Monday, February 16, 2015

Chess and the Machine-Mediated Future of Work



I’ve been thinking about chess a lot lately. I blame a couple of authors – Tyler Cowen in “Average is Over,” and Jacob Morgan in “The Future of Work”. Both authors look to the future economy and what it will look like. Cowen’s seems more like a dystopia, but Morgan’s future has a smaller time line. For him the future of work will look like it does now, only more so. The real commonality is that they both really like Chess. Cowen uses it as a metaphor throughout his book, in that today’s chess matches mediated through computer help are tomorrow’s work situations. Morgan named his consulting firm after the game. I think it is a powerful metaphor for strategy, but a limiting one.
                I say that as someone who had chess thrust on me a lot when I was a kid. I was one of the smart kids, and in several environments, I was in a sort of “gifted” program it was anticipated that the smart kids would necessarily gravitate to the game. I was never particularly interested in it for whatever reason. That meant that I was beat by people who were more interested in that particular game. Here’s the thing, though. Researchers in artificial intelligence like chess because it is very bounded. There are only sixty-four squares, and there are sixteen pieces on each side. Each piece moved to set rules. There are, if I’m counting right, only twenty possible initial moves, and twenty possible second moves.  All the possible position and piece combinations can be mapped. It is a very large but finite number, but not so large if you have a perfect computer that can have all those possible positions in their memory that they can access. Each move is one more step along a decision tree that makes one side more or less likely to win. You could set a program up that maps out a route down the decision tree that makes the computer more likely to win in response to its opponents moves. You set two of these programs up against each other and you get white with a slight edge but the end would be mostly draw games?
                You know why I never really got into chess? Because chess is boring, and that scenario I drew out makes it even more so. Humans are not perfect computers. We play the game sub-optimally, where we often make choices that may make our opponent more likely to win. We operate with opening heuristics and planned end games that we try to get to because we know how they are supposed to go.  Strategy is interesting in the same way. If you are in either a cooperative or a zero-sum game, you have to anticipate your opponent’s moves in terms of all possibilities, not just the ones that may improve his lot. This is true for both bounded games like chess and for real life. As we move forward to Morgan or Cowen’s future, this is what I am afraid of – that mechanical mediation will make even the mindful jobs boring and that the workers of the machine will get more productive, but they will also become more machine-like. It would then be the owners of the machine who reap the benefits of that future, and the vast majority of the workers are just pawns on the board.