April 29, 2024 | Blog | 4 minutes

How to reduce tech debt in the world of AI

Seema Karwa

Head of Sales - India

As a software leader navigating the AI revolution, you're likely familiar with the dread that accompanies the technical debt monster. Fueled by the rush to adopt cutting-edge AI tools and technologies, this insatiable beast can wreak havoc on your codebase, slowing progress and putting your entire operation at risk.

As organizations increasingly adopt AI to enhance their operations, the risk of accumulating technical debt escalates. This phenomenon occurs when the quick adoption of AI technologies compromises system design or coding practices, potentially resulting in future complications and costs. Understanding the nuances of technical debt is essential to avoid the pitfalls associated with rapid AI integration and ensure sustainable technological advancement.

Understanding Technical Debt

Consider the scenario of constructing a house but opting to forgo deep foundations in favor of expediency. While it may suffice momentarily, technical debt in the technology sphere arises when teams choose the path of least resistance to expedite product delivery, inevitably leading to potential complications in subsequent stages due to the shortcuts taken during the initial phases of AI integration.

Over time, technical debt can impede development speed, increase the likelihood of bugs and errors, and hinder the ability to adapt to changing requirements. Just like financial debt, technical debt must be repaid eventually, either through refactoring, rewriting code, or addressing underlying issues, to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of the software.

AI and the Rise of Technical Debt

The integration of AI into software products is a prime scenario for accruing technical debt. Rapid deployment of AI models, under pressure to meet market demands, often means that long-term consequences of design choices are overlooked. AI systems are particularly prone to this because they require continuous updates and maintenance to stay effective as new data comes in or when operating conditions change.

For instance, Uber's self-driving car program accumulated significant technical debt due to the rush to deploy ahead of competitors, leading to a fatal accident in 2018. Key issues included a lack of rigorous testing, outdated sensor data, insufficient redundancies, inadequate monitoring, and inherited technical debt from acquisitions. The mounting technical debt resulted in a system unable to reliably detect pedestrians, forcing Uber to suspend the program and re-evaluate its autonomous vehicle development approach, highlighting the severe risks of prioritizing rapid AI deployment over safety and maintainability.

AI as a Debt Reducer

Ironically, the technology that often contributes to technical debt can also provide solutions to manage it. AI can be used to identify inefficiencies and predict where issues are most likely to occur, allowing companies to proactively manage potential debts before they become unmanageable.

Automated code refactoring tools powered by AI can analyze and optimize code more efficiently than manual processes, significantly reducing the burden of technical debt.

Predictive analytics can forecast potential future problems in the system, allowing teams to address these issues proactively.

Examples of Destructive Technical Debt in Real-World Scenarios

  • Royal Mail Ransomware Attack: In January 2023, Royal Mail in the UK suffered a ransomware attack that disrupted international deliveries. The attackers used the LockBit ransomware, which not only encrypted data on the servers but also potentially exfiltrated it, leveraging technical vulnerabilities possibly exacerbated by technical debt within Royal Mail’s IT infrastructure.

  • Air Europa Data Breach: In October 2023, Air Europa disclosed a data breach involving the theft of sensitive financial information of its customers, including card numbers and CVV codes. The breach underscores the risks associated with technical debt, particularly in terms of outdated or inadequately protected data storage and transfer systems.

So, how can you prevent technical debt from overwhelming your software development process? Here’s a streamlined strategy to keep it under control.

  • Embrace Regular Code Reviews: Incorporate routine code reviews to catch potential technical debt early. This practice not only upholds coding standards but also enhances code quality, motivating developers to produce cleaner code in anticipation of reviews.

  • Systematic Refactoring: Dedicate time regularly for refactoring to improve your codebase’s structure. This makes it easier to maintain and expand.

  • Track and Prioritize: Employ tools like Jira or GitHub Issues to log and keep tabs on technical debt. Focus on addressing the most critical issues first to make efficient use of your resources.

By adopting these strategies, companies can manage technical debt effectively, ensuring it doesn’t hinder your project’s long-term success.

Effectively managing technical debt—especially in the fast-evolving field of AI—requires a proactive and disciplined approach. By prioritizing regular code reviews, engaging in systematic refactoring, and rigorously tracking and prioritizing issues, organizations can mitigate risks and foster long-term sustainability. The examples discussed illustrate the severe impacts of neglecting technical debt, highlighting the necessity of vigilant management to safeguard the integrity and progress of technological initiatives.