Who decides to take a risk? A Computer or a Human…

Risk pervades life. We take risks every day; for example, when crossing a road or driving a car. The companies we work for take risks. In fact, they thrive by taking risks and successfully mitigating and managing the consequences. Indeed, large companies usually have mature enterprise-level risk management regimes – see some nuggets here – and employees leading the build, test and delivery of technology-intensive systems normally have instinctive risk management characteristics underpinning their career success. The Badger’s delivery experience has emphasised that while formal risk management processes and controls are important, it’s always the people – project, programme, service and business leaders – that must ultimately decide on what risk to take. After all, it’s people at the end of the day who are responsible for the outcomes of their decisions and pay the price for getting it wrong. Today’s predictable departure of the TSB Bank CEO for a botched migration to a new IT system illustrates the point.

Why has the Badger been thinking about risk? Because the news that an Apple ‘driver-less’ vehicle was rear-ended by another vehicle while waiting for a safe gap to join a freeway in California reinforced the Badger’s belief that a human rather than a computer system must decide on whether to take a risk or not.

‘Driver-less’ vehicle technology is advanced, and – if you believe the hype – there’ll be millions of such vehicles on roads within ten years. Big auto and tech companies apparently have up to ~100 vehicles each currently under test on public roads. That’s a very small number compared with daily traffic volumes, and anyone who’s delivered technology-intensive projects and programmes knows that a) things can change dramatically as volumes rise, b) non-technological things like politics and laws can cause serious delay, and c) ‘introduction to service’ at scale with end-users is always challenging! Accordingly, and you may vehemently disagree, the Badger feels that ‘driver-less’ vehicles are over-hyped and the likelihood of significant numbers on UK public roads within 10 years is low.

Why does the Badger hold this view? It’s nothing to do with how good the technology is. It’s because humans have managed risk, and gained excitement from doing so, since the Stone Age. It’s in our make-up. It’s part of why our species is successful. Humans have always used available information before taking a course of action, so it’s unlikely we’ll be psychologically comfortable with completely delegating our risk decisions to computer systems, no matter how clever they are.

In a world that seems increasingly chaotic, it doesn’t feel right to allow advanced, self-learning computer systems to decide on the risks we take in our daily routines. Whatever next! Will machines take all the fun out of life? Hopefully not, but perhaps the future that underpinned the Terminator film in 1984 isn’t that far away after all…

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