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Wanted: Bot mechanic. New nerds, apply within

Servicing your mechanical overlords

By Trevor Pott, 21 Mar 2017

Sysadmin Blog The machines are taking over. At the forefront of this change is the US Air Force, which now has more jobs for drone pilots than any other type. This is not likely to be an isolated event.

The USAF is populated by pilots who like to fly planes. This, combined with poor working conditions and fewer paths for career advancement, has led to fierce resistance to drones inside the organisation. And yet here we are.

Despite all the well-documented issues around the USAF drone programme and its effect on morale, the USAF just can't get enough drone pilots. If the air force, of all organisations, can be taken over by machines, we're all at risk.

Rise of the machines

Research and even some limited production runs of robots aimed at elderly care are emerging. It's easy to laugh at the state of some of these projects today, but ten years from now we'll collectively be climbing the walls for any help we can get.

In Canada, for example, there are already more people over 65 than under 15. Let's not even discuss Japan's population distribution.

Robot cars need no introduction, nor drone delivery ideas. They're mainstream enough to already be part of research projects to create robot garbage collectors. There are robot submarines and a seemingly endless list of other remotely operated devices. I was even a robot for a day.

The current pinnacle of robots taking over human jobs is probably Japan's robot hotel. There's a robot dinosaur guarding the entrance, robot desk clerks, baggage handlers, and many others.

It's these robots – the mobile ones – that fascinate me. These are the robots that I believe are the future of the end-user portion of IT administration and support.

Robot repair man

Those of you who fixed computers before 2000 probably remember briefcases or vans filled with a seemingly unlimited number of different cables, connectors and even software applications to communicate with the various systems we might encounter. Fixing computers was something of a chore – especially in the early 90s – because the industry fought standards wars on everything.

Robots are that, writ large. There are already more robotics companies today than IT vendors in the 90s, and in case you hadn't noticed from the gong show that is the Internet of Things, vendors care nothing for compatibility and less for security.

Fixing robots isn't just going to require wrangling the right cables, connectors or wireless protocols. Robots will be running proprietary forks of robotics-oriented Linux distributions, almost all of them out of date. There's also a huge discussion to be had about just how, exactly, the robot techs are supposed to log in to the robot to fix it. Either there's a password under a panel somewhere (bad), a pre-coded master password (very bad), we'll rely on the owner to remember (never going to work) or someone will try something involving the public cloud (apocalyptically bad).

Oh, and unlike the tech support horrors of my youth, robots move.

As with old-fashioned client-server computers, different skills will develop among robot support personnel in order to solve different problems. The on-site technicians will probably need a strong mechanical aptitude, replacing damaged limbs and spent servos alongside simple reboots or reloading the operating system. Think of these folks as the robot help desk operators.

Another class of nerd will be required, however, for the more difficult tasks. Robot sysadmins won't just need to know how to tweak a text file in /etc/ or fsck an improperly unmounted file system. They're going to worry about robot networking, data storage, privacy concerns, patching, backups and restoring to known good.

As machine learning moves out of the lab and into the mainstream, robot sysadmins are going to have to be able to determine if robot behaviour errors are because of hardware failures or because the AI has started learning inappropriate things.

They'll have to make judgement calls about whether to wipe a robot back to a factory state, roll back to a previous version, or start digging around in the innards of the data in an attempt to preserve what could be years or (eventually) even decades of critical customisation and learning. Remember, kids: backing up your robots is just as important as charging them!

Today's USAF drones might be properly change managed, with data and configurations properly versioned and logged. Enterprise drones may even have a similar level of rigour. Sooner than we think, these things will become the new normal in the SMB and consumer space as smartphones.

Keeping them running is one of the career paths today's sysadmins need to be considering. ®

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