Automation and its Limits

What we do in IT is programming and implementing and maintaining automatism. The general usefulness is not really challenged these days, but it was quite a big deal a few decades ago.
Many routine tasks can be done more efficiently and more reliably or become feasible at all with IT…

Just think of getting money from your bank account. Banks typically offer the possibility to do that at the bank counter without extra charges or any questions. But such a trivial operation can be done at the ATM, even while the counter is closed and I guess it is quite uncommon to go to the bank counter for that. There are more complex issues in banking that do require human interaction and they can be addressed with a human.

Buying a railroad ticket can be as trivial as getting money from the ATM, if the software of the ticket vending machine is really good, the tariff system is somewhat transparent, understandable and simple or at least the complexities can be covered well by the software. Most tickets are bought from the ticket vending machine, but the human at the ticket office in the railroad station is still important for more complex tickets that are not covered at all by the machine or that are too complex to buy there. It is interesting to see what can work and what not, maybe in another article in the future…

Phone lines are more and more answered by a machine, which has been given a beautiful voice by a human speaker… „For ABC press 1, for DEF press 2,….“ and so on. That works well for the trivial and most common cases. No matter how good the software is, usually at some point a limit is reached and we do want to find a human. I wanted to find out if there is a packaging service at some airport. It was possible to call, but there was no possibility at all or at least not within one hour of trying, to get to a human through these menus. So in the end the question remained unanswered. For the railroad ticket this can be an issue, if a more complex ticket is needed in a minor railroad station, but that can be solved nicely by providing a phone number (with real humans in the call center) that can be called and getting the ticket printed in ticket vending machine. This is possible in Germany and quite useful and basically covering most needs, even if talking with a real person is maybe nicer than a phone call with a dying battery… In Switzerland the ticket vending machines have a VOIP connection to the call center, so you do not even need to use the phone, but I think they are constrained to what can be done on the ticket vending machine GUI, so it does not help to solve the more difficult cases… Maybe in the future as well.

More delicate issues are the nanosecond trading. Trading (they do not like to call it gambling) on the stock exchange, with foreign currencies and all kinds of derivatives is done by algorithms automatically. Using software that is faulty, using the same software in many places, more or less. And also the risk management is done like that. It could be seen positive, because some traders tend to lose the sense of reasonable risk and machines kind of eliminate the emotions that can be counter productive in trading. But the risk takers are still there, setting out more automated trading systems… Will these systems one day create the real stock market crash by running into weird directions because of having the same software bug or because a situation not anticipated when the software was programmed occurs? Is it good to take such high risks without human control? Or it is even more delicate, if algorithms decide who is a terrorist and send drones, off course without a court order…

An issue that is mentioned quite a lot these days is motor vehicles operated automatically. While I do question the excessive use of cars of our time, I do think that that is an improvement, because human drivers are not very good and too risky. For rail transport this is much easier to achieve and many modern subway system operate automatically without any known problems.

We should always ask the question, does this IT solution and the automation it provides serve the humans and provide an advantage. That is the stuff we should build and operate.

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