Steve Jobs’ “Bicycle of The Mind” Analogy And “Hand and Brain” Chess

Steve Jobs is one of my favourite personalities not only because of his business acumen and marketing genius, but also for his ability to articulate thoughts extremely effectively, to use stories, analogies, metaphors to convey his ideas.

One such analogy he used to describe Personal Computer in early 80’s was “Bicycle of The Mind”. Here is the short video of him explaining the analogy.

Scientific American listed, in mid 1970’s, all the animals on the ability to move from one point to another with maximum energy efficiency. Condor topped the list while humans were in the bottom 1/3rd. However, someone also ranked “humans riding a bicycle” and suddenly they were at the top of the list!

This, Jobs said, showed that man was a tool making animal. Humans can overcome their limitations and make tremendous progress by building tools. Jobs then said that Personal Computer was a similar tool. It was “the bicycle of the mind”, meaning that the personal computer would enhance human capability to a great extent by aiding their minds. Those were prophetic words of Steve Jobs! Personal Computer has proven to be much more than just a bicycle of the mind!

The reason I was reminded of that was an interesting Chess format I encountered recently. It’s called “Hand and Brain” Chess. Chess streaming has become extremely popular since the COVID pandemic broke out in early 2020. Many new formats have evolved and become popular. One such format is the “hand and Brain”. It’s a very interesting concept!

You have two pairs playing a game of chess. In each pair, one person acts as a “Brain” i.e. he/she decides which piece should be moved and can only say the name. For example, “Bishop” (can’t say which of the two bishops). The other person – “the hand” – then plays any legal move of the piece recommended by the brain, in this case Bishop. The format is extremely engaging and it reveals a lot about Chess and how players think!

Is it enough to identify a piece correctly? Is it enough to know that a pawn move is the best, without knowing which pawn? Sometimes the move by that piece is obvious. I’m not talking about such positions. I am referring to umpteen possibilities and then knowing the name of the piece and playing exactly that move.

I found this somewhat similar to Steve Jobs’ “Bicycle of the Mind” analogy and that’s why mentioned about it in the beginning of the post. A Computer or a bicycle is a tool. Using it precisely is the key. of course having that tool helps immensely. But often times even after having a powerful tool, if our mind is not cultivated to use it effectively, the tool would serve no purpose. It’s common to see people use a powerful computer ONLY to play Tic-Tac-Toe or such games. Or use internet only to feed themselves with lies, propaganda and nonsense entertainment.

Hand and Brain chess actually highlights another point – idea vs execution. There are two interesting variants of this which I watched recently. World class super grandmaster Levon Aronian and India’s leading female chess player Harika played this format with their spouses! Aronian’s girlfriend and Harika’s husband know chess but only as amateurs.

They played two games. In one Aronian and Harika became “the brains” and instructed their partners which piece they should move and the partners, in their own wisdom, played the moves. In the other game, Aronian and Harika became “the hands” and took instruction about which piece to move and played their move. The outcome was interesting! Irrespective of whether the chess champs played as the brain or the hand, ultimately it boiled down to how the weaker link – the partner – played. Whoever had the less weak partner won (which happened to be Aronian’s girlfriend in this case).

It also tells us something about where the tool can have maximum impact. A super Grand Master like Vishy Anand, Kasparov or Carlsen, using computer to enhance their game doesn’t help much. Because they are already at very high level of proficiency and the incremental benefit they get from “the tool” is not much. However, when a club level player uses computer well, he can transform into very strong player and may even beat a Grand Master! because the relative advantage of using the tool is huge!

The same is true about other domains. By using technology in education, healthcare, skill development, you can cause the maximum impact in those sections of society who have a huge disadvantage. It wouldn’t help so much, on a relative basis, those who are already well-off. Technology is a great leveller in that sense. It is often said that internet, and social media in particular, has democratised the opportunities. That’s true in the same sense. Platforms like Tik Tok helped the bottom of the pyramid section the most and created new “influencers” from that strata. Instagram could be popular for celebrities posting their holiday photos, but thousands of small businesses, entrepreneurs and individual content creators thrived because they could suddenly use this “tool” and reach out to millions of users/customers.

It is interesting to see how things change when the rules of the game are tweaked – be it by supplementing with a tool (like a bicycle, a computer, or a Social Media platform) or by adding some constraints (“Hand and Brain” version of chess).

This “Hand and Brain” experiment might sound new, but Bobby Fischer thought of something similar some 50 years ago! Chess was getting mechanical and boring from 70’s. It was too much of theory and preparation and less of intuitive chess. That was before the arrival of chess softwares. So you can imagine what the condition would be now.

To make chess interesting again, Fischer suggested a simple hack. He suggested that all the chess pieces (behind the line of pawns) be setup randomly before the start of the game, for both White and Black. It would completely destroy the established Openings theory and players will be forced to play based on their basic understanding of chess, from the first principles! It was such a great innovation! That variant later became popular as Fischer Chess. It just shows how you can open new doors of understanding, competition by a simple tweak.

What are other such areas where you have seen fundamental transformation by changing the tool or by redefining the rules of the game?


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