Anticipation science: how to stay two seconds ahead

Understanding how our brains anticipate the future helps businesses.

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(Photo: Anna Lisa Sang)

When Wayne Gretzky was six years old, he tried out for a hockey team for 10-year-olds, and made the cut. Playing against kids twice his size, he struggled to keep up. That first year in the Brantford Atom League, he scored just a single goal. But by his fifth season in the league, when he was finally the same age as his peers, he scored 378 times—in 69 games. He would repeat the trick as a teenager, playing in a professional league against grown men; even when he made it to the NHL, his stature and physical tools were dwarfed by his opponents. Years later, the scrawny hockey star who’d become known as the Great One recalled the challenge that had defined his career. “I couldn’t beat people with my strength; I don’t have a hard shot; I’m not the quickest skater in the league. My eyes and my mind have to do most of the work.

“I had to be ahead of everybody else or I wouldn’t have survived.”

Gretzky is most often quoted repeating the advice his father gave him on the backyard rink: skate to where the puck is headed, not to where it’s been. It’s one of the best metaphors ever coined to describe the importance of anticipation. And it’s this mental ability, which let Gretzky stay two seconds ahead of everyone else on the ice, that inspired the new book by Vivek Ranadivé and Kevin Maney.

The Two-Second Advantage: How We Succeed by Anticipating the Future­—Just Enough (Crown Business) is an exploration of the science, present and future, of anticipation. If this sounds like Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 bestseller Blink, fair enough; it covers a little bit of the same ground. But Maney and Ranadivé extend the concept well beyond the individual, looking at how business and society can build predictive systems, using the science of anticipation to get an edge. And where Gladwell drew criticism for being a dilettante, Ranadivé—the founder and CEO of real-time software company TIBCO—has been working in this field for some time, both in his day job and as an author (it’s his third book on the subject). In fact, Gladwell’s actually written about him.

The neuroscience of how we anticipate things will be at least partly familiar; the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something, for example, has passed into popular lore. As to what practice and talent actually look like in the brain, Ranadivé and Maney explain that experiences fire neurons, and encode information in them. Repeated firings in response to the same stimulus patterns wire neurons together. As those connections build up, information travels faster around the brain, and further pattern repetitions fuse sets of connected neurons into chunks, “that can access a whole collection of information instantly.”

Through more practice, we push deeper into this “chunking” process. New information gets added to the chunks resulting in, after time, “a complex, sophisticated mental model that assesses a situation in a flash, without having to access all the details stored deep in every memory.” It’s the science behind gut instinct, and it’s why Gretzky, after thousands of hours spent on his backyard rink and playing in competitive leagues with older boys, was able to anticipate where the play was going. He wasn’t able to do this because he outhought his opponents—he was able to do it because, his experience hard-wired into his brain, he was able to think less and just react.

The most interesting chapters of The Two-Second Advantage deal with attempts to take that human predictive ability and to blend it with real-time computing—as the authors have it, to design and build predictive systems that put “Gretzky’s brain in a box.”

In India, with its 550 million cellphone users and a dozen competing providers, “competition among the providers is intense, because any customer can switch at any time. A moment of dissatisfaction, and—boom—the customer is gone.”

The largest provider, Reliance, deals with millions of transactions a day, adds 150,000 customers per day, and loses tens of thousands more to the competition. With an overwhelming amount of data flooding into the organization each second, the company needed to find a way to identify and react to specific patterns—“like a certain number of dropped calls in a certain amount of time for a certain kind of customer”—that suggested a customer was about to bolt. There’s no time for deep analysis about whether a customer should be offered a discount at a certain time; the challenge is to employ new predictive technologies to push Reliance’s systems beyond the point where they’re “still relying on rules that had to be written by programmers,” to address specific situations.

The goal is a system that constantly watches the behaviour of its customers, makes predictions, and learns from its mistakes to refine its own processes. Even if it’s wrong 5% of the time, the speed with which it could react to the potential loss of a customer would compensate. Say the authors, “If a company has just a little bit of the right information a couple of seconds in advance, it’s more valuable than all the information in the world months after the fact.”

Not that the arrival of systems with more human decision-making processes means the obsolescence of the human brain. In fact, efforts underway to build an artificial brain may actually have the effect of advancing our own mental abilities. The latest science has already shown that it’s possible to reverse cognitive decline in the middle-aged brain, and it’s possible to rewire your brain as an adult through practice and “deliberate performance,” and learn new skills on the fly. Ranadivé and Maney are confident that as researchers working with the likes of Reliance push further into efforts to electronically emulate the brain, we’ll learn more about how that most mysterious of organs actually works. That means the ability to learn how better to develop our talents and capacities. Rather than becoming obsolete, “we humans can continue to be like Gretzky, staying two seconds ahead of the competition.”