Creating Superminds of Human-Computing Resources
By Bob Johansen, Institute for the Future

About three years ago, as many people worried about computers replacing people and jobs, the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov reflected on his 1997 loss to an IBM supercomputer program called Deep Blue:

“Today, May 11, 2017, marks the 20th anniversary of my loss against Deep Blue in our 1997 rematch in New York City…

I spent much of last year working on a book, Deep Thinking, that includes my memories and analysis of that fateful match, the so-called ‘Brain’s Last Stand’ that turned me into the proverbial man in ‘man versus machine.’…

I make it clear in Deep Thinking that my loss to Deep Blue was also a victory for humans—its creators and everyone who benefits from our technological leaps. That is, everyone. This is always the case in the big picture, and why the book rejects the ‘man vs machine’ competition storyline. The machines work for us, after all.

The last third of the book is about the bright future of our lives with intelligent machines, if we are ambitious enough to embrace it. I hope my optimism is contagious.”1

Kasparov’s reflection reveals that his personal defeat by the computer was an unexpected victory for humankind. His experience taught us that human/machine competition is not a zero-sum game. Rather, it is possible that both computers and humans can come out ahead.

What can humans do best? What can computers do best? These crucial questions challenge us to explore the symbiosis between humans and machines. Over the next decade, this exploration will be more promising than ever before.

Technology organizations are already involved in this exploration, but the organizational function that is best equipped to answer these questions is what we call today “Human Resources” or “People.” The best strategic human resources organizations already think about talent acquisition, performance management, employment data analytics and ethics. I’m suggesting that HR must now extend into the world of superminds. A crisis is a great time to do just that, partly by necessity and partly by opportunity.

The novel coronavirus crisis and the racial justice crisis hit back-to-back in 2020. Both were amplified by digital media platforms that linked people sheltered in place and demonstrating in the streets. These compounded crises created a back to zero mentality that shaped how workers came back to the office—if they came back at all. It was not back to where we were before the crises, it was back to zero. This crisis was a very unusual chance to not only recover but to improve. The new media mix of digital resources now make it possible to build organizations like we have never had before.

Ten years from now, most of us will be super-empowered cyborgs. What we call HR today will be very different tomorrow as humans and computers become increasingly intermingled. A crucial gray scale will emerge on the spectrum from human to computer. What we call human resources today will support what MIT Professor Thomas W. Malone calls the “superminds” of tomorrow:

“This book is not primarily about how computers will do things people used to do. It’s about how people and computers together will do things that were never possible before. It’s about how human-computer superminds will be smarter than anything our world has ever seen. And it’s about how we can use these new kinds of collective intelligence to help solve some of our most important problems in business, government and many other parts of society.”2

Humans and Machines

HR professionals will need the ability to better understand the capabilities of non-human and computer-augmented talent. In fact, ten years from now, most humans will be boosted by computing resources in some way. We will all be superminds.

Intelligent coworkers with powerful digital augmentation will be everywhere. Automation of routine functions will certainly happen, but the biggest disruptions will come from digitally amplified humans. The machines will be more human-centered and the humans will be more digitally amplified. Most importantly, by looking at themselves in digital mirrors, humans will understand more deeply what humans do best and what it means to be human—as Garry Kasparov described earlier.

The U.S. Navy’s new ships are designed to make best use of human-computing resources: the ships are more automated and the smaller number of human sailors are more generalist—less specialist:

“The whole ship had the feel of a small theatre troupe in which the actor playing the prince’s cousin also plays the apothecary, the friar and Messenger No. 2.”3

These hybrid sailors change roles frequently and are augmented cyborgs at their core. While the humans are generalists, the computers are specialists. Some tasks are automated away (which can be problematic if things go wrong) and the humans are always augmented by digital resources. Cyborgs are everywhere on a modern U.S. Navy ship.

The humans emphasize effectiveness (doing the right things), while the computers emphasize efficiency (doing things right). People with a rich range of life experiences will do best in this world. The challenge is to hold the balance between what humans do well and what computers do well in the midst of the continuing scramble of the external world.

If we can get our language to describe this emerging and transformative function right, it will draw us toward a better future. The future of HR should be a conversation about Human-Computer Resourcing (HCR)—not conventional HR. There will be increasing need for alignment and collaboration between the CHRO, the CTO, and the CIO, the human and the machine intelligence.

Separating human and computing resources will be increasingly difficult. The power and productivity will be in augmentation of what humans do best and what computers do best. It is already too late to have a digital strategy. Now, organizations need strategy that includes digital. Indeed, the word “digital” will gradually disappear since digital media and tools will be so pervasive. When digital is everywhere, why is the word digital even needed anymore? Digital savvy will become part of how we define talent.

Talent selection, training, career development and ongoing community will continue to be very important—but in a full-spectrum future where the human and computer resources will be blended and inseparable. For talent selection, for example, new media will allow much more meaningful connection during the recruiting process. It will be possible to share real life experiences of the job and a candidate to entice, test the fit and ensure that the person is a good match to the job. It will be easier to make the right hire the first time.

Video Gaming to Learn

Training and employee development are critical to the HR function and there are already profound signals of disruptive change from traditional HR training. Here is one signal:

On August 10, 2018, a SeaTac Airport maintenance worker stole an aircraft and took off for an amazing joy ride. The plane was a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400. It had no locking system because it was so difficult to operate that nobody imagined it could be flown by anyone other than a trained pilot.

The thief flew this complicated aircraft around Puget Sound, circling with an impressive series of aerial acrobatics including barrel rolls like only the most elite pilots are able to perform. While the plane was stunt flying, the control tower asked if the thief needed help in landing the aircraft. He said something like “Nah, I’m good.” They asked him if he was a pilot. “No.” They asked him how he’d learned to fly and his shrugging answer was this: “I’ve played some video games.”

The full story will never come out, since after his circus performance the unauthorized and uncredentialled pilot seemed to intentionally crash the plane and kill himself. The mystery was how he learned to fly that very complicated airplane with cockpit controls that look ridiculously complicated. The answer was this: the airplane thief learned how to fly a real plane by playing a virtual reality video game that is a remarkably accurate rendering of the actual cockpit and controls.

Playing this video game is very much like flying the real aircraft, as the thief proved. Flight simulators have been used for pilot training for years, but now they are being built into everyday video games that can be played by anyone—not just pilots in training. What we call video gaming today is sneaking under the tent into the world of learning.

Another signal: my colleague Dylan Hendricks is from Canada but now lives in Texas. He was invited by his brother-in-law to go trap shooting. In this sport, participants use a real shotgun to shoot small clay pigeons that are ejected up in the air by a spring-loaded launcher. Hendricks had very little experience shooting any kind of gun and he had never shot a real shotgun. He is in fact anti-gun, true to his Canadian roots. Out on the range, he was trying to figure out how not to embarrass himself in front of his brother-in-law and the expert Texas shooters all around him.

“Pull,” he said, and the clay pigeon flew up and he—to his great surprise—shot it right out of the air!

He continued on, scoring at a very good rate and convincing his family that he had been lying about his lack of shooting skills. They were convinced he was secretly an expert marksman falsely claiming to be a novice. His family was confused and not amused.

Hendricks himself was stunned, until he remembered how he had played a virtual reality game called Duck Hunt. By playing that game, he had unconsciously learned that skill—even though he used game controllers and not a pretend gun. The muscle memory of the game apparently simulates very accurately the physics of how to line up the sights on a target and anticipate movement.

As superminds emerge, humans will learn how to combine their skills with those of advanced digital tools and media. Human skills and computer augmentation will blend in powerful new ways that are already apparent in the world of gaming.

Few people are noticing that video gaming is transforming from entertainment to learning media. Playing video games requires both human and computing resources, but the experience of learning is a much more elegant mix than what most of us ever experienced in schools.

Institute for the Future’s Jane McGonigal, one of the world’s leading designers of socially constructive games, defines gaming as “emotionally-laden attention.” I find it fascinating that this is the same definition used to define a good story. A good game is a good story where you can actually be in the story, not just read the story.

Today’s video gaming interfaces are often at least ten times better than anything we have in offices. These vivid interfaces, combined with powerful storytelling, will create the powerful and unprecedented learning environment I am forecasting. The video gaming industry has prototyped—often in very distasteful ways—a new medium for learning and training.

I know that my forecast that video gaming will become a powerful learning medium is hard to imagine for many parents who categorize today’s video games as a danger to be managed. I agree with the very understandable parental assessment that many of today’s video games are too sexual and too violent. The challenge for us today is to look beyond distasteful video gaming content to the medium of gaming to the potential for gaming as a way of teaching range of socially constructive content.

And, in corporate environments, who will teach through this new medium? People from the HR function. Today’s HR practitioners will be called to become experts in this new teaching and learning medium. If they do not, some other function will step up to replace them. This is a chance to re-imagine and up the stakes for HR as we know it today.

My forecast is that, in the future, most HR practitioners will be gamers. I don’t necessarily mean that they will be experts in playing today’s video games, but rather that they will be expert in the medium of immersive learning through digital and in-person experiences.

Orson Scott Card describes the value of gaming and immersive learning this way:

“The essence of training is to allow error without consequence.”4

In Ender’s Game, gaming is used as a powerful learning medium to prepare earth for an attack from alien beings. The thesis of the book and the movie is that the most gifted young gamers with the most fluid minds will be best prepared to meet the challenges of war. The kids learned to be warriors through playing video games so complicated that their elders weren’t able to play them.

To get ready for the future, the HR function should be recruiting gamers today.

Think HCR, Not Just HR

The blending of humans and computers will present many more challenges and opportunities that are invading the traditional HR space. Signals are here already and they are ready to scale. They’ve been a long time coming.

Just after 9/11, Institute for the Future was asked to do a forecast on the future of fun at Walt Disney World in Orlando. In that tense mood after 9/11, parents were understandably concerned about safety while kids wanted a play-oriented experience where they could be scared in a safe way. The Magic Kingdom was a place to go to escape the trauma of the everyday world where terrorism loomed.

This was the same period that Walt Disney World was testing what became the Magic Band that guests wear throughout the park to keep track of their location and guide them to the shortest lines—as well as making it easy to pay and move around. My experience with the early prototype Pal Mickey yielded an important lesson about learning for me. I wore Pal Mickey hooked on my belt and it guided me through the park.

My Pal Mickey prototype stopped working while I was out in the park one day and I stumbled upon an important aspect of what makes Walt Disney World so magical—a lesson that combines human and computer capabilities. I brought my malfunctioning Pal Mickey to one of the cast members (the term that Walt Disney World uses to describe employees) and she said no problem, she would give me a new one. I was disappointed, however, that I had to give up my Pal Mickey. I asked if she could heal my Pal Mickey, rather than give me a new one.

She paused for just a moment, but then said something like “Oh, I think I saw a wizard passing by just a moment ago. Let me see what he can do.” And she slipped behind a curtain. She returned bursting with enthusiasm. “Your Pal Mickey has been healed!” I’m quite sure that she gave me a new Pal Mickey that worked, but she did it so gracefully and with such charm that I happily went on my way.

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