Wanted: Bot mechanic. New nerds, apply within

Servicing your mechanical overlords


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. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Robotics and 5G to spur growth of SoC industry – report
    Big OEMs hogging production and COVID causing supply issues

    The system-on-chip (SoC) side of the semiconductor industry is poised for growth between now and 2026, when it's predicted to be worth $6.85 billion, according to an analyst's report. 

    Chances are good that there's an SoC-powered device within arm's reach of you: the tiny integrated circuits contain everything needed for a basic computer, leading to their proliferation in mobile, IoT and smart devices. 

    The report predicting the growth comes from advisory biz Technavio, which looked at a long list of companies in the SoC market. Vendors it analyzed include Apple, Broadcom, Intel, Nvidia, TSMC, Toshiba, and more. The company predicts that much of the growth between now and 2026 will stem primarily from robotics and 5G. 

    Continue reading
  • Deepfake attacks can easily trick live facial recognition systems online
    Plus: Next PyTorch release will support Apple GPUs so devs can train neural networks on their own laptops

    In brief Miscreants can easily steal someone else's identity by tricking live facial recognition software using deepfakes, according to a new report.

    Sensity AI, a startup focused on tackling identity fraud, carried out a series of pretend attacks. Engineers scanned the image of someone from an ID card, and mapped their likeness onto another person's face. Sensity then tested whether they could breach live facial recognition systems by tricking them into believing the pretend attacker is a real user.

    So-called "liveness tests" try to authenticate identities in real-time, relying on images or video streams from cameras like face recognition used to unlock mobile phones, for example. Nine out of ten vendors failed Sensity's live deepfake attacks.

    Continue reading
  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022