Know Your Environment: Oh Tay

Artificial IntelligenceYou may remember – it happened only last week – that Microsoft’s Tay got shut down for being a jerk.

The commentators already have speculated – and in the broad strokes properly, in my opinion – that this is because people were jerks. Tay- which, from what I saw, was pretty much a simple ELIZA brought forward a few degrees1. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but in the really broad strokes, one has to wonder what Microsoft was actually thinking by setting Tay up on Twitter and not having some safeties in place.

Please tell me someone on that team said, “You know, I think that this is a bad idea. We should add some safeties.” It’s like sending a kid on her own to a prison to hang out with the inmates and not expecting something to go wrong. “Pick you up at 5 p.m., have a great time sweetie!”

Maybe you’re thinking, “Twitter isn’t that bad.” Maybe for you it isn’t – for me it isn’t – because I attenuate who and what I ‘listen’ to. Clearly Tay didn’t. All things considered, that’s a pretty important thing for people to do – and frankly, it does seem like we humans get that wrong more often than not.

As Software Engineers, we tend to forget sometimes that while we are building interactions within complex systems that our participation is a functional part of the design2. We shouldn’t just be tossing things out into a Production environment without understanding the environment.

Clearly, the decision to put Tay out there did not factor that in – because it’s blatantly obvious from the days of Usenet forward, people can be jerks. Trolls abound. It takes something a bit more to deal with that, and they should have known that.

I’d wager that at least one engineer said, “This is a bad idea”. Listen to your team.

1Sorry, Microsoft, but that’s kinda what it looked like to me.
2Recommended reading: Design as Participation.

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The Future Is Not The Enterprise You Know

Greetings from Guyana to New YorkStory time.

When I was in Georgetown, Guyana in 20051, I snapped that picture of the television in my room. People called in to the station to relay messages to expatriates in New York so that they wouldn’t incur the cost of a phone call from the local phone company.

In the developed world, or the Global North, or the West, or whatever you want to call it, VoIP had already shaken telecommunications by 2005 and won. In the other parts of the world, state-owned or subsidized telephone companies fought to stay relevant.

In the context of Guyana, it took until 2015 for the Caribbean Court of Justice to rule against the telephone company. And I imagine that battle isn’t over. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen it in my travels, and it’s not the first technology either. It also won’t be the last.

Having now worked a bit directly with telephony and SIP trunks, spending late nights catching up to where the company was and then studying beyond it2, I have a good feel for what is possible. And I also know that the future is global, that infrastructure is subject to licensing across geopolitical lines, and that technology waits for nothing but ideas whose time has come. Having been involved at the World Summit for Information Society level at first directly and now vicariously, to get global the industries built around Enterprise have to change. Having been a part of a Pre-twitter clone (we copied them when we grabbed a flux capacitor?), we saw things change a year before Twitter. That change is coming regardless of how much people are in love with the present enterprise. Evolution awaits no one.

So, what’s the future?

We hear a lot about the Internet of Things (IoT). How disruptive it is. Most of that is marketing hype to get all of us to buy things that we really have no need for – and, to be fair, people usually buy it for reasons that I might write about on my other blog3. Behind all of that is an undeniable force of change that goes beyond the buzzwords.

A few data-points to draw the line for you.

Data-point 1: Telecommunications infrastructure is no longer the product it once was because of SIP (which most of you know as VoIP, but it’s bigger than that). It’s about the on demand use of the telecommunications infrastructure. You can think of it as time-sharing real estate without the need to worry about the last person leaving dishes in the sink.

Data-point 2: The laws governing telecommunication infrastructure vary across geopolitical lines and proceed at the rate of the internal geopolitical bureaucracy. That’s a nasty factor that everyone should know, but most people don’t.

Data-point 3: Oh, that little Internet of Things has spawned all manner of things, like the 10 Pine64s I have coming next month. I’ll be clustering those for my own purposes – but imagine those as part of a solution that, for less than $500. Do you think I’ll be paying Oracle or Microsoft for licensing for a database? If you think so, you’re nutty and should have your head examined. Even open source DBAs are cheaper.

Data-point 4: Bitcoin brought the block chain to light.  Think of a client as part of a Peer to Peer network where the client deals with licensing within their geopolitical sphere (see 2), thus avoiding licensing fees across geopolitical boundaries wherever possible, and otherwise diminishing them. Take a look at this post on blockchain, posted by Arvind Krishna, Senior Vice President and Director, IBM Research. Or consider how Microsoft has been rolling Windows 10 out… peer-to-peer.

Data-point 5: Open source software has come so far that the cost of the software itself for applications has diminished significantly – you don’t pay for software, you pay for the changes to it if you want the changes… or you pay for people to configure it for you.

Data-point 6: ‘Big data’, another overblown marketing phrase, is a driving force that will not be stopped – it will hopefully be curtailed for reasons of privacy, but again and again the world has shown that it abhors censorship and will – at the cost of individuals, corporations, or entire governments, if necessary – be had.

What does it all mean?

It means that a company’s infrastructure, unless it’s spread out over a large area, is pretty much going to be an antique soon. People espousing details on the how of Software Engineering will develop are likely to completely miss the what of the development; the what of development should be defining the how (Software Process 101).

The ‘data-center’ will not die. It will become less important and probably used to roll out continuous integration to a peer-to-peer network of SaaS. Data will make its way to whatever monstrosity of a database that’s out there, and if I were a betting man I’d go with Oracle more than Microsoft on that since they’re acquisition of MySQL probably wasn’t an accident. Sure, it’s not an RDBMS, but what’s the most used database on the Internet? And who now has a thermometer?

It’s happening. Now.

1: Doing some volunteer work with St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. IBM had quoted a million Guyanese dollars to do the local network for the hospital; we got a group of volunteers around the hospital to do it for the price of a pizza on a weekend. Sadly, because of internal bureaucracy, the network was not used when I left, but I do hope that changed in my absence.

2: Trying to plan for the future like any good engineer.

3: RealityFragments.com, where I focus on more creative and opinionated writing on things that aren’t technology.