When, in 2016, AlphaGo — an AI system from DeepMind (a Google-owned company) — beat the world champion of Go (or weiqi, a strategy board game as popular in the East as chess is in the West) it sent shock-waves throughout Asia. This ‘sputnik’ moment triggered a tidal wave of interest in AI across the continent1. This was on a scale far larger than when another game-playing AI (Deep Blue from IBM) beat the chess world champion in 1996. Yet, despite the fear of a Terminator-led future unleashed by an unwitting Skynet we’re seeing the same pattern of human adaption playing out again.
As recently reported in the Financial Times a mere amateur Go player has “comprehensively” defeated the top-ranked AI system. The amateur player had used another software to find the ‘blind spot’ in the best Go-playing AI system and then — playing unaided — exploited this weakness, winning 14 out of 15 games against his AI rival which, back in 2016, had been called “an entity that cannot be defeated”. However, we should not be surprised at this outcome as it’s a play we’ve seen before.
Following the victory of the chess program Deep Blue experiments partnering humans with computers were launched. These explorations into “hybrid intelligence”, (which became known as “centaurs”) were successfully able to “blend human intuition and creativity with the brute force calculation of moves and countermoves that computers do so easily”.2 And what they found was surprising to many: A team consisting of an average human player using an inexpensive software was able to beat the very best chess computers in existence (ones better than even DeepBlue had been). The combination of (even average) human and (inexpensive) artificial intelligence is superior to the best AI.
The “centaur” has been merely been successful (again), out-thinking the AI that “did not notice its vulnerability” even when it was on the verge of defeat — something that would have been “quite easy”3 for a human to spot. This shows us that the future is not ‘man vs the machine’ but ‘(wo)men with machines vs other (wo)men with machines’. We still get to decide.
And this brings us back to the quote in the title of this short article, from Colonel John Boyd — perhaps the greatest strategist of the 20th century you have never heard of. To make sense of our uncertain world and harvest the value inherent in the complexity all around us we must remember that it’s “people, ideas, technology — in the order!”
History is quite insistent on this point4:
- From Johannes Gutenberg perfecting his printing press around 1450 by observing the workings of a grape press in the wine-producing region of Germany he lived in
- To Henry Ford borrowing innovations from multiple industries (watchmakers using interchangeable parts; canners using continuous flow manufacturing; and reverse engineering meatpackers to create the assembly line, rather than the ‘disassembly’ line)
- From French doctor Etienne Tarnier creating incubators for premature babies in the late 1800s after seeing poultry incubators at the Paris zoo
- To aeronautical engineer Owen Maclaren making the first foldable baby stroller by imitating the design of airplay landing gear
- And a UK children’s hospital learning from the Ferrari F1 pit crew team how to push its error rate in surgery rooms down from 30% to 10%.
The worst mistake we can make is to reverse Boyd’s order and put technology first. It’s never about the technology alone — it’s always about the people, their ideas, and only then the technology.