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November 25, 2014

Technology, Chess, and all our Futures

James Manktelow


There’s a story about a Mughal emperor of India being so delighted by the game of chess that he offered its inventor anything he wanted. Being crafty (if naive), the inventor asked for a single grain of rice to be placed on the first square of a chessboard, for this to be doubled on the second square, doubled again on the third square, and so on, until all of the chessboard’s squares had been filled.

Not being one for numbers, the emperor agreed. At the end of the chessboard’s first row, 256 grains of rice were put down. The emperor was relaxed. At the end of the second row, 65,536 grains were placed. The emperor started to pay attention. By the end of the fourth row, the rice due was the harvest of a large field. By the end of the sixth row - well into the second half of the chessboard - the amount of rice due was approaching India’s entire harvest, and the inventor had been executed.

Authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee retell this story in their fascinating book, “The Second Machine Age.” In it, they look at the amazing changes in technology going on right now, and extrapolate from this far into the future.

Now, we’ve been hearing about the impact of technology for ages - I’ve heard it for much of my life. (I got hooked with technology at the age of 13, in 1981, when I bought my first computer with the proceeds of a vacation job. Thirty four years later, technology is accelerating at an astounding rate - and I’m feeling as ancient as the chessboard story.)

Brynjolfsson and McAfee say that we’ve entered the second half of the chessboard with technology. They say that changes in the years ahead will be even faster, and that we’ll see ever-more-dazzling advances in fields like processor power, connectivity, automation, big data, mash-ups, artificial intelligence, and the digitization of everything.

This is a fantastic, amazing opportunity for all of us as consumers, as it has been since 1981. But what does this mean for us as workers, and, particularly, as members of the Mind Tools Club?

The somewhat-scary answer is that computers are great at repetitive tasks (we’ve seen them automate factories). They’re great at processing transactions (huge numbers of clerical jobs have gone over recent years). They’re getting better at recognizing patterns (driverless vehicles are already with us). And more and more repetitive, specialist, process- and pattern-based jobs are becoming vulnerable to them.

This is worrying, particularly if you work in roles like these. But there is some good news. The first part is that there’s still time for us to think about our careers and move into roles that complement technology. (The authors point out that many technologies are immature, and have yet to be fully commercialized. They also say that there’s a great future for people who can work with technology to amplify results, rather than being replaced by it. As ever, the future goes to the agents of change, not to people who try to ignore it.)

The second part of the good news is that computers are not good at big-picture creativity. Sure, IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, and its Watson supercomputer beat long-time quiz show winners Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in 2011’s “Jeopardy! IBM Challenge.” However, these were specialist machines, crafted for very specific purposes.

Big-picture creativity is what’s behind artistry, entrepreneurialism and technical innovation. It’s what drives scientific development, journalistic story finding, and the development of beautiful new products. But it also underpins leadership, good management of people, effective strategizing in uncertain environments, empathic understanding of customers’ needs, business process improvement, and effective management of complex, difficult projects.

You need to educate yourself to do these things. Partly, this is about moving yourself onto the cutting edge of your discipline, whatever it is, and that involves mastering your subject and your industry in depth, so that you can keep on improving things for your customers.

However, it’s also about choosing where to focus your career, and learning how to coordinate people and resources to deliver that innovation successfully. (This is where, as a member of the Mind Tools Club, it’s worth exploring the career tools section to think about career direction; and working through the leadership, strategy, problem solving, project management and creativity tools sections to think about how you can lead people successfully and help your organization thrive.)

So, if you want to go to work, switch off your brain, do what you’re told to do, and then potter on with your life, prepare to be replaced by technology.

But if you want to seize the future, you need to be an agent of change. You need to be able to work with and amplify technical change, understand your field and your customers inside out, learn how to see the big picture in the workplace, think creatively, lead and manage inspirationally, and take a keen, energetic interest in the chess game that is your working life.

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5 comments on “Technology, Chess, and all our Futures”

  1. What a fascinating story!

    Just yesterday I was speaking to a an old gym buddy about the importance of keeping up with technology. We're both in our mid-forties and he was telling me how he hated to get new mobile phones and learn new computer programs. I guess the danger lies in getting so comfortable with what you're using, that you don't want to learn new technology or methodology. I made a promise to myself a few years ago that I refuse to fall behind - I've seen what it did to family members of mine and how easily you can become obsolete if you don't stay up to date with technology.

  2. It is very true that we need to start to think strategically. machines are good at routines and processing volumes but are not smart. there will never be a computer that will be "bigger" than the human mind. for us is to activate the potential that God wired in our brains and use it. for such there is nothing to worry about. for the others they will be looking for jobs and jobs will be looking for people and they won't find each other

    1. What a beautiful comment simon nkosi...I'm passionate about helping people reaching their potential and it always excites me if I hear others talking about potential. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Awesome
    A human brain will never be substituted by a machine or technology for that matter. It is complex and responsible for creation of algorithms that solve problems. Where does instructions originate from human. The brain is so complex to the extent that if properly utilized can do wonders. The best thinker uses about 8%(eight percent) of the brain. What does this reflect that future is bright provided one wakes up from slumber. Yes technology will change transform environment but that will emanate from human. As theology tells us knowledge will increase and that is a fact. We only need to be smart and avoid destructive innovation.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, kaaria mutura. The human brain is indeed fascinating and miraculous - and we still know so little about the functioning of the brain.
      I can't agree with you more that we need to be smart and avoid destructive innovation - that's probably one of our biggest threats.
      Learning to be good at change though, is really using the brain's amazing plasticity that never ceases to exist as long as we give it new challenges.

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