When Automation Comes for the Professional Class
Last week Michael Strain composed a compelling summary of many of the reasons technology’s effects on employment are beginning to be feared now at levels perhaps unseen since the time of the first Luddites during Britain’s Industrial Revolution. As he wrote,
There is no question that technology is already having a major impact on the labor market. Over the last several decades, employment in Western economies grew in both low- and high-skill occupations, but fell in middle-skill occupations. That’s because middle-skill, middle-class occupations are those that can be most easily replaced by technology. (Think of a 1970s-era bank that employed a president, a bank teller, and a custodian. Today, it’s the bank teller who’s gone, replaced by an ATM.)
Many professionals perusing this site will read that paragraph and cluck to themselves with mild concern at the plight of the former bank teller, but reassure themselves that their job is high skill, and that they couldn’t possibly be replaced by a machine. Middle-skill jobs are for the undereducated, after all. Yet in the latest issue of City Journal, John O. McGinnis makes the case for seeing even such an august profession as the law as being composed of a great many essentially middle-skill jobs, almost all of which are increasingly coming under the competency of computers. As he puts it,
Law is, in effect, an information technology—a code that regulates social life. And as the machinery of information technology grows exponentially in power, the legal profession faces a great disruption not unlike that already experienced by journalism, which has seen employment drop by about a third.
McGinnis surveys all the legal work computers are already starting to take up, and finds “Discovering information, finding precedents, drafting documents and briefs, and predicting the outcomes of lawsuits—these tasks encompass the bulk of legal practice.” Just as a welder may have once thought his work to be too exacting to be done by brute robotics, so professionals think of their work as being too humane for a computer to understand. This mindset makes the classic mistake of thinking that computers would have to replicate human phenomenology in order to compete with human activities. Instead, all a computer has to do is emulate a task with greater speed and in greater volume. An initial lawyer is needed to guide the programmer, and a final lawyer will for the foreseeable future be needed to tidy up the finished product. But all the hordes of junior associates laboring in discovery and research can be neatly replaced by search engines powered by the artificial intelligence of IBM’s Watson, the computer with the language skills to vanquish Jeopardy’s human champions.
Just as rapid reporting journalism is starting to be done by algorithm, so too will many traditional high-skill workers find their skills start to degrade in the eyes of the marketplace when automation comes to them.