As I See It: The Path Forward
December 8, 2014 Victor Rozek
The world irrevocably changed on May 11, 1997, although at the time the event was reported more as a novelty than the opening salvo of a revolution. It was the day Grandmaster and World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was beaten by IBM‘s Deep Blue. The day when the master/slave relationship between humans and computers flipped.
To be sure, there were moments of consternation as people briefly wondered how the implications of machine supremacy might translate in their own lives. But like the advent of the printing press, the full impact of the event would not be felt for many years.
The dawn of the learning machine was both a psychological and an economic game-changer. At the time, computers already dominated manufacturing and various repetitive processes but, as sophistication and capability improved, machines began making inroads into the thinking professions. Insecurity donned a white collar. College degrees and advanced training were no longer guarantees against displacement.
As the reliance on computers rippled through the marketplace, it had an additional, unforeseen consequence. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, calls it “The Great Decoupling.” Even though productivity rebounded sharply during the last decade, continuing to rise right through the Great Recession, the gains were no longer connected to employment. For companies, hiring more workers didn’t necessarily equate to greater productivity. For employees, working harder didn’t generate more wealth. Productivity, says Brynjolfsson, was decupled from employment, and wealth was decoupled from work.
In other words, everything we believed about the nature of work since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution was suddenly no longer operative. Understandably, that generated a great deal of anger which manifested in protests such as the Occupy movement, and growing resentment against the 1 percent who not only seemed immune to changing economic realities, but profited from them.
While protesters were railing against the machine, others, says Brynjolfsson, were attempting to race against the machine, and losing. Working harder, working longer made little difference. Competing against the computer proved to be not only impractical, but impossible. We have entered what Brynjolfsson calls the New Machine Age, which will require rethinking our relationship to technology.
But while educated forecasts can be made, the full effects of the transition will not likely be known for some time. When electricity displaced coal in American factories, productivity did not significantly improve for three decades. Initially, only boilers and other large coal-fired units were replaced. It wasn’t until a generation of coal-bound managers retired that factory processes were redesigned to take full advantage of electricity. Then, notes Brynjolfsson, productivity soared.
And so it will be with our changing relationship to pervasive and intelligent computing. A new generation of managers, born into the New Machine Age, will redesign the workplace to take full advantage of “thinking” computers. The long-term impact on IT professionals is a matter of some speculation, although Brynjolfsson is optimistic.
Brynjolfsson’s vision is not strictly one of singularity, but of collaboration; racing with computers rather than against them. In a TED talk presented last year, he recounted an event Kasparov organized subsequent to his defeat at the cold hands of Deep Blue. It was perhaps an acknowledgement that if you can’t beat ’em, it may be best to join ’em. If Kasparov’s defeat launched the era of machine supremacy, his follow-on event unintentionally revealed the path to productive coexistence.
Kasparov arranged an unorthodox free-style chess competition. Rather than holding a traditional tournament limited to matches between individual opponents, teams of players using computers were allowed to participate. One would anticipate that the team with the most grandmasters and the fastest computer would win. But when the dust settled, a grandmaster was no longer the world’s best chess player, and neither was a supercomputer. The winning team had an unexpected composition. It boasted neither grandmasters nor supercomputers. They won, says Brynjolfsson, by virtue of “better teamwork.”
Brynjolfsson doesn’t elaborate, but Kasparov’s inadvertent discovery has interesting implications for IT going forward. For one thing, it may not be necessary to be a “grandmaster” at your job in order to succeed. As Shunryu Suzuki understood, “in a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in an expert’s mind there are few.” In the changing man/machine partnership, the computer increasingly plays the part of the expert (i.e. used to provide the single best/right answer, or the most useful data). The human challenge will be to think outside the box; in chess parlance, to suggest the unexpected move.
Qualities that counterbalance the computer’s traditional strengths will become valuable. Spontaneity, risk-taking unsupported by risk analysis, flexibility, intuition, imagination; being open to a wide range of possibilities without the burden of preconception or reliance on data analytics. In other words, anything that mitigates the perfection of the machine.
Whether a system is used for mathematical optimization, or remote sensing, or decision-making support, systems are designed to pursue a level of perfection unavailable to humans. But machines suffer no consequences. They have no conscience. Their guts don’t liquefy with guilt. Erroneous conclusions can be reached even when using accurate data. Kasparov once noted: “Losing can persuade you to change what doesn’t need to be changed, and winning can convince you everything is fine even if you are on the brink of disaster.” Where the perfect becomes the enemy of the possible, or when “can” comes in conflict with “should,” it will be people, not machines, who identify the correct path forward.
As computers become self-learning, coding skills will become less valuable. The most useful employees will be the ones with the ability to complement the raw power of the machine; people sufficiently accomplished to direct and exploit the awesome power of thinking machines, but who also bring the divine spark of consciousness to the process.
Ayn Rand once pondered why Russians were historically so dominant in chess. She concluded that the Soviet system was so repressive that the best, most independent minds had few options for self-expression and found refuge in navigating a chessboard. The best minds of our time are taking refuge in technology. They are, many fear, creating a future where their creations will be imbued with the power to dominate their creators. But Brynjolfsson is less fatalistic.
It was John F. Kennedy who observed: “Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all.” And that is not likely to change, even in the New Machine Age.