The rise of the supercompetitor (Part 1)

I have previously defined cognitive advantage as ‘the demonstrable superiority gained through comprehending and acting to shape a competitive environment at a pace and with an ingenuity that an adversary’s ability to comprehend and act is compromised‘. The driver of such a capability is the wide scale adoption of AI to hyper-accelerate decision-making either by automated action or in augmenting a human.

But what would the impact be if a company, or a government, held a cognitive advantage? I’ve been thinking about this and discussing it with colleagues too, and I don’t believe it is a position that we would want any firm or government to get too without strong ethical principles guiding their actions. There is a lot to unpack here – and I am still feeling my way too – and so I am going to cover this topic over a series of posts.

My overriding concern, at this time, is that to hold a cognitive advantage would equip the benefactor with a profound and deeply defensible position. To understand this better its worth exploring what having a cognitive advantage means.

A cognitive advantage could result from the optimal orchestration of artificial and human intellects alongside beneficial data accesses to yield an ability to act with deep sagacity (‘the trait of solid judgment and intelligent choices’). Out-thinking and out-manoeuvring rivals and adversaries will require hyper-accelerated decision-making with the agency to act with precision, foresight and an understanding of complex system effects. (I will explore how an organisation may develop a cognitive advantage in a future post).

With such a capability, an organisation could begin to actively shape a competitive environment (eg. the digital economy) at a pace in a way that competitors simply cannot keep up or cannot understand the meaning of such changes. Insufficient understanding can lead to irrational responses and poor outcomes.

Compromising the cognitive abilities of a competitor may lead to a decline in their ability to act with accuracy and insight. This would lead to poorer decision-making thus further reducing that organisation’s competitive position. Subsequently, this could feed a regressive cycle of cognitive decline and thus increasingly poor decisions. 

As the ability of competitors to compete continues to decline, would this lead the single competitor – that holds a cognitive advantage – to become a supercompetitor that dominates in an unassailable winner-takes-all outcome? What might this mean? What would the impact be? What if it becomes impossible to regulate such organisations; a supercompetitor that may not wish to be understood may not be possible to regulate.

How would we know which companies, or countries, are already on a cognitive advantage trajectory? How might we begin to prepare for such a possibility? Are there already super competitors amongst us? The big tech unicorns, China?

In an AI world winning in business and politics will go to those that have a ‘cognitive advantage’

When I was at the Complex Systems Conference in Singapore in September 2019, I found myself musing on the question: in a world where we have all maxed out our use of AI, how will that change the way that a business outcompetes their rivals? In a world where automated decision-making will take over more and more of the running of businesses and entire countries how do you compete to win? The conclusion I came to was that it was about out-thinking and out-manouevring your rivals and adversaries to the extent that you shape the environment in which you are competing in a way that your adversaries (humans and AI) can no longer accurately comprehend it and, thus, would begin to make increasingly bad decisions.

Now, this has happened throughout history and to quote Sun Tzu “… the whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent”. However, the key difference this time is that AI will have a significant role in shaping that competed environment at a speed and a propensity for handling big data that humans are simply left behind. We may enter a cognitive war of AI versus AI.

I am hypothesising that AI will come to dominate global action that shapes our offline and online worlds. So, if you want to compete you will need to shape the digital environment that AI is attempting to predict, understand and act in. In other words, the competitive moves we make in the future will (a) be done automatically by AI on our behalf, and (b) therefore we will need to consider how AI will perceive our actions (recognising that, for the moment at least, most AI is dependent on big data). If the long-established practice of marketing to convince people to buy your product is extended to marketing to artificial intellects too, to persuade an AI to behave in a way that you want it to, then you start to get the point.

I call this having a cognitive advantage which I define as:

the demonstrable superiority gained through comprehending and acting to shape a competitive environment at a pace and with an ingenuity that an adversary’s ability to comprehend and act is compromised

I wrote a paper about this last year:

I will also be giving a talk on Cognitive Advantage at this year’s Future of Information & Communication conference in Vancouver (FICC 2021). A version of the conference paper will also be published in Springer’s ‘Advances in Intelligent Systems’.