Monday 5 November 2018

Modern Magic, Modern Magicians

Arthur C Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It follows that those who master those technologies must be some kind of magician, and unfortunately empirical observation confirms that this is often that case. This can be a problem, because many people like to hide behind that kind of role, keeping those who are not gifted in that way in the dark and dependent.

Before looking at digital technologies such as AI, let’s have a look at motor cars. Used to be that in order to drive a car you needed to have a deep understanding of how the whole mechanism worked. Those who could afford a car could also afford a driver whose job was to keep it in running order as well as taking the owner places. Only enthusiasts, what we would now call early adopters, would tinker with their motors and get their hands dirty.
Nowadays, hardly anybody who drives understands how their machine works. Owners of new cars have little or no knowledge of all the complex engineering that is literally under the hood. Especially no clue about quite how much software there is now involved.  But it doesn’t stop them driving more-or-less successfully, of course, until something goes wrong. The only time they consult a specialist, a magician, who can fix the hex and get the magic flowing again, is when it goes wrong.

Radios followed the same trajectory, from hand-assembled crystal sets to disposable product, and now personal computers too. Only gamers are interested in building their own custom computers, the rest of us are happy to accept pre-configured slabs.
But what about software? The need for consumers to be software magicians has long past, and most consumer-facing software has grown to be much easier to use than it was. Mobile apps have also contributed enormously to software ease of use. Generally speaking this is because, like cars and radios, many millions of people have the same requirements.

Enterprise needs are often unique, or at least somewhat special; a mix of common and specific. This means that magicians have to be involved, but that is changing too. More and more of the ability to cast those software spells is being automated. Just like many other jobs, the robot magicians are replacing humans for routine work. And let’s face it, much of what we do is routine.

So where does that leave the magicians? Working on the gnarly problems that the robots can solve yet for some, and for others looking to see how they can add value and equal the quality of experience offered by consumer software. My next post will expand on that theme.

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