perhaps the only good news in this event is that the bank wasn’t hacked. And that machines, even when unruly, are still ruled by us.