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THE JOURNAL OF PEOPLE + STRATEGY

Creating Superminds of Human-Computing Resources

February 23, 2021

Creating Superminds of Human-Computing Resources

As technology increases, HR must navigate the digital aspects of work and transform into human-computing resources.

By Bob Johansen, Institute for the Future 

This article was published in print in the Fall 2020 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy.

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 HR today will, if they rise to the occasion, support what MIT professor Thomas W. Malone calls the “superminds” of tomorrow who introduces this powerful idea:

“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-computersuperminds 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.

Walt Disney World is well known for animatronics, where they create realistic models of presidents and other famous people. More subtly, Walt Disney World has also mastered the art of blending human and machines resources. Their cast members use a wide range of digital tools while still maintaining a very human touch to create magical experiences for the guests. All HR organizations in the future will need that same skill. I haven’t seen an HR organization yet that comes close to what I’ve experienced at Walt Disney World.

Pal Mickey evolved into the Magic Band. This elegant wristband doesn’t feel like a computer, but Walt Disney World is now a giant computer-enhanced world where kids can be safely scared. But it isn’t just a computer, it is a magical mix of human and computer resources. The cast members are now augmented in ways that don’t automate but do amplify the experience. Powerful computing power is delivered in a very human way.

We see even more dramatic signals of human-computer augmentation in health, health care and well-being. I met the computer scientist Larry Smarr years ago because of his work with supercomputers and visualization. As I got to know him personally, I realized that he was applying his considerable computer science expertise to visualize and monitor his health and peer at his own organs—and he had been doing it for years.

Think human resources in concert with computing, media, and robotics tools. Human-computer resources (HCR) will prioritize continuous learning for workers through gameful engagement pedagogies as it becomes the most powerful learning medium in history.

HR Has Another Chance to Transform

I fear that some of today’s HR leaders and practitioners may not be ready or willing for this transformation. In my career, the HR function has had several opportunities to embrace technology and develop a new human-centered lens to help scale technology across organizations in humanistic ways. Recall new technologies of old like:

  • Teleconferencing,
  • Groupware,
  • Office automation and
  • Artificial intelligence.

In each case, the HR function had the opportunity to lead the way and embrace an emerging technology while they were helping others figure out how to use it well. In each case, the HR function and HR people stepped away instead of stepping up. The information technology (IT) people usually took the lead, but many of them had very limited personal and organizational skills. HR stayed on the sidelines—except in a few very interesting cases.

Now, the HR function has another opportunity to embrace new technology and add human and organizational spice to the mix. I hope they will take on the opportunity this time. HR can lead the way.

They will only have a short window of opportunity to learn and engage with the next wave of computing, communications and gaming. The HR people may not be invited to the table by the technologists and top executives. My hope is that HR people will call the meeting, rather than wait until they are invited.

If they don’t get invited or don’t act, however, the HR function is likely to go down a declining HR path of being outsourced and undervalued. I believe that we will have a much better and more productive future if technology and HR are mixed. I also believe that it will be easier to teach HR people about technology than it would be to teach technology people about HR. This was not true when the technology was more difficult to use, but it is now and it will be even more true in the future.

The new HCR leaders will have the potential to re-invent their function as they re-invent organizations as we know them—and re-invent themselves. Human and computer resources will blend in new ways as the line between human and machine gets increasingly blurred. Collective intelligence—humans working together, augmented by machines—will be required to thrive. These are the superminds5 that Malone talks about. This is exactly where the HR profession should be focused. Humans alone certainly won’t be enough, but neither will computers. HR professionals are in the best position to help answer the fundamental questions of what humans can do best and what computers can do best.

HR leaders will need full-spectrum thinking and they will need to teach full-spectrum thinking to others. Full-spectrum thinking will be necessary for both work and private life in the future. To thrive, leaders will need new full-spectrum thinking capabilities and skills to make good use of the emerging tools and media. Companies, nonprofits, and government agencies will be required by the market to offer a wide spectrum of working arrangements for making a living while having a life.

Ellen Galinsky founded the Families and Work Institute and was one of the early explorers of what came to be called work/life balance. After years of studying the tradeoffs of work vs. private life, she embarked on a search for a better word than balance, since it seemed for many people balance was an impossible goal. Her conclusion after months of searching and pondering was that the word navigation was a much better fit. As with any other kind of navigation, there are fixed and fluid variables—and lot of choices. Increasingly, HR professional will need to be whole life professional—and whole life will include digital augmentation possibilities.

Networking technologies will make it much easier to work anytime anyplace, although this kind of distributed work will require social and individual discipline, as well as technological support. I call this the ability to be there without being there.6 Silicon Valley is now leading the way on distributed work, a path made urgent by the ridiculous housing prices in the Bay Area. Fortunately, the tools for distributed work will get even more advanced over the next decade.

When I spoke to a group of Silicon Valley CEOs recently, they all shared a concern that career paths in this future world that is already here in Silicon Valley will get increasingly hard to navigate and also harder for people to measure their own progress. In the increasingly fluid organizational world (Silicon Valley is an extreme example), the traditional ways of tracking career progress like salary raises, new titles and clearly marked career ladders just don’t make as much sense. Often in Silicon Valley, and especially with younger workers, experiences are valued more than money or titles.

The HCR function will be able to identify a range of options for work and private life. Then, HCR can help identify the options and guide choice making to provide value for the firm and for the worker.

Institute for the Future recently hired its first cyborg anthropologist, Amber Case.7 She studies symbiotic interactions between humans and machines, as well as how our values and culture are increasingly shaped by new technologies. HCR professionals will need the skills and mentality of cyborg anthropology.

Every human will have the potential to be augmented by machines in some ways. The art and science of this augmentation will be the focus on the re-imagined HR professional. The more intelligent computers become, the more humans will value other humans. The more digital we become, the more we will value human interaction. The more alike computers and people become, the more we will value the differences.

I asked several CHROs to review drafts of this paper. Vicki Lostetter is CHRO at WestRock, the world’s largest paper company. She had worked previously as an HR leader at Coca-Cola and Microsoft. Here is her thoughtful reaction:

“The role of human resources will be to prepare our organizations for this change and to continue to keep the right ‘touch’ in the organization—or keep the ‘human’ in our work environment as we blend human and computing for better outcomes. Inspire human resources leaders to have the courage to learn more and take on this brave new world that is emerging—be the role models of try, fail fast, cheap and try again. Be in front.”8

It is already too late for any HR professional to work without a deep understanding of digital media. How could technology empower and enhance human skills? HR professionals need very good answers to this question. It is a great time for the HR function to leapfrog human-computing resources. HCR has the potential to transform individuals, organizations and society. The stakes are up for HR.

This article is an adaption from Bob Johansen’s book Full-Spectrum Thinking: How to Escape Boxes in a Post-Categorical Future, Oakland: Berrett-Koehler, 2020. 

Bob Johansen, Ph.D., is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA. He can be reached at bjohansen@iftf.org.

References

https://medium.com/@GarryKasparov/may-11-one-big-loss-for-a-man-one-giant-win-for-mankind-46bb42b8752f

2 Thomas W. Malone, Superminds, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018. Page 3.

3 Jerry Useem, “At Work, Expertise is Falling Out of Favor,” The Atlantic, July 2019, page 12.

4 Orson Scott Card from the introduction to the book Ender’s Game.

5 Thomas W. Malone, Superminds: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together, IBID.

6 See Bob Johansen, The New Leadership Literacies, Chapters 7-8.

7 See Amber Case, Calm Technologies: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design, Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc, 2016.

8 Vicki Lostetter, personal correspondence, April 25, 2019.