AI: Threat or Opportunity for Lawyers?

Written by: Noah Waisberg

November 11, 2011

5 minute read

The Economist recently ran a post on their Babbage (science and technology) blog on whether the “Luddite Fallacy” remains a fallacy as artificial intelligence takes on more and more white collar tasks. Lawyers and other knowledge workers should read it. Surprisingly, given that it is from The Economist, the post comes out somewhat pro-Luddism. Perhaps this shouldn’t be as shocking given that reporter jobs are also being automated (though it is hard to see The Economist’s high quality, insightful commentary being matched by artificial intelligence any time soon). The post lays out the technology driver of current unemployment:

This is the disturbing thought that, sluggish business cycles aside, America’s current employment woes stem from a precipitous and permanent change caused by not too little technological progress, but too much. The evidence is irrefutable that computerised automation, networks and artificial intelligence (AI)—including machine-learning, language-translation, and speech- and pattern-recognition software—are beginning to render many jobs simply obsolete.

This is unlike the job destruction and creation that has taken place continuously since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as machines gradually replaced the muscle-power of human labourers and horses. Today, automation is having an impact not just on routine work, but on cognitive and even creative tasks as well. A tipping point seems to have been reached, at which AI-based automation threatens to supplant the brain-power of large swathes of middle-income employees.

That makes a huge, disruptive difference. Not only is AI software much cheaper than mechanical automation to install and operate, there is a far greater incentive to adopt it—given the significantly higher cost of knowledge workers compared with their blue-collar brothers and sisters in the workshop, on the production line, at the check-out and in the field.

In many ways, the white-collar employees who man the cubicles of business today share the plight of agricultural workers a century ago.

The post continues:

The argument against the Luddite Fallacy rests on two assumptions: one is that machines are tools used by workers to increase their productivity; the other is that the majority of workers are capable of becoming machine operators. What happens when these assumptions cease to apply—when machines are smart enough to become workers? In other words, when capital becomes labour. At that point, the Luddite Fallacy looks rather less fallacious.

Then the post makes its way to doctors and lawyers:

Radiologists, who can earn over $300,000 a year in America, after 13 years of college education and internship, are among the first to feel the heat. It is not just that the task of scanning tumour slides and X-ray pictures is being outsourced to Indian laboratories, where the job is done for a tenth of the cost. The real threat is that the latest automated pattern-recognition software can do much of the work for less than a hundredth of it.

Lawyers are in a similar boat now that smart algorithms can search case law, evaluate the issues at hand and summarise the results. Machines have already shown they can perform legal discovery for a fraction of the cost of human professionals—and do so with far greater thoroughness than lawyers and paralegals usually manage.

Whatever effect automation has had to this point, much more is to come:

All told, Mr Ford has identified over 50m jobs in America—nearly 40% of all employment—which, to a greater or lesser extent, could be performed by a piece of software running on a computer. Within a decade, many of them are likely to vanish. “The bar which technology needs to hurdle in order to displace many of us in the workplace,” the author notes, “is much lower than we really imagine.”

But, according to a pair of MIT scholars, artificial intelligence can help workers:

Unlike Mr Ford, Dr Brynjolfsson and Dr McAfee are more sanguine about the impact smart technology is having on the job market. As they see it, those threatened the most by technology should learn to work with machines, rather than against them. Do that, they suggest, and the shake-out among knowledge workers becomes less of a threat and more of an opportunity.

We agree with Drs Brynjolfsson and McAfee that increasing AI capabilities can be a good thing for workers who embrace it. Two relevant points to us as we consider The Economist post are:

  1. Software, at least at this stage, is often focussed on work that humans enjoy least. Repetitive, high volume tasks that requires precision and strict adherence to rules. AI will replace some jobs. It will also make many better by stripping out less interesting portions.
  2. Software that can do can do a task more accurately and much faster than a human is hard to fight over the long term. Especially when the software solution is much cheaper. Lawyers may resist, by such measures as being slow to adopt new technology and by bringing UPL suits against services like LegalZoom. But where software works well, humans can’t effectively compete and, over time, trying to match up head-to-head is a losing strategy. The good news is that there is a lot software can’t do now and won’t do well later. The Economist points out: “The things that make people human—the ability to imagine, feel, learn, create, adapt, improvise, have intuition, act spontaneously—are the comparative advantages they have over machines. They are also the skills that machines, no matter how smart, have had the greatest difficulty replicating.” To suceed now and in the future, knowledge workers must (1) figure out how to use software to extend their capabilities and not try to fight AI systems where they can’t win, or (2) get on creating software that automates their own job.

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