In the current Business Week, Steve Hamm writes about the state of what’s come to be known as “autonomic computing.” The term was coined a few years back by IBM’s Paul Horn, in a paper called Autonomic Computing Manifesto, and Hamm does a good job of distilling Horn’s idea:
Scientists needed to come up with a new generation of computers, networks, and storage devices that would look after themselves. The name for his manifesto came from a medical term, the autonomic nervous system. The ANS automatically fine-tunes how various organs of the body function, making your heart beat faster, for instance, when you’re exercising or stressed. In the tech realm, the concept was that computers should monitor themselves, diagnose problems, ward off viruses, even heal themselves. Computers needed to be smarter. But this wasn’t about machines thinking like people. It was about machines thinking for themselves.
I contribute a brief quote to Hamm’s article, though I have to admit to being a little ambivalent about “autonomic computing.” It’s not that I have any problem with the concept of simplifying and automating many of the basic computer operations that today tend to be highly complicated, requiring a lot of manual intervention by people. That shift is necessary and, I feel, inevitable. What bothers me is the term “autonomic computing” itself. It’s a bad metaphor.
The real power of the idea is not that computers will run themselves, in the way that the autonomic nervous system runs itself. Rather, it’s that, by automating many of the lower-level computing chores, like allocating computing, storage, and network capacity, setting up new applications, metering usage, and so on, people actually gain greater control over the systems. We become able to program the way the systems work at a higher level, establishing the criteria, for instance, that determines how different computing jobs get prioritized based on our company’s business needs.
We don’t want computer systems to breathe by themselves, in other words. We want to be able to tell them exactly how we want them to breathe, to be able to set and adjust their “heart beat” to suit our own requirements. Automating computing is – or should be – all about giving people, not machines, greater control.