The information era doesn’t need people to compete with machines. It should free people from being treated like machines

“Weak human + machine + better process was superior to [machine] alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process”

The above note was highlighted by Richard Edwards in the book The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The book is a follow-up to their best-seller ‘Race Against The Machine”. It refers to a study in freestyle chess. A less-skilled chess player could outperform a professional if they followed a better process, when both had access to the same technology. It’s a fascinating insight about just how technology is beginning to disrupt the future.

Back in 2009, Douglas Bowman quit Google because of the data-driven approach taken to design decisions

I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

It’s a great quote because both perspectives are right. Humans should be focused on tackling more exciting challenges now that computers can outperform our expertise on the simpler stuff. In the Google scenario, machine + weak human + better process led to better design decisions than machine + strong human + inferior process. Changing the shade of blue used for links, following automated testing of 41 different shades, coincided with a $200m increase in ad revenue.

There’s lots of talk about how technology is going to eliminate jobs for people in what were previously considered to be safe roles: knowledge work. The stuff that is supposed to require at least a degree-level education combined with years of practical experience. What value is an MBA in a world where systems perform better when run by a less-educated person with access to the same technology who follows a process?

Education is still weighted far too heavily towards skilling people for the industrial era. To create a manageable, capable and taxable workforce. We are entering an era of networked information that doesn’t need people to compete with machines. It should free people from being treated like machines. The only bad outcome from this inevitability will be a failure to redesign educational and economic systems to cope with the end of industrial-era employment.


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Featured image: A PC education (iStockPhoto)


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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. The ‘better process’ / ‘inferior process’ is one of the grey areas I come across when working with schools. “How do we measure this though?” is what I get back.

    Without spending a long time going into process innovation and managing change of process, I tend to say to people the following.

    Do people follow it through to the end?
    Do people follow all parts of the process?
    Do people invent effective shortcuts, and then also hide them from others!
    Do people understand the impact when the process fails?

    Most people, when going through their own answers, come to their own conclusion about whether a process is good or not.

    People (including teachers) worry about their skilled position being taken out of the process, but at this point they are still needed to design the process, make sure that the process delivers succesfully and the improve the process when needed. Of course, most will recognise this as a dumbed down version of Lifecycle Management, and so we are not getting rid of skilled staff, just shifting them around.

  2. Thanks Tony, that’s a really interesting perspective. Particularly how and when people choose to hide those shortcuts.

    I’d like to think people will always be needed to some degree to design the process, if only to decide there needs to be one. The danger in assuming tech can automate everything is in forgetting the humanity in the process…

    Thanks again, great comment!

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