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By James Bach
Have you ever done something manually? Have you ever tried to automate it? Did you successfully automate what you were doing?
If you answered yes for any of these questions, then I’m afraid I’m being too vague– because at least three very different kinds of things are tangled together in a simple answer. In any activity done by a human, there is the human aspect (not practically mechanizable), a physical aspect involving translation or transformation of matter and energy (mechanizable in principle), and a problem-solving aspect (sometimes transformed by mechanization, sometimes not affected). Which of those get automated when we automate? Which must remain “manual”? What problems are solved and what new problems are created?
My business is software testing. I have heard many people say they are in my business, too. Sometimes, when these people talk about automating tests, I think they probably aren’t in my business, after all. They couldn’t be, because what I think I’m doing is very hard to automate in any meaningful way. So I wonder… what the heck are they automating?
Anyway, this confusion is why I am applying a new term to processes: sapience. Sapience is defined in the dictionary as “wisdom; sagacity.” I want to suggest a particular connotation. A sapient process is any process that relies on skilled humans.
A sapient process might gain from automating some or all of the purely material aspects of it, but any human aspect that is replaced or displaced by machinery results would in an impairment of that process. This is a matter of definition, not fact. I’m defining sapient processes as that which we do not know how to automate without dumbing down the process. It will either be slightly less intelligent or amazingly less intelligent.
The question a test automator should ask right away is whether testing is a sapient process. I think good testing is very sapient. That’s how I experience it and teach it. My brain is constantly turned on while testing. Show me someone who’s brain is not engaged, and I’ll show you a poor tester or a badly designed test.
Is digging a hole a sapient process? It might be. Consider an archeological dig. There’s no simple algorithm or tool that will automatically excavate a valuable historical site while we go and watch TV.
The purpose of this terminology is to help make it clearer what kinds of processes we are referring to. From now on, I will try not to use the term “manual testing”, except in quotes. I will practice saying sapient testing. I believe that nearly all “manual testing” is better being called sapient. I’m not carrying rocks out here, I’m penetrating the illusions surrounding a software product. Machines can’t do that.
To fully automate a sapient test activity would require us to find an alternate version of that activity which solved the same problems (or more) and that had no human element in it. If you think you know where that has been done, please tell me about it.


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