Garry Kasparov's Perspective on AI Meets the Future of Procurement Work

Kerrie Kennedy

April 6, 2022

While the chess world enjoys a Queen's Gambit-fuelled resurgence in the game's popularity, it's somewhat amusing to think that in 1997, a real-life chess world champion was beaten by "a $10 million alarm clock". At least that's how Garry Kasparov likes to depict his then formidable opponent – IBM's AI-powered chess computer Deep Blue – and it was a symbolic moment in the competition between man and machine for those who witnessed it. "I was a sore loser at the time," Kasparov recalls. "The writing was on the wall. The machines had caught up."

Just shy of 24 years later, Kasparov's defeat by IBM's supercomputer remains one of his most enduring legacies, making the Soviet grandmaster the ideal featured speaker for Keelvar's Human+Machine Contest Prequel held virtually in December 2020.

The Prequel set the tone for what will be procurement's answer to that infamous chess match, when  – subject to the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions – one of Keelvar's Sourcing Bots will compete against an expert human buyer of ocean freight and make recommendations to a blind judging panel who will decide whether man or machine has the upper hand in bid collection, validation, analysis and awarding decisions.

In such a relationship-driven industry as procurement, naturally, many are skeptical about where AI will fit in and where it might push humans out. After all, as Kasparov pointed out, we can now carry chess computers more powerful than Deep Blue in our pockets. 

To be the chess world champion at that pivotal moment when computer science finally triumphed over a grandmaster's abilities was "both a blessing and a curse" in Kasparov's view, but ultimately, it was the occasion that set him on the path of advocacy for the enormous potential for human-plus-machine collaboration.

Kasparov's 1997 defeat was another historic marker in the ongoing evolution and advancement of intelligent software systems. And his subsequent concept of “advanced chess” – which involves chess matches that pair humans with machines to take advantage of the different strengths of both  – strongly aligns with our vision at Keelvar. That vision is that intelligent automation can be a force for good in the future of procurement work, by automating mundane tasks and freeing workers to focus on uniquely human skills like innovation, relationship building, and strategic decision-making.  

Of course as with all disruptive technology, advances in intelligent automation mean that tasks that were once exclusively the domain of human beings can now be performed better by machines, but that doesn’t render the role of people in the workforce obsolete. For example, Keelvar’s Sourcing Bots can handle up to 90% of event tactical workloads and identify optimal award scenarios, but people remain front and center of the strategic decision-making process, maintaining full control and oversight of the tasks being completed by their digital co-worker. 

Now, with myriad events disrupting supply chains globally, the need for intelligent automation solutions to aid sourcing teams has even further increased, as Keelvar’s Founder and CEO Alan Holland points out:

“As sourcing personnel become overwhelmed, what they need most from technology solutions is not more data or ‘actionable intelligence’; they need actioned intelligence where the software reduces the load and performs the work that would otherwise fall on the shoulders of overburdened personnel.”

And it appears that we’re not alone in our views: a December 2020 report by Deloitte revealed that the number of organizations deploying automation at scale has tripled in the space of two years and that significantly more organizations (73%) have started their intelligent automation journey compared to last year (58%). As Deloitte analysts suggest, the organizations that see the most significant value from automation are the ones that engage in “entity-wide transformations, rooted in forward-looking, human-centric strategies.”

But awareness of the importance of human strategic guidance in our relationship with machines is nothing particularly new. In 2005, perhaps the biggest twist in Kasparov’s chess match experiments came when two average players using ordinary laptops managed to beat their grandmaster opponents paired with supercomputers by using a superior process: the amateur players knew how to augment their intuitive decision-making using the computers, rather than relying on the superiority of the machine's thinking process alone.

As the former world champion points out, in the evolution of the partnership between human and machine, “we aren’t being replaced, we are being promoted”; humans guide intelligent algorithms forward, but let them do more and more of the heavy, tedious work.

For sourcing professionals, the supplier award decision-making process is inherently complex and data-laden, with an enormous amount of time spent on areas that can and should be automated to free up teams to use their knowledge, experience, and relationships to procure the best possible outcomes.

It’s a clear benefit to using automation technology that even supply chain expert Ian Harmon, who will be taking the hot seat against Keelvar’s Sourcing Bot in our upcoming Human+Machine Content, agreed with when he spoke as a panelist following Garry Kasparov’s presentation: “Removing any of the tactical work to allow people to utilize their skills will help people evolve, and also businesses evolve.”

But on the all important topic of relationship building, Mr. Harmon adds: “It’s not quite something that AI can do by itself at this moment in time.” 

What we really want to do with our upcoming Human+Machine Contest is to show where AI-enabled sourcing automation is today. Even Deep Blue didn't beat Garry Kasparov the first time around, but it's important now to benchmark the technology's maturity and where it is driving value and efficiency and continue to build on that.

Can one of the world's best buyers of global ocean freight beat Keelvar's Intelligent Sourcing Bot? Sign up here to guarantee your spot for the rescheduled Contest.

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