Half Man, Half Machine, All Centaur

A robot is going to steal your job. AI is only a handful of years away from being smarter than you. The bot uprising is coming to enslave or kill us all. Deep learning is creating code that we can’t understand. The great digital divide is coming.


Or maybe there is another path forward. Our love of hyperbole and fear mongering has pushed many people to think about the emerging robotics and AI movements as a split in the history of our world. Our combative nature has pitted us against our own creation before it has even fully gestated. Yet, if we could dislodge our craniums from our posteriors for long enough to see the future without egesta in our eyes, we would see another way forward: the centaur.

As much as I’d love to be writing an article about mythical horse-men for work, the type of centaur I am referring to is the hybrid human-computer system for approaching tasks. This pairing boasts the intuition and creativity of the human mind with the precision and brute-force of a machine. A brief history lesson: the term was coined after then-world chess champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue and argued that in a “freestyle” or “advanced” match of chess (no holds barred), a human player should be given the same access to a database of moves that a computer was. Far from being a wacky idea or thought exercise, the chess community embraced the centaur approach and the current freestyle world champion is not Deep Blue, but in fact a centaur team called Intagrand.

So why is it that, in other facets of life, we put up such opposition to the robotic and AI movements? Why can we not learn to accept, embrace, and work with these systems? In reality, most of us already have been without knowing it – anytime we’ve ignored a GPS Nav’s instructions and skipped an off-ramp. Computer systems can be effective, but sometimes human intuition can win out. The challenge, however, is that we are both not designing systems for integrated action, nor are we training students on how to work collaboratively with AI.

The range of this collaboration is broad and where you fall on the spectrum can be dictated by your own levels of comfort around technology and humanity. On the one hand, we could view centaur teams as two independent agents – much like co-workers – collaborating on a task, building upon each other’s thinking, and challenging each other to push further, faster. On the other hand, we could go full Kurzweil and integrate technology directly into our bodies and minds, enabling a new form of superhuman cyborg who can leverage the precision and scale of a machine atop their own capabilities in a post-singularity world. Regardless of which future you prefer, done properly, the potential benefits are undeniable.

So are the robots coming to take our jobs? Only if we design them that way. If instead, we look to AI and robotic design with collaboration in mind, we can enable an entirely new form of human-machine collaboration. This will require humans to learn new skills and adapt, and in doing so, we will not only maintain relevance in an increasingly automated and digitized world, but potentially expand our own personal capabilities to levels never before imagined.

Do not simply ask what the people or machines of tomorrow will look like. Holding these two concepts independently perpetuates the divide and anxiety we have over the future. Instead, dream about what a world could look like with engaging, fun, and challenging human-machine collaboration.