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Dreamforce 2015: Andrew McAfee and the coming of the second Machine Age

Last updated on September 21st, 2015 at 02:41 pm

The rapid pace of technological change has, understandably, led many to believe that machines will supplant humans in a wide range of activities. This may be true in many areas, but people still enjoy a huge comparative advantage over technology in more ways than we can count.

In a world of more powerful technology, how do humans have the edge over machines? First, our brains are astonishing pattern matching computers. “We are the world heavyweight champions of pattern matching,” says Andrew McAfee, co-director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at Dreamforce 2015.

Humans also reign supreme when it comes to common sense. We haven’t figured out how to teach common sense to machines yet, and it will be some time before we do. The same goes for other social skills, like the ability to motivate people. A computer can’t give a pep talk to a high school football team, or pump up troops for a tough battle, McAfee says.

And forget about computer creativity. Even in areas where machines have improved by leaps and bounds—think IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beating chess master Garry Kasparov—the ability of people to come up with new approaches trumps artificial rigidity almost every time. For now, that is.

If a computer gets better than humans at chess, those humans can invent freestyle chess tournaments, regaining the advantage thanks to our ability for boundless creativity.

People are also much better at complex communication than machines. But this too will change, especially when we combine complex communication with pattern matching. To play the TV game show Jeopardy! like a pro, you must combine these two critical elements. Remember when an IBM supercomputer named Watson defeated 74-time jeopardy champion Ken Jennings? This remarkable feat provides a glimpse at what’s to come, but again, humans will remain far superior to machines in so many ways.

We will not be rendered obsolete by technology, assures McAfee. “The new art is bringing together minds and machines,” he says.

This doesn’t mean that machines can’t learn to do at least some of the things that humans do so well. One pattern matching task that humans have always done easily but computers haven’t been able to master is driving a car in traffic. Until now. Enter Google’s self-driving car, which has the potential to be a real game-changer.


Get geeky

McAfee advises that in business, people will have to get a lot geekier. That is to say, driven by data and evidence. A shift away from HIPPOs—the highest-paid person’s opinion—and toward analytics  must take place for best results. In the age of ubiquitous data and analytics, this is already occurring, and not just in tech.

Take, for instance, the case of Robert Parker, wine critic extraordinaire, he of the “million dollar nose” and numeric wine rating system. Parker rose to become the world’s foremost wine authority because of his uncanny ability to predict how good a wine would be 10, even 20, years in the future using decidedly non-geeky methods—namely, his nose and his tongue.

Then along came Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton economics professor who devised a data-driven formula that he posited could better predict how good a wine would be. Instead of his palate, Ashenfelter determined that weather was the variable that could most affect the taste of Bordeaux wines. He had the formula and the numbers to support his hypothesis. The wine world laughed—until, that is, his data-driven approach proved astonishingly accurate.

The geekier approach almost always delivers superior outcomes, regardless of the industry under examination. The more companies self-identify as “geeky,” the higher their productivity and profitability, says McAfee.

In the end, joint creativity, or combining human creativity and the things computers are good at, creates endless possibilities for growth. “Together, humanity and technology are winning,” asserts McAfee, who exudes optimism that this joint creativity will be the key to solving some of our biggest challenges.

For more Dreamforce 2015 session coverage, visit here and here

Photo by Brett Wilkins


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