• United States

I, automation

Jul 28, 20044 mins
Data Center

* Parallels between ‘I, Robot’ and automation issues

Recently I went to see the movie “I, Robot,” a futuristic story set in 2035, when the use of robots permeates our whole society. Despite the widely accepted use of robots in the movie, there are still naysayers, including the movie’s main character played by Will Smith.

Don’t worry, I won’t give away the ending, and there is a relevant tie-in to systems and network management.

While watching the movie, it occurred to me that the acceptance and use of robots in society as depicted in the movie actually parallel the issues with automation that many ITers are grappling with.

The first concern is trust. Can automation (or a robot) do a job as well as or better than a human could? Well it all depends on what tasks you assign to it. In the movie, robots served as FedEx delivery personnel, trash collectors, maids, etc., but people still ran the companies. This is a key point in the application of automation – use it to do the more mundane tasks that are repetitive and predictable and don’t take much decision-making. It is easier to trust automation to complete those kinds of tasks successfully. Applying the correct tool for the job is one of the most important decisions in applying automation.

Also related to trust is the second concern, the issue of intuition and judgment. Automation and robots do not possess the “soft” talents that a human does – they don’t have feelings, intuition, creativity and judgment. I hear it from ITers all the time – there are certain tasks that just have to be handled by a human to make the decisions. And that’s exactly right. So leave those kinds of tasks in the realm of the human ITers. However, as our technology evolves into the distant future, it’s intriguing to think that perhaps our automation may progress to being able to make some decisions, to simulate some form of intuition and perhaps eventually have limited judgment capabilities. 

The third issue is that of control. Some skeptics of automation point to the disadvantage of losing control of what’s being done to the infrastructure. But proponents see it as a means of effecting actions that a human has directed in the first place. It’s all in how you look at it. Automation requires initial input from humans to identify the conditions that initiate the resulting automated action, as well as to define the action that should be taken automatically. Much like programming, the programmer creates the logic and the program to accomplish the intended task. If the program is written correctly, it will perform the task as intended.

However, if the programmer doesn’t program it correctly, then there is a potential for problems. The resulting problem is not the fault of the program (or automation) itself; the fault remains with the person who created it. So for this point of control, testing and intelligently selecting the tasks to automate are very important aspects of maintaining appropriate control and reducing the likelihood of problems.

The fourth issue is need and value vs. cost. In “I, Robot,” Will Smith’s character’s mother wasn’t using a robot until later in the movie, when she won one in a contest. For some ITers, the perception of need and value of automation is not balanced out by the cost. So they will do without automation because they either don’t have the money to buy the automation tool or they don’t perceive that the value received justifies the cost. This is an issue based on perception, and is quite an individual thing. I’ve talked with users who can’t imagine using automation, and others who can’t imagine doing their jobs without it.

Finally, there is the fear that automation may run amok and actually hurt rather than help. This fear can be addressed by the answers to issues one through three – appropriately applying automation to the right tasks and rolling out the use of automation with care, through thorough testing and monitoring.

So although we don’t live in the fictional futuristic world of “I,Robot,” perhaps we can learn lessons to apply to our technology environments today. Automation can be a helper, but it can also be a problem if not used and treated properly. The outcome is in your hands.