Communications Industry

The communications industry is chiefly about connections – previously mostly about connecting people to other people via the means of telephone lines, but nowadays connecting everyone and everything to everyone and everything else. While some of the most bullish IoT (Internet of Things) predictions have not come to pass yet, the industry is still connecting billions of things every year.

There is tremendous value from these connections, but there is also tremendous risk. Indeed, the entire industry is essentially in the business of making things tightly coupled and more complex – an inherently dangerous proposition. As such, the communications industry is a fruitful domain for exploring automation done wrong, albeit often in the context of many other industries with the communications part just acting as an enabler. Nevertheless, positive examples can be found too.

Automation done right: network fault detection and recovery systems

In the telecommunications industry, automated systems are typically employed by operators to monitor network performance, detect faults, and initiate recovery processes. These systems can quickly identify network outages, congestion, or other performance issues and automatically reroute traffic, allocate resources, or perform other actions to maintain service quality.

The performance of such an automated system is typically far superior compared to similar functions being done by a human – which would be impossible to the same level of speed and completeness to begin with. As such, it aligns well with a few key Mindful Automation principles:

  • Resilience and Adaptability: By swiftly detecting and addressing network issues, automated fault detection and recovery systems contribute to the resilience of telecommunications infrastructure, reducing downtime and ensuring continuity of service. Increasingly, such systems can predict problems as well as respond to events.
  • Human Wellbeing-Centric Design: The automation of fault detection and recovery allows human operators to focus on more strategic tasks, such as network planning and optimization, while reducing the stress associated with manual monitoring and troubleshooting. In this case, automating the task so humans will not have to do that anymore has broadly speaking been a good thing.
  • Collaboration, Inclusivity, and Global Perspective: The development and implementation of these systems involve collaboration among diverse stakeholders, such as network equipment manufacturers, software developers, and network operators, fostering innovation and benefiting a broad range of users.

Automation done right: Spam and Fraud Detection

Communication, technology and cybersecurity companies use machine learning algorithms and automation to analyze large volumes of data and identify patterns associated with spam, phishing, or other fraudulent activities. These systems can block unwanted messages, calls, or emails and alert users to potential threats.

This type of automation also aligns well with Mindful Automation:

  • Ethical Decision Making: By using automation to combat spam and fraud, telecommunications companies help protect users from scams, identity theft, and other harmful activities, thus promoting ethical outcomes.
  • Transparency and Trust: Companies that implement spam and fraud detection systems can communicate their efforts to protect users, fostering trust in their services and encouraging users to be more vigilant about potential threats. Being transparent about new types of threats that are surfacing also help users notice any such attempts themselves.
  • Human Wellbeing-Centric Design: Automated spam and fraud detection systems enhance the user experience by filtering out unwanted content, reducing annoyance and the risk of falling victim to malicious activities. Automating the filtering of malicious or harmful content is broadly speaking a good thing.

On the other hand, the communications industry has been involved or has enabled numerous badly implemented systems which have resulted in bad outcomes.

Automation done wrong: Smart Home Hacking Incidents

Over the past several years, there have been numerous instances of smart home devices, such as security cameras and smart thermostats, being hacked. These incidents have led to privacy violations, unauthorized access to sensitive information, and even instances of hackers communicating with homeowners through their smart devices.

Failures to apply Mindful Automation principles in these instances have included:

  • Ethical Decision Making: Manufacturers of smart home devices did not prioritize privacy and security during the development and deployment of their products.
  • Collaboration, Inclusivity, and Global Perspective: Manufacturers have not collaborated effectively to create inclusive and interoperable standards for smart home technology, leading to fragmented ecosystems and hindering user experiences.
  • Human Wellbeing-Centric Design: The design of these devices failed to prioritize the holistic wellbeing of users, including their privacy and security needs.
  • Regulation and Oversight: There was inadequate regulation and oversight to ensure the security and privacy of smart home devices.

These examples highlight the importance of adhering to the principles outlined in the Mindful Automation Manifesto to avoid negative consequences and create a more sustainable, ethical, and resilient IoT ecosystem.

Software error causes multistate 911 outage

As a more specific case, consider the 911 outage of 2014, when thousands of emergency calls from across seven states didn’t reach responders. The 911 outage affected an area of 11 million people.

The outage was caused by a simple coding error; a bug in the call routing software failed to properly route the calls. Out of sheer fortune, nobody appears to have died because of the incident – there have been other 911 failures that haven’t been so lucky in this regard.

The failure of the 911 system in this case falls short of at least two Mindful Automation principles:

  1. Resilience and Adaptability: The 911 system was not resilient or adaptable enough to handle the software error, leading to an extended outage that hindered emergency response capabilities.
  2. Regulation and Oversight: The incident revealed a lack of adequate regulation and oversight to ensure the proper functioning of the 911 system.

The FCC report of the incident draws attention to the preventable nature of the problem, calling the incident and flaws “simply unacceptable”.

Source: FCC