Anyone who has been through a change in software platforms for their company knows that it starts out as a lot of fun, but then turns into drudgery. Initially, thoughts of all the new stuff and better programs makes it feel like Christmas. Then the reality of going through every single business process of the company hits home. You end up re-thinking vast chunks of the company’s business processes, much of which is terribly dull, even though it is essential. It is the only way to get it right and take advantage of the new system.
What you learn from such an ordeal is that the company software system is the repository of the company rules that define how it exists. Over time, the rules changed and evolved and the software was changed to evolve with the company. There were upgrades and modifications. If the software is old enough, there were modifications to modifications and many hands doing the work, many of whom are long gone. More important, many of the processes were created for reasons no one remembers. It’s just the way it is done.
The people who like to argue that complex systems cannot evolve from simple systems have never worked with business software. All complex business software started as simple software. Over decades, it evolved into highly complex systems that even the creators don’t fully understand. Usually, in the case of enterprise systems, there are teams who specialize in one aspect of the system. They have created interfaces that the rest of the system uses to pass data or call functions related to that area of the system.
The reason that systems tend toward increasing complexity is that the world is not a fixed place. Even small changes can require significant changes in how a company does business. In a government regulated industry like food or chemicals, the government is always updating the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). That means regular changes to the forms that are printed or the data that must be captured. That, of course, means regular changes to the company software system. Over time, those changes add up.
Now, the people maintaining and modifying the software are not rewriting large swaths of it every time there is a change. They make small changes, the bare minimum, in order to keep costs down and get the change done quickly. That means they take shortcuts, hybridizing other functions and applying patches to existing code. It does not take long before this gets out of hand and even small changes require lots of thinking and planning.
It is good way to think about all of human organization. The company that started out as two people, but grew to one hundred people, is at least a thousand times more complex than when it started. Obviously, the small town that grew into a city seems infinitely more complex than when it started. Even your social circle can suddenly feel wildly complex if your circle of friends expands to include people outside your initial peer group. Complexity grows at a rate faster than the growth the organization. That’s an iron rule of life.
The people working in artificial intelligence are running into this same problem. Replicating even the most mundane human task requires millions of lines of complex code. What we take for granted as humans is actually quite complex. For the same reason no one person can understand the complexity of their small town, the creators of AI cannot understand the complexity of their creations. Algorithms to handle one small task get unwieldy in hurry once they are interfaced with other algorithms to handle other small tasks.
This is why the robot future is a lot further away than the futurists want to believe. The cost of labor to automate a warehouse is a grain of sand on the beach, compared to the cost and complexity of automating a highway. Just as important, the cost of maintaining it is orders of magnitude higher. As every business owner knows, just because something can be automated, the cost of doing so often outweighs the savings. Put another way, just because something can be done does not mean there is a reason to do it.
Putting aside the cost of complexity, systems often become so complex that they become unpredictable. Even in business systems, which are simple compared to the software for driving a car, the complexity can reach a point where no one truly knows what will happen if some change is implemented. The result is a whole new process for performing quality control, to make sure the changes do not have some unexpected and unwanted downstream result. There are now certifications for software quality control professionals.
This is often why legacy systems are replaced. It’s not the technology, although that is often a handy excuse. It’s that the old system has so many patches and mods that no one knows how it works anymore. New changes result is weird outcomes and costly followup changes. As is true with everything in life, things sometimes get so complicated that the best answer is to start over. It’s why men leave their families and why people change careers. It’s also why the people stand aside and let the revolutionaries topple the rulers.
That’s what a revolution is, when you think about it. It’s a lot like the decision to buy a new software system for the company. It’s not that what comes next will be better. It’s that the status quo is so complicated and unpleasant, anything has to be better. Of course, just a new software never turns out as expected, revolutions always turn out to be a lot more unpleasant than anyone imagined. Instead of firing the initial consultants, the revolution eats its own, by killing off the first group of revolutionary leaders.
Even so, it is something to think about as the West struggles to reform itself. The web of pirates, grifters, reformers and patriots within the ruling classes of the West has reached a point where no one understands what’s happening. That’s why official Washington remains in a state of emergency over Trump. It’s why the European ruling class is worried that they may be too lazy to fight their own people. Everyone knows that the system is not working, but no one has any idea how to fix and everyone is afraid to touch it.
It might be time for a new system.