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Q+A: Transcript of Sean Gourley interview

Published: 2:44PM Sunday October 07, 2012 Source: Q+A


Good morning, Sean Gourley, and welcome back to New Zealand.

SEAN GOURLEY - Physicist and political advisor

Thank you.

PAUL The Mathematics of Warfare - I have watched your talk and you have worked out a graph about warfare and terrorism. What are the maths of warfare?

GOURLEY It's a complex... I mean, I guess to start back, you know, war, as we kind of think about it, is this kind of complex environment where it seems chaotic and noisy, but if you actually start to extract when the attacks are happening, where they're happening, how many people are getting killed, underlying it is actually a very precise set of mathematical equations, and we were able to uncover them.

PAUL Did you use one particular conflict for this? I know you've extrapolated it into other conflicts, but did you start with one in particular?

GOURLEY Yeah, we started with the Iraq war. Yeah.

PAUL OK. I mean, essentially- Am I right I trying to understand what you're saying? Is it essentially by modelling that you find the greater the force you apply, the greater the aggro you're going to get back? Escalation leads to escalation. By increasing numbers on the ground, you make the war longer.

GOURLEY That's right. So one of the things that is a little bit counterintuitive is you think if you put more troops on the ground, you're going to get a sort of monotonic decay in the expected likelihood of the of the war. What does that mean? It means you're going to get a shorter war with more troops. But what our modelling and equations showed is that that's actually not the case. You actually get a longer war, up to a tipping point.

PAUL Now, does that apply to Afghanistan, do you think? When you turn your model around to Afghanistan, is that what the- do we find that that's happening there?

GOURLEY Yeah, you're actually seeing the same kind of mathematical patterns across many, many different wars around the world, and Afghanistan being one of them.

PAUL You talk about- You say it's like the more you increase the troops on the ground, for example - the more you do your surge, for example - it's like punching through plate glass.

GOURLEY That's right. If you think of the insurgent groups as kind of being a sheet of glass, and if you come and try and break that, you know, all of a sudden the glass has shattered, and you've got to try and pick that up and that takes a long time.

PAUL OK. I mean, are you finding that governments are interested in this?

GOURLEY Yeah, I mean, of course.

PAUL It's quite newish.

GOURLEY Yeah, we published this-

PAUL I mean, the more troops you put out there, the more you should kill and it should be over quicker.

GOURLEY Well, see, insurgency's actually a lot more complex. It's this very complex ecosystem for maybe hundreds of different groups, each competing with each other, and they're not necessarily all working together. And so when you go in and try and disrupt and ecosystem, it's like putting rats into New Zealand, and all of a sudden the bird population changes.

PAUL Very good indeed. Let's move on. You're also an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. You've got a venture capital company called Quid. Are you making one?

GOURLEY Am I making a capital?

PAUL A quid.

GOURLEY Oh, making a quid. We're doing alright. Yeah, we're doing alright.

PAUL Very good. New Zealanders- Do New Zealanders think big enough about the outside world? I mean, most of us think we probably don't. We have exceptions like Ed Hillary, if you go right back, I suppose, Sir Peter Jackson, Mainfreight's Don Braid. If I'm right, what do they do differently?

GOURLEY What do they do differently? I think the main thing is you've got to turn your eyes out to some big, big problems, and as long as you kind of look for the big problems in the world and try and knock them off, then I think you're in a good place. I think that's the difference.

PAUL Can you do it from New Zealand? This is the thing.

GOURLEY So, I haven't. I've done it from San Francisco. I think, you know, it's one of the things. It's easier to do it when you're overseas. I think that's the issue.

PAUL Easier to do it when you're actually on the ground in the States.

GOURLEY Well, you know, if you're going to solve a big problem, you know, you need to be exposed to a large market, and America's a lot bigger.

PAUL Is it hard to raise, say, $100 million in the States?

GOURLEY Yeah, it's one of the hardest things you can do. It's a lot harder in New Zealand, though.

PAUL How do you do it, though, in the States?

GOURLEY You solve a very big problem that a lot of people want to pay for.

PAUL So it's about solving problems?


PAUL You've solved their problems?

GOURLEY That's right. You solve a difficult problem. So if you've got a problem- I mean, the problem that we're solving is better decision-making tools for strategic analysis, and a lot of people are willing to pay good money for that.

PAUL Do we think too small, though, on the whole, New Zealanders?

GOURLEY I think, you know, when I grew up in New Zealand it was hard to kind of know where we sat in the world. And, you know, I think you're a top student at a university here and you're in the professional class - you're a doctor, you're a lawyer, you're an accountant. And we don't tend to look towards, you know, the business world.

PAUL Did we look out more than we do now, do you think? Have we become an introspective country, to our detriment?

GOURLEY I think we are quite myopic.

PAUL That's not introspective, necessarily.

GOURLEY No, but I... We look inside pretty deeply here, I think. Yeah.

PAUL So do we need to keep looking outside? I mean, is that important?

GOURLEY Yeah, we do.

PAUL We need to travel offshore. We need to see what's going on.

GOURLEY We do, absolutely, and that's the thing is we're wanting to hold on to our talent and say keep them in New Zealand. But you can't solve a world's problem if you're not seeing the world.

PAUL And of course they are heading off to see the world, and some are rather liking the world and deciding they could make a good living in the world and staying there. Whereas they find New Zealand, of course, quite limiting. Does the brain drain that we've got at the moment-? And people are really worried about this here, that we've reached a critical point. Does it worry you?

GOURLEY You know, I'm contributing to the brain drain. I'm hiring New Zealanders to come across to San Francisco and work at my company. I think a lot of them will come back to New Zealand. And the truth is, you have to go overseas and learn the tools and the techniques and learn how to build businesses and learn how venture capital works, and then you'll come back. I mean, at one point, you know, New Zealand is a great place to raise a family.

PAUL Will you come back?

GOURLEY Yeah, I think so.

PAUL You're going to set up an office here next year, aren't you?

GOURLEY I hope so.

PAUL Yeah.


PAUL I mean, you regard this as quite an easy country. You can have a hard day's work and then you go to the beach for the weekend.

GOURLEY Yeah, it is. It's nice.

PAUL Why do so many New Zealanders find it not an easy country?

GOURLEY I was pretty privileged.

PAUL In terms of those who were- Yes, alright. But, I mean, both in terms of those who see better opportunities overseas, but also those who have trouble with the law.

GOURLEY Why do we have trouble with the law?

PAUL No, why do so many New Zealanders have trouble with this country? Find it such a difficult country, not an easy country, I mean.

GOURLEY Well, I think that's, you know, going to be largely based on how much money you've got. I think how easy the country is - if you're poor, it kind of sucks.

PAUL Anywhere you are?

GOURLEY Anywhere you are, in New Zealand particularly. And, you know, when we make more money, we'll be better off.

PAUL You can have a shitty day in paradise.

GOURLEY You can. We've got a beautiful country here, but you still need money to enjoy it.

PAUL Tell me now the story of - you're very interesting on this - computer chess versus the human player and that Kasparov story. Can you explain that?

GOURLEY So, Kasparov back in 1997 sits down to play IBM's Deep Blue computer. And, of course, IBM wins, and it's a story of artificial intelligence beating the human mind. But that's the sort of story that most of us know. But if we step back a little bit, what Kasparov did is he invented a new style of chess called freestyle chess, where humans and machines would team up together. And what they found is a human plus the machine was actually able to beat any machine. And I think the story there is it's not so much about artificial intelligence as it is about augmenting the human intelligence.

PAUL So human beings and computer people working and setting up the correctly computer model so that we become experts quite quickly.

GOURLEY That's right.

PAUL And various things.

GOURLEY Exactly, so when you look at something like Iraq, it's an incredibly complex ecosystem. The human mind really struggles to understand the interactions of 120 insurgent groups, so we need tools and we need software to help us make better decisions within that. The human mind is simply not functioning at a high enough level to understand the complexity of the world that we've built.

PAUL And then, am I right, both the computer and Kasparov working together couldn't beat a couple of hackers?

GOURLEY That's right. That's the interesting- Well, it wasn't Kasparov. It was another Russian grand master.

PAUL Right, OK.

GOURLEY And the computer hackers actually have the advantage, because they understand both how the human heart works, but they also know how the computer machine works.

PAUL And the computer machine doesn't know...?

GOURLEY The computer machine doesn't have a very good sense of strategy, but they're very very strong on the computational side.

PAUL If you had a suggestion for the New Zealand government at the moment, and there you are working in Silicon Valley and you're looking at some very big developments and movers going on... What does the government need to do for a great leap forward in New Zealand?

GOURLEY I think we've got a great education system, and the students coming out of the top universities are, you know, some of the best in the world. And so that's something we should be aware of. I think the second thing is we need to tell better stories. You know, you need to- As a kid coming out of high school, you need to be exposed to stories about the world's problems, because it's only through exposure to those stories that you're ever going to be able to try and solve them. So telling stories is really powerful, so cutting something like TVNZ 7 - you know, what's going on? Where am I going to get exposed to Sierra Leone if I'm not seeing those documentaries?

PAUL Are you seeing enough international news on television since you've been home here?

GOURLEY I get most of my news through Twitter, so...

PAUL There you go. Sean Gourley, thank you indeed for your time, and good luck in California.

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