Beware the network without an operator

A lot of people seem to be looking forward to the day we build a network without an operator; to wit—

Containerized solutions and machine learning may soon be more than tangentially related. Containerized solutions will usher in an era of operations that don’t require human intervention. Once humans are taken out of operations, we will be free to apply machine learning techniques to what is left. —The New Stack

I hope not, because machines are more brittle than humans. Totally automated security fails much more often than security that uses a blend of people and algorithms. Machines do well at repetitive tasks, humans at catching the things that don’t fit into the algorithm’s state machine. Taking the person out of the network just means there’s no-one there to see when the state machine fails.

And it will fail—at some point. I know we like to believe that machines break less often, but I’m pretty certain there’s a counterpoint to this: when machines break, it’s more likely to be catastrophic. I’m not convinced replacing people with algorithms always reduces damage so much as move the potential damage around.

I hope not, because machines separate the decision from the decision maker. Butting your head against reality means making decisions in the face of tradeoffs. Allowing machines to make the decision doesn’t really reduce the tradeoffs, it just pushes the decision back to the algorithm designer rather than the operator. Taking the decision out of the hands of a person who sees the actual situation, and handing it to a person who can white board a decision long before the situation occurs just means you’ve pre-decided, it doesn’t mean you’ve decided correctly. When a self-driving car faces the trolley problem, what will it do? Of course, a data center isn’t a car, but does that mean there will never be moral choices involved in running a data center?

I hope not, because when it does crash, someone still needs to know how to work on it. When machines become so complex that we can build them but not understand them, then maybe it’s time to rethink whether or not building the machine is the right thing to do in the first place.

When should humans be taken out of operations?