The job of the future isn't creating artificial intelligences, but keeping them sane

Once upon a time, we thought there was such a thing as bug-free programming. Some organizations still do — and woe betide their customers — but after a few decades hitting that particular wall, the profession has by and large accepted that writing software is such an extremely complex intellectual endeavor that errors and unfounded assumptions are unavoidable. Even the most mathematically solid of formal methods has, if nothing else, to interact with a world of unstable platforms and unreliable humans, and what worked today will fail tomorrow.

So we spend time and resources maintaining what we already "finished," fixing bugs as they are found, and adapting programs to new realities as they develop. We have to, because when we don't, as when physical infrastructure isn't maintained, we save resources in the short term, but only in our way towards protracted ruin.

It's no surprise that this also happens with our most sofisticated data-driven algorithms. CVs and scrum boards are filled with references to the maintenance of this or that prediction or optimization algorithm.

But there's a subtle, not universal but still very prevalent, problem: those aren't software bugs. This isn't to say that implementations don't have bugs; being software, they do. But they are computer programs implementing inference algorithms, which work at a higher level of abstraction, and those have their own kinds of bugs, and those don't leave stack traces behind.

A clear example is the experience of Google. PageRank was, without a doubt, among the most influential algorithms in the history of the internet, not to mention the most profitable, but as Google took the internet over by storm, gaming PageRank became such an important business activity that "SEO" became a commonplace word.

From an algorithmic point of view this simply a maintenance problem: PageRank assumed a certain relationship between link structure and relevance, based on the assumption that website creators weren't trying to fool it. Once this assumption became untenable, the algorithm had to be modified to cope with a world of link farms and text written with no human reader in mind.

In (very loosely equivalent) software terms, there was a new threat model, so Google had to figure out and apply a security patch. This is, for any organization facing a simular issue, a continual business-critical process, and one that could make or break a company's profitability (just ask anybody working on high-frequency trading). But not all companies deploy the same sort of detailed, continuous instrumentalization, and development and testing methodologies that they use to monitor and fix their software systems to their data driven algorithms independently of their implementations. The same data scientist who developed an algorithm is often in charge of monitoring its performance on a more or less regular basis; or, even worse, it's only a hit to business metrics what makes companies reassingn their scarce human resources towards figuring out what's going wrong. Either monitoring and maintenance strategy would amount to criminal malpractice if we were talking about software, yet there are companies for which is this is the norm.

Even more prevalent is the lack of automatic instrumentalization for algorithms mirroring that for servers. Any organization with a nontrivial infrastructure is well aware of, and has analysis tools and alarms for, things like server load or application errors. There are equivalent concepts for data-driven algorithms — quantitative statistical assumptions, wildly erroneous predictions — that should, also, be monitored in real time, and not collected (when the data is there) by a data scientist only after the situation has become bad enough to be noticed.

None of this is news to anybody working with big data, particularly in large organizations centered around this technology, but we have still to settle on a common set of technologies and practices, and even just on an universal agreement on its need.

These days nobody would dare deploy a web application trusting only server logs at the operating system level. Applications have their own semantics, after all, and everything in the operating system working perfectly is no guarantee that the app is working at all.

Large-scale prediction and optimization algorithms are just the same; they are often an abstraction running over the application software that implements them. They can be failing wildly, statistical assumptions unmet and parameters converging to implausible values, with nothing in the application layer logging even a warning of any kind.

Most users forgive a software bug much more easily than unintelligent behavior in avowedly intelligent software. As a culture, we're getting used to the fact that software fails, but many still buy the premise that artificial intelligence doesn't (this is contradictory, but so are all myths). Catching these errors as early as possible can only be done while algorithms are running in the real world, where the weird edge cases and the malicious users are, and this requires metrics, logs, and alarms that speak of what's going on in the world of mathematics, not software.

We haven't converged yet on a standard set of tools and practices for this, but I know many people who'll sleep easier once we have.