How to Forge a Top-of-the-line Cyborg Planner

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Clive Thompson points to this wonderful essay on computer chess by Garri Kasparov and draws our attention to an intriguing experiment in human chess-machine diplomacy.

Undone by the brute calculative power of IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, Garri came upon a wonderful way to juxtapose the deep calculative method of chess computers with the intuitive and strategic approach of human chess players.

He put together a tournament where humans and chess computers play together against other such ‘cyborg’ tag teams instead of against each other. Human and computer both would collaborate to play the perfect chess – fortified with the other’s strengths and shielded from their collective weaknesses.

This approach was later adopted by an online chess playing site in 2005 in a ‘free-style’ tournament in which teams of players and computers in any configuration could take part.

Here’s what transpired in Kasparov’s words:

Lured by the substantial prize money, several groups of strong grandmasters working with several computers at the same time entered the competition. At first, the results seemed predictable. The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and "coaching" their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

Fascinated by Kasparov’s epiphany, Clive Thompson nails the argument

We work as cyborgs, using machine intelligence to augment our human smarts. Google amplifies our ability to find information, or even to remember it (I often use it to resolve “tip of the tongue” moments — i.e. to locate the name of a person or concept I know but can’t quite put my finger on). Social-networking software gives us an ESP-level awareness of what’s going on in the lives of people we care about. Tools like Mint help us spot invisible patterns in how we’re spending, or blowing, our hard-earned cash. None of these tools replace human intelligence, or even work the way that human intelligence works. Indeed, they’re often cognitively quite alien processes — which is precisely why they can be so unsettling to some people, and why we’re still sort of figuring out how, and when, to use them. The arguments that currently rage about the social impact of Facebook and Google are, in a sense, arguments about what sort of cyborgs we want — or don’t want — to be.

What I love about Kasparov’s algorithm — “Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and … superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process” — is that it suggests serious rewards accrue to those who figure out the best way to use thought-enhancing software.

[This reminds me of a post I wrote a while ago – what blogging does to planners. Drawing on the evolutionary arguments of extended phenotypes I wrote about how planners can enhance their cognitive capacities and weave a web of information around themselves.

Reading the above arguments – and my own post again – I realised what I got right with the above post, inadvertently of course, was to emphasise the process of blogging rather than the tool itself.]

In light of Kasparov’s epiphany, the question we planners need to continually ask ourselves is this. Our abilities abound and so do tools and services to ehance them. But what are we doing every single day to fuse them together into an effective cyborg planner? Because it’s the latter that will make us radically better at our jobs, not either of the former.

Image source: Mukumbura  

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