I like automation as much as the next lazy system administrator does but I'm more than a little disturbed by a conversation that I had yesterday (July 12, 2012) with Jonathan Crane, CCO of IPSoft. He and I spoke at length about the implications of having so-called "Virtual Engineers" executing through complex troubleshooting routines, creating new decision trees, employing the "shotgun" approach and finally dispatching a human engineer for advanced analysis and problem resolution. The funny thing is that the Virtual Engineer watches the human engineer's actions and learns the new procedures for next time. The goal is to create a Virtual Engineer that can handle just about any Level I, Level II and Level III analysis and troubleshooting episode that occurs in a data center.
Scary? Maybe. Possible? Yes.
What disturbs me most is that I can actually visualize a Virtual Engineer replacing thousands of workers in all sorts of lower-level to middle-level support roles. And, if it's possible in computer support roles, why not others?
General Practice Physicians
But, before you, or I, go off on a tangent here, let me explain that I'm not inferring that this in any way smacks of Science Fictionesque automatons reacting to voice commands or any other robotic "beings" of any kind. These Virtual Engineers are complex artificial intelligence programs running on computers. They are algorithms, code branches and well, at the lowest level, basically ones and zeros.
There's no biologic material involved nor are any animals harmed in their creation.
So, what's the harm you ask?
Simply stated, "Why does everyone want your tech job?"
It's not like tech workers get paid a tremendous amount of money for the work they do. It's not like we're bringing home multi-million dollar paychecks plus perks and bonuses. We're at the bottom of the food chain. Why replace us?
Personal Historical Sidebar
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I decided to learn LISP and Prolog (Artificial Intelligence (AI) programming languages) because, as a practicing bench Chemist, I wanted to create an "expert system" designed to perform organic chemical syntheses. My thought was that, once programmed with all of the historical and current chemical synthesis methods, my expert system could be fed a list of starting materials, a final product and magically it would create the synthetic pathway for me. "What an excellent way to create new medicines," I thought. Of course, I switched careers completely soon after and forgot all about that rather lofty aspiration.
First, it was simple automation to rid an environment of the lowest paid employees in the corporate bioverse. Those automated phone systems that cost thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars replace people who make 20 percent above minimum wage. Is that really where you need to shave off excess spending?
Second, it was the whole offshore outsourcing trend (debacle) to eradicate people making between $35,000 and $85,000 per year as computer techs, database administrators and advanced level engineers. And, the savings for doing this are nominal but the havoc on the economy is signifcant.
Finally, now the offshored programmers are going to create Virtual Engineers to replace the few US-based workers left plus all of the foreign ones. That will surely take its toll on the emerging middle classes of Eastern Europe and Asia.
At least Virtual Engineers would save real money for corporations that employ them.
However, if corporations really want to save money, their Boards of Directors would replace the C-Level positions on down to mid-level management and leave the workers alone. Everyone knows, or should know, that, in an organization of any size, your stars (Generals) and your stripes (Enlisted ranks) run the show. Everything in between is administrative, paper-pushing and job justification. There's no real productivity.
Sure, they're needed but what they do could be automated in the form of Virtual Managers. Even I can program a computer to make bad decisions. At least the computer would have the correct timing.
But, in the interim, I think that offshore outsourcing management positions and C-Level executive positions would save a tremendous amount of money for companies. And, like offshoring tech jobs to cheap labor locations, the quality would be just as good for those upper level jobs.
So, why does a Virtual Engineer want your tech job when it could have a management position instead?
Just think of the stock boost that automating management and executive slots would create.
So, my question to the very nice people at IPSoft is, "Why waste your time alleviating low paid tech positions?", when the highly compensated and overly perked managerial and executive jobs is where you want to focus your efforts. You're welcome.
Don't take my levity on this topic as disrespect for what IPSoft has accomplished with their development of the Virtual Engineer. I'm impressed, frankly, because I happen to know first hand what's required to create an expert system. I'm not in any way diminishing their efforts, however it does bother me a bit that my job and your job might be replaced by a few thousand lines of code.
That code doesn't have children to raise, mortgages to pay nor lives to live. I think that we have to balance our greed with frugality. And, sometimes frugality means doing what's right in "big picture" terms, not just for short-term gain.
And, all this because Alan Turing once posed the question, "Can machines think?"
Stay tuned for an upcoming podcast exploring artificial intelligence in more detail.
Would you use Virtual Engineers, Virtual Physicians or Virtual Lawyers for work at your company? Talk back and let me know.
*In many cases, it would be a huge improvement.
**In all cases, it would be a huge improvement.