Category: Topics

Weak human + machine + better process

No one wants to be replaced by a machine…
…yet processor power and computing algorithms have evolved to the point where complex pattern matching tasks–once the exclusive purview of humans–are increasingly being mastered by machines. In the world of chess, for example, conventional wisdom has it that the game is over. Computers have won.

Not true!

The excerpt below is lifted from Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

In an ultimate chess match, the weak human + machine + better process strategy won over other strategies because the “weak humans” working as a team could leverage their intuition and perspectives to ask better questions of their machines. Chess grandmasters, however brilliant, cannot anticipate every question. Nor can machines by themselves come up with questions that match the intangibles perceived by humans.

As UX designers, it is hubris to think otherwise.


After head-to-head matches between humans and computers became uninteresting (because the computers always won), the action moved to “freestyle” competitions, allowing any combination of people and machines.

The overall winner in a recent freestyle tournament had neither the best human players nor the most powerful computers. As Kasparov writes, it instead consisted of a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. … Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

This pattern is true not only in chess but throughout the economy. In medicine, law, finance, retailing, manufacturing, and even scientific discovery, the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines. As we saw in Chapter 2, while computers win at routine processing, repetitive arithmetic, and error-free consistency and are quickly getting better at complex communication and pattern matching, they lack intuition and creativity and are lost when asked to work even a little outside a predefined domain. Fortunately, humans are strongest exactly where computers are weak, creating a potentially beautiful partnership.

Brynjolfsson, Erik; McAfee, Andrew (2011-10-17). Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (p. 55). Digital Frontier Press. Kindle Edition.