War Games – Too much automation?

Someday I will post my list of best computer movies, I have a quest to own them all.This morning my wife is gone shopping, so I have time to code on my own. I often like to have something going in the background while I do this, and today it was the movie War Games.

You can look up the movie for a synopsis, but I will describe what is important for this post. In the movie some smart scientist designed a super computer that could play war games. The idea being that it could run through the simulations of a nuclear war and process the outcomes without having to actually kill anyone. In the movie a simulation is triggered by someone else, outside of those in the know. So the system starts its simulation. But know one knows its a simulation, and they prepare for war.

But its all a game right? It got me thinking about the things that I automate in my life, junk mail filtering, hosting signups, bills I pay regularly. Really simple stuff. But I am just a person living his normal life.

The trends I see in the world are leaning towards automation. We dont have as man steel workers because we can have robots do it. The jobs that used to require 20 people to assemble a car can now be controlled by one person. Streamlining. Its inevitable. But how do we know when we have goon to far? The answer is only when something goes wrong.

It seems that only hindsight allows us to know what the proper level of automation is for a particular task.

In the websites I build, I often have a registration process. This process involves taking in a users profile, confirming their identity, maybe even charging their credit card with money. All things that used to be decided by a person. We plan and we architect and then we build. And when something goes wrong, we re-analyze and we redeploy. Something that is much easier done by a human than a computer.

Really this is all rambling but it has led me to a conclusion. I really think there is a saturation point where someone has to take over. Managers want to not have to do this, because they dont have to pay computers hourly for automation, but it can cause problems.

A perfect real work example of this (as i wind down) is the new Domain Transfer System put in place by ICANN at the beginning of november. Transferring a domain from one registrar to another has been a bit of a pain in the past. Not always, but only when the account information has not been kept up to date. When you hit that special case, it required faxing and phone calls and support time with the registrars customer service. So to fix this problem they put in place a new system. When a domain transfer is requested they send an email to the site administrator. And if the site administrator doesnt respond in 5 days to say the _DO NOT_ want the transfer, the transfer goes through: processed successfully. You go away on vacation, someone requests your domain name to be transferred to them, you dont respond ( because who checks their email when on vacation?:) ) and when you come back, your domain is now some business in Singapore. Not only that, what if this happens to a client, who registered the domain using their ISP mail account 3 years ago, and no longer has access to that mail.

There is a little more that goes into the process, but as you can see automation has taken over. The process was already automated. If the information on the accounts was correct, you were fine. If they were not, then it took a little work. Now they have taken the minor case, and automated it as well. Possibly to the detriment of the domain owners.

I suspect that automation played a large roll in Ray Camden loosing his yahoo nickname after years of ownership.

I guess the point I am trying to get across here, is that we, as the designers of these automated systems, need to keep in mind that sometimes the minor case needs to be just that. And that human interaction is a necessary part of successful business administration.

I am done now. Please re-join you with your regularly scheduled activities.

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