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Chess and the future of Work

I have often told the story, half remembered from a brief encounter, of Gary Kasparov and what happened after he lost to Deep Blue at chess. My recall was that there was a long period where any decent chess player could still beat the strongest computer as long as they had an ordinary computer helping them. So, when I saw Kasparov’s new book “Deep Thinking” on the shelves at my local bookstore I picked it up hoping to confirm my memory.

So, it turns out the real story is pretty close but actually much more interesting; I should have listened more carefully. After Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue the game of “freestyle chess” emerged – a game where any combination of humans and computers can join together to compete. In one early freestyle tournament the winners were a team made up of two amateur club players and three computers. They were able to beat not only the most powerful computers but also chess grandmaster/ computer combos.

Why? – because the computers still had flaws and the Grandmasters were more likely to trust their own expertise and overrule the machines more often. Too often, in fact.

And that, of course, is where the analogies to the future of work get interesting.

First, and obviously, there is likely to also be a stage in the robotisation of work where machines plus humans is also the best combination. For example, a robot can lay bricks faster than any human but still needs a person there to check the weather and the gradient and solve unexpected issues and so on. Or robots can do huge swathes of legal work but need a human interface to the client for any complex matters.

But secondly, and more importantly, in a future where machines can do much of the work it is easy to assume your best current workers will also be the best to work alongside the robots. Surely your best lawyer, alongside the lawyer robot, will be a supreme and unbeatable combination. Perhaps not, it may be that the star lawyer and the robot have competing skills, not complimentary ones. The best partner for the robot may not have dazzling technical skills, but may instead be better at empathising, negotiation and client relationships, rather than trying to prove the computer wrong.

In a world of machine: human augmentation a new set of skills will distinguish the higher performers and produce the best results. Organisations need to start thinking what those skills might be and where they will get them from.

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