Maria Theresa was amazed. How could this “automaton” defeat her best chess masters? Was it magic? Or science?
The year was 1770 and the place, Schönbrunn Palace in Austria. Wolfgang van Kempelen had just revealed his astounding invention, the “Automaton Chess Player.” Over and over, the Chess Player would play, and win, game after game of chess. But how?
Attendants at the court were invited to inspect the Chess Player, his desk, and chess board. They opened cupboards and doors… but all they saw were the gears that made the Player and the pieces of his chess board work.
What they never saw: the very human chess master hiding behind doors they didn’t even know were there.
The Automaton Chess Player, now more commonly known as the Mechanical Turk (because of how the Chess Player was dressed), was a hoax. A very successful hoax. “It”—and the chess masters hiding inside—went on to defeat opponents (including Napoleon Bonaparte and Ben Franklin!) for 84 years before the true nature of the illusion was revealed.
Ever since then, the term “Mechanical Turk” has been used to describe processes or procedures that perform tasks that are simple for humans but difficult for computers. In fact, Amazon has a platform called Mechanical Turk that “breaks down a manual, time-consuming project into smaller, more manageable tasks to be completed by distributed workers over the Internet (also known as ‘microtasks.’)”
So, yes, that’s a fun #swipefile for you to possibly use in the future, or even an approach to take (or platform you can use!) the next time you need to maximize your capacity for a manual task or do something that is easy for you but hard for a computer.
But what about those things that are harder for you…and easy for a computer?
For instance, for some of you (and this included me until about seven years ago!), it’s not easy to come up with a story, analogy, or metaphor to help you illustrate a point. You know one of those would help—after all, most people need some form of example to help make an idea more clear.
But maybe your brain just doesn’t work that way, or maybe it does and you just don’t feel like you have enough stories to draw from.
Sure, you could start a #swipefile: a collection of saved stories, studies, and random other stuff that might be useful as an illustration someday. But maybe you don’t have the time, because you haven’t built up your #swipefile yet.
You could just search mine (use my name and the search term “#swipefile” on LinkedIn or Twitter. But searching that hashtag would still mean sorting through a bunch of links that aren’t useful in your particular instance, just to find a few that are. What if you don’t have the time or patience for that?
What do you do then?
Thanks to some truly astounding advances in AI, you have a new secret weapon—and it’s not a hoax: ChatGPT.
Before you roll your eyes and say, “Oh no, Tamsen, not you, too!,” please know that even when I was the SVP of Digital Strategy and Content Activation at a Boston-area ad agency, “Resident Skeptic” was listed on my business card. That makes me (literally!) a card-carrying member of the Early Majority set for new tech, and I was very skeptical of the usefulness of an AI chatbot in my work…until a colleague’s client showed me exactly how useful it could be.
Since that means it could be useful in your work, let me show you, too.
Let’s say I wanted to make the case for outsourcing, either internally to my colleagues or boss, or to a prospective client whom I wanted to outsource to me. I want to give examples that help validate why outsourcing might make sense, but for whatever reason, my brain just isn’t coming up with them.
I would go to ChatGPT and type in something like, “Give me five analogies for outsourcing, along with a one-sentence explanation for how the analogy relates.” And this, my friends, is what it came up with:
- A chef hiring a delivery person: A chef may outsource the task of delivering their food to customers to a delivery person, allowing the chef to focus on cooking.
- A construction company hiring subcontractors: A construction company may outsource tasks such as electrical work or plumbing to specialized subcontractors, improving the efficiency and quality of the overall project.
- A car manufacturer hiring an assembly line: A car manufacturer may outsource various parts of the car assembly process to a specialized assembly line, allowing for increased speed and efficiency.
- A farmer hiring migrant workers: A farmer may outsource the task of harvesting crops to migrant workers, freeing up time and energy for the farmer to focus on other aspects of running the farm.
- A student hiring a tutor: A student may outsource the task of understanding a difficult subject to a tutor, gaining a deeper understanding of the material more quickly.
What if I wanted proverbs, instead? I’d type in something like, “Now give me five proverbs that explain the principle behind outsourcing.”
- “Many hands make light work.”
- “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
- “Divide and conquer.”
- “Specialization is the key to success.”
- “Let each bird keep to its own nest.”
What if I wanted a longer story to make the point? “Give me three interesting or unusual historical stories that illustrate the value of outsourcing.”
- The Carthaginian Military: The Carthaginian military during the Punic Wars outsourced their naval capabilities to a group of sailors from Rhodes, Greece, who were known for their expertise in seafaring and shipbuilding. This outsourcing allowed the Carthaginians to have a formidable naval force and ultimately helped them gain naval superiority against their enemies.
- The British East India Company: The British East India Company outsourced local labor and resources from India to produce goods like textiles and spices, which were then sold in Europe and the Americas. This outsourcing allowed the company to grow and become one of the most powerful trading companies in the world.
- The Suez Canal: The Suez Canal was built by a French company that outsourced labor and resources from Egypt and other neighboring countries. The successful completion of the canal, which connected the Mediterranean and Red Seas, demonstrated the value of outsourcing in achieving large-scale infrastructure projects.
(Side note: the first story is a great reminder that ChatGPT is a starting point, not an ending point! The Carthaginians had been a dominant naval power for centuries prior to the Punic Wars—which decimated their navy and eventually ended their empire. At some point in history they may have outsourced their naval capabilities, but this answer—whether poorly phrased or incorrect—serves as a reminder that as with any other source, always verify ChatGPT’s answers before including them in your message.)
Want something more familiar or relevant? “Give me three more recent examples.”
- The Rise of IT Outsourcing: The growth of IT outsourcing in recent decades, in which companies outsource IT tasks such as software development and maintenance to specialized service providers, has allowed companies to focus on their core competencies while benefiting from increased efficiency and cost savings.
- The Growth of Contract Manufacturing: The rise of contract manufacturing, in which companies outsource the production of goods to specialized manufacturers, has allowed companies to focus on their core competencies while benefiting from increased efficiency and cost savings.
- The Expansion of Gig Economy: The expansion of the gig economy, in which individuals offer specialized services through platforms such as Uber and TaskRabbit, demonstrates the value of outsourcing in providing individuals with flexible work opportunities and companies with access to a pool of specialized talent.
I even could ask it to come up with a new, proverb-like summary of the principle behind outsourcing that wasn’t a pre-existing proverb.
Here’s what I asked it, “Restate this idea in the form of a proverb (but not AS a proverb): ‘Specialized skills produce better results because individuals or groups who have honed and developed a specific skill set are able to perform related tasks more efficiently, effectively, and with a higher level of expertise than those without such specialized skills. This often results in improved quality, increased speed, and reduced error rates.’” (This was a previous ChatGPT answer to a query about explaining the value of outsourcing.)
“A trade well learned is a job well done.”
Are we all suddenly out of jobs? No. Figuring out how to ask ChatGPT the right questions, or feed it the right information, takes a bit of time. And no, it doesn’t always pop out a perfect answer. But for me, what it does pop out saves a huge amount of time—either because it gives me an answer that I can then easily adapt to my uses, or it gives me inspiration on where to go next.
So if you sometimes (always?!) struggle with how to bring your ideas to life, or how to summarize the point of a story you’re telling, give ChatGPT a try. I’d love to hear what you think, and what great answers you discover as a result!What it does pop out saves a huge amount of time—either because it gives me an answer I can then easily adapt to my uses, or it gives me inspiration on where to go next. Click To Tweet
Please note that many of the links are affiliate links, which means if you buy a thing I link to, I get a percentage of the cost, and then donate it to charity.
Like this content? Be the first to get it delivered directly to your inbox every week (along with a lot of other great content, including my #swipefiles). Yes, please send me the Red Thread newsletter, exclusive information, and updates.
Leave a Reply