Tests vs Checks and the complication of AI

There’s a lot to be made in testing literature of the differences between tests and checks. This seems to have been championed primarily by Michael Bolton and James Bach (with additional background information here), though it has not been without debate. I don’t have anything against the distinction such as it is, but I do think it’s interesting to look at what whether it’s really a robust one.

The definitions, just as a starting point, are given in their most recent iteration as:

Testing is the process of evaluating a product by learning about it through exploration and experimentation, which includes to some degree: questioning, study, modeling, observation, inference, etc.

Checking is the process of making evaluations by applying algorithmic decision rules to specific observations of a product.

These come with a host of caveats and clarifications; do go back and read the full explanation if you haven’t already. The difference does not seem intuitive from the words themselves, which may be why there is such debate. Indeed, I’ve never seen anybody other than testing professionals make the distinction, so in normal usage I almost exclusively hear “test” used, and never “check”. Something I might call an automated test, others might call—and insist that it be called—an automated (or machine) check. This is just a consequence of working day-to-day with developers, not with testing nerds who might care about the difference.

Along those lines, I also find it interesting that this statement, still quoting from James Bach’s blog:

One common problem in our industry is that checking is confused with testing. Our purpose here is to reduce that confusion.

goes by with little explanation. There is a clear desire to differentiate what a human can do and what a computer can do. The analogy in the preamble to craftspeople being replaced by factory workers tries to illustrate the problem, but I’m not sure it really works. The factory model also has advantages and requires it own, different, set of skilled workers. I may just be lucky in that I haven’t ever worked in an environment where I was under pressure to blindly automate everything and dismiss the value humans bring to the process, so I’ve never needed the linguistic backing to argue against that. This affords some privilege to wonder whether this distinction has come about only because of a desire to differentiate between what a computer and a human can do, or because there actually is a fundamental difference.

Obviously, as far as what is possible today, there is no argument. But the more we see AI coming into use in testing, the more difficult this distinction will become. If I have an AI that knows how to use different kind of apps, and I can give it an app without giving it any specific instructions, what is it doing? Can it ever be testing, or is it by definition only checking? There are AI products being pushed by vendors now that can report differences between builds of an app, though for now these don’t seem to be much more than a glorified diff tool or monitor for new error messages.

Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine more and more advanced AIs that can better and better mimic what a real end user (or millions of end users) might do and how they would react. Maybe it can recognize UI elements or simulate the kinds of swipe gestures people make on a phone. Think of the sort of thing I, as a human user, might do when exploring a new app: click everywhere, swipe different ways, move things around, try changing all the settings to see what happens, etc. It’s all that exploration, experimentation, and observation that’s under the “testing” definition above, with some mental model of what I expect from each kind of interaction. I don’t think there’s anything there that an AI fundamentally can’t do, but even then, there would be some kind of report coming out the other end about what the AI found that would have to be evaluated and acted upon by a human. Is the act of running the AI itself the test, and every thing else it does just checks? If you’re the type that wants to say that “testing” by its nature can’t be automated, then do you just move the definition of testing to mean interpreting and acting on the results?

This passage addresses something along those lines, and seems to answer “yes”:

This is exactly parallel with the long established convention of distinguishing between “programming” and “compiling.” Programming is what human programmers do. Compiling is what a particular tool does for the programmer, even though what a compiler does might appear to be, technically, exactly what programmers do. Come to think of it, no one speaks of automated programming or manual programming. There is programming, and there is lots of other stuff done by tools. Once a tool is created to do that stuff, it is never called programming again.

Unfortunately “compiling” and “programming” are both a distracting choice of words for me (few of the tools I use involve compiling and the actual programming is the least interesting and least important step in producing software). More charitably, perhaps as more and more coding becomes automated (and it is), “programming” as used here becomes the act of deciding how to use those tools to get to some end result. When thinking about how the application of AI might confuse “tests” vs “checks”, this passage stuck out because it reminded me of another idea I’ve heard which I can only paraphrase: “It’s only called machine learning (or AI) until it works, then it’s just software”. Unfortunately I do not recall who said that or if I am even remembering the point correctly.

More to the point, James also notes in the comments:

Testing involves creative interpretation and analysis, and checking does not

This too seems to be a position that, as AI becomes more advanced and encroaches on areas previously thought to be exclusive to human thought, will be difficult to hold on to. Again, I’m not making the argument that an AI can replace a good tester any time soon, but I do think that sufficiently advanced tools will continue to do more and more of what we previous thought was not possible. Maybe the bar will be so high that expert tester AIs are never in high enough demand to be developed, but could we one day get to the point where the main responsibility a human “tester” has is checking the recommendations of tester AIs?

I think more likely the addition of real AIs to testing just means less checking that things work, and more focus on testing whether they actually do the right thing. Until AIs can predict what customers or users want better than the users themselves, us humans should still have plenty to do, but that distinction is a different one than just “test” vs “check”.

Leave a Reply