Einstein, Leonardo, Coleman, ClAIre … 18c: what’s in a name?

This blog post is part of our Essential Guide: OpenWorld 2017 in review: Oracle cloud offerings at center stage

Oracle launched what it has described as the “world’s first autonomous database” at OpenWorld this week in San Francisco.

CTO Thomas Kurian said, in the press conference following his keynote at the event, it has been working on the new iteration of the Oracle database for a good many years, which has to mean before machine learning became as fashionable as it now is.

The 18c database has a new layer of automation infused into it, meaning, as an example, security patches to fix code flaws that are at risk of hacker exploitation are applied automatically. In both his conference keynotes, Oracle founder, chairman, and CTO Larry Ellison referred to the recent Equifax data loss as an example of why humans have to be taken out of patching in order to reduce the opportunity for error.

The automation added to the database is said to be an example of machine learning in action. Ellison said ML is as radical as the internet itself, and that his company’s new “autonomous” database is “revolutionary” – a term that he said he did not apply lightly.

This stress on machine learning has, of course, been commonplace in the world of enterprise software in recent years. A galaxy of human geniuses – Einstein for Salesforce, Leonardo for SAP to name but two – has been invoked to name a new generation of enterprise software inflected by machine learning.

But why has Oracle refrained from naming their artificial intelligence/machine learning efforts? UK, Ireland and Israel managing director Dermot O’Kelly said, in an interview with Computer Weekly that he thought the epithet “revolutionary” was indeed appropriate for the new iteration of the database and saw no issue with Oracle’s not giving a “fancy” name to its machine learning initiative.

“Unless you know another fully autonomous database then, yes, it is revolutionary. Our customers know immediately what an autonomous database would be – it patches itself, it upgrades, it scales ….

“We keep naming very simple, that is the way Larry likes it. Embedding AI into the applications or the database is much more important than giving it a fancy name. Not one customer I’ve spoken to at Open World has asked me what it is called. I talk to a lot of CIOs who have all done bits with AI, but having it delivered to them embedded into a product set helps them with their journey to using it”.

It is surely reasonable to perceive the naming of AI/ML enterprise software programmes after rare human geniuses as pretentious. However, Oracle’s “no name” approach betrays a pragmatic approach – of which they are making a virtue – that could be said to be lacking in imagination, and so subserving an incrementalist agenda.

Moreover, is there not a difference between automation and autonomization – the latter being the realm of AI in its fullest sense, where computers think like humans, learn by themselves, without human input? Automation, on the other hand is about incrementally improving operational processes, and  reducing human input – and so opportunity for error: and has been the point of business computing all along, so no big change there. Also, in terms of the database, I wonder if the approach of making it more and more automatic – which Oracle has to do, and which has business value for users – in the end risks increased commoditization of the database bit of the IT industry? It might keep you off the front page for losing customer data, but it won’t differentiate your business strategically.

These are open questions, and, as Dermot O’Kelly says it is easier to say than to do autonomy in the database realm.

I discuss these, and other issues provoked by OpenWorld 2017 with my TechTarget colleagues David Essex and Jack Vaughan in a couple of linked podcasts on SearchERP.com and SearchOracle.com:

Oracle AI apps now present throughout enterprise cloud suite

Machine learning and analytics among key Oracle security moves