Tech giants are in a fight against time. No, they do not compete with each other to launch an innovative tool in this case. In fact, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Meta have teamed up to try to do away with the leap second, when an extra second is added to the world’s clocks to synchronize them with the Earth’s rotation.
For services that depend on the internet — such as timers, schedules, databases — this increase in time has the potential to generate errors (bugs), bring down websites, interrupt systems, among other problems, according to big techs. This happens because the machines cannot decode this account.
Along with technology companies, government agencies National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in France argue that adding this second is useless. In addition, the Earth’s rotation speed has not undergone major changes over the years, which could justify its need.
“Introducing new leap seconds is a risky practice that does more harm than good, and we believe it’s time to introduce new technologies to replace it,” said Oleg Obleukhov, product engineer at Meta, and scientific researcher Ahmad Byagowi, in post on the company’s blog on Monday (25).
Why did the leap second arise?
Many years ago, it was agreed that the day on Earth would be determined by the rotation of the globe on its own axis and its orbit around the Sun. It’s what they call a solar day.
To set and time time, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) was created. He rules the world’s clocks. Our concept of time on Earth — or time space — is a fraction of the solar day (an hour, for example, is a fraction of the solar day).
But historically, the Earth’s rate of rotation is not as accurate as clock numbers. The process can speed up and slow down depending on a number of factors. Therefore, solar time and the coordinated universal time of clocks create a difference over the months.
On July 19, 2020, for example, the planet completed its rotation 1.4602 milliseconds faster than the usual 86,400 seconds (24 hours).
And it is to compensate for this difference that the leap second (also called the additional second or leap second) is used. Since 1972, when it began operating, timing authorities have added an additional 27 times an additional second to the global clock, known as International Atomic Time (IAT).
Instead of 23:59:59 changing to 0:0:0 at midnight, an extra 23:59:60 is inserted. This update is usually done on June 30th or December 31st.
When doing this process, computers get confused. They work with the idea of 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute, summarizes the website The Verge.
Controversy is not new
At least since 2012, the fight against the leap second has gained more arguments. That year, failures were recorded in services such as the Mozilla internet browser and on LinkedIn, Yelp, Amadeus and Reddit platforms.
In 2017, the addition of the second affected software from the online security company Cloudflare, leaving some customers offline. Earlier this year, some websites were also affected.
For Meta professionals, the time adjustment “mainly benefits scientists and astronomers”, but should be replaced, given the chaos it brings.
“We are predicting that if we stick to the IAT (International Atomic Time), without observing a leap second, we should be good for at least 2,000 years,” said Ahmad Byagowi. He meant that, in practice, the day on Earth would not get out of sync with the Sun without this addition.
“Perhaps at this point we may need to consider a correction,” the scientist continued. Despite the suggestion, the duo does not defend any practical strategy that actually replaces the leap second.
Google, for example, found a temporary solution to deal with the problem: the “leap spot”. In 2011, they started spreading out those extra seconds over the course of a day.
“We modified our internal (…) servers to gradually add a few milliseconds with each update, varying in a window of time before the moment when the leap second actually happens,” the company explained at the time. So when it came time to add an extra second to midnight, Google clocks already took that into account, skewing time throughout the day.
With US and French government agencies in the chorus of malcontents, big techs want technology more palatable to machines — and astronomers — to be introduced in the next decade.
The expectation is that the solution can already be pointed out next year, when a report on the subject will be published. The document has been commissioned by the UN International Telecommunication Union (United Nations) since 2015.
*With information from The Verge and Cnet.