The incremental, yet systematic progress in game playing software and hardware is well documented, yet still astounding. Checkers has been "weakly solved," and a checkers playing program is unbeatable (i.e., the program will always win or draw). Though chess is more complex, with deeper positional and strategic subtleties, the tide has turned there as well.
IBM's Deep Blue victory over Garry Kasparov was international news in 1997. Today, inexpensive chess computers routinely defeat all but the world's foremost players. The mystique of human chess dominance is gone, and it is doubtful that even the most confident international grandmaster will ever again challenge the best chess playing computer to public mano-a-mechano competition.
Go, as an even more complex and subtle game, is the next great human-computer battleground. Humans remain unmatched at go, though history and the march of computing exponentials suggest that human players should not feel unduly confident of their long-term position. Here's a shout out to my Microsoft Research colleagues, who are working on this problem.
However, this essay is not about the sound of inevitability and the rise the machines (my weak pastiche of lines from The Matrix and The Terminator). Rather, it is about the nature of human abilities to perceive and exploit complex strategies in an uncertain and rapidly evolving environment. Innovation and competitive advantage rest on this bedrock – seeing the whole board and playing the right game.
See the Whole Board
There is a memorable vignette in one of Aaron Sorkin's West Wing teleplays, where the U.S. President is dealing with an international territorial dispute. As I recall it, the President orders a naval force to sail into a region fraught with historical disputes and diplomatic sabre rattling. One of his young aides questions why the President would order such a seemingly provocative and dangerous action.
In reply, the President remarks enigmatically, "See the whole board." By this, he means envision the positional advantages and disadvantages of each player, their strategies and their historical predilections. And lest the metaphor be lost on a primetime audience, the President makes this remark over a game of chess. In formulaic fashion, the international situation resolves itself peacefully as the other players respond in predicted fashion, and the aide is left to ponder the lesson learned about strategic and international relations.
Play the Right Game
Although I have often found international relations often better understood via the lens and metaphor of five year old children squabbling in a sandbox over toys, the West Wing chess vignette does highlight the importance of broad, strategic perspective when analyzing and responding to complex, volatile situations. There are games within games, superficial and deep connections, tactics and strategies, short and long term perspectives, the players and the played, the winners and the losers.
A checkers metric -- counting the number of an opponent's pieces still on the board – is a poor measure of one's position in chess, and even more dangerous in a game of Go. In business, market share is a historical indicator, not necessarily a predictor of future outcomes. Instead, it is the ecosystem of partners and their shifting strategies, the micro and macroeconomic forces in backdrop, and the derivatives of change – those technology exponentials we both love and fear.
Most of all, it is the unexpected, the new game, that disrupts and changes. It is that point when you suddenly and terrifyingly realize that your opponent is playing a deep and subtle game of Go, while you have been contemplating your next checkers jump with the wild eyed naiveté of a nine year old neophyte. Careers are made and destroyed in such moments.
Play the New Game
So what is the new game in computing? It's clearly one played with rich client plus cloud services. It is things that think, creating experiences that enrich and empower via ubiquitous invisibility. It is cognitive communication that exploits spectrum efficiently, while protecting essential public services. It is new software models that are largely device agnostic, with components that discover and diffuse across new hardware. It is natural interfaces that anticipate and respond to human wants and needs. It is new models of security and privacy that create end-to-end trust for software, data and applications that readily cross organizational and national boundaries.
If the mainframe era was a game of checkers, the PC and Internet era was a game of chess. We are deep in the new game, the game of experiences Go. See the whole board.
Daniel Reed is Microsoft's Corporate Vice President for Technology Strategy and Policy (TS&P) and the Extreme Computing Group (XCG). The opinions expressed above are his, not necessarily those of Microsoft or any government. Contact him at email@example.com or read his other musings at www.hpcdan.org