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21 June 2012

The next big (scary) idea

What happens when lawyers can be replaced by computers? Downing Street policy wonks want to know.

By Rafael Behr

There is an interesting piece in the latest edition of the Atlantic.

Interesting, that is, in a way that looks at first glance eye-numbingly boring. It is about computer automation in the legal world. (It is based on an article on the same topic that appeared in the Wall Street Journal but that one is behind a paywall.)

The essence is that machines are now getting very good at scanning long documents and picking out salient bits of information, imitating a cognitive skill traditionally thought to be unique to humans. In fact, computers are probably better at it than people (or will be soon enough) precisely because they don’t have eyes or minds to be numbed by repetitive tasks. They have tireless algorithms.

That is interesting enough in a geeky way, but it caught my eye because, by coincidence, this very concept was brought to my attention recently by a senior adviser in Downing Street. No, that doesn’t mean the government is planning to replace all lawyers with computers by 2015. The subject came up in the context of complex structural challenges facing the economy. There has already been much discussion of the hollowing out of low and semi-skilled manufacturing jobs – a consequence, partly at least, of out-sourcing and automation. That creates a structural gap in the labour market that translates into drastically diminished employment prospects for young people with few skills. That in turn generates deep social problems.  

But what happens when the same dynamic creeps up the skills ladder? What are the social and political consequences when white-collar, middle class jobs are increasingly outsourced or done by computers? Plenty of professionals who thought they were immune to the labour market pressures exerted by globalisation will suddenly start to feel very insecure. This is a change that could make itself felt easily within a decade. (That challenge, by the way, features in the writing of Tyler Cowen, a US economist and author of The Great Stagnation, who is much admired in the deep end of the Downing Street policy pool.) The original Luddites were, of course, reacting against the threat of automation in the workplace.

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So if you haven’t heard much about the structural economic challenge posed by the next generation of automation – someone has probably already called it Automation 2.0 – you soon will.