One reason I decided to write on law practice technology was because of a general unease about the shape of debates on automation. Technologists and journalists tend to look at jobs from the outside, presume that they are routine, and predict they’ll be further routinized by machines. But some reality checks are important here.
As David Rotman observes, “there is not much evidence on how even today’s automation is affecting employment.” Many economists believe that technology will create more jobs than it destroys. MIT’s David Autor, writing for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s economic policy symposium on “Reevaluating Labor Market Dynamics,” states that “journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities”—in other words, the ways that automation can increase, rather than decrease, the value of human labor. Consider, for instance, the use of voice recognition software: it may put transcriptionists out of work, but increases the value of the labor of a person who can now, say, transcribe what they’ve dictated 24 hours a day, rather than just when the transcriptionist is near. The selfie-stick may have a similar effect on cameramen and journalists. Legal tech may put some lawyers out of a job, while creating jobs for others.
It’s also easy to overestimate the scope of automation. Autor gives a sobering example of windshield repair:
Most automated systems lack flexibility—they are brittle. Modern automobile plants, for example, employ industrial robots to install windshields on new vehicles as they move through the assembly line. But aftermarket windshield replacement companies employ technicians, not robots, to install replacement windshields. Why not robots? Because removing a broken windshield, preparing the windshield frame to accept a replacement, and fitting a replacement into that frame demand far more real-time adaptability than any contemporary robot can
The distinction between assembly line production and the in-situ repair highlights the role of environmental control in enabling automation. While machines cannot generally operate autonomously in unpredictable environments, engineers can in some cases radically simplify the environment in which machines work to enable autonomous operation.
Admittedly, the “society of control” scenario discussed here, or even milder versions of the “smart city,” may lead to far more controllable environments. But they also raise critical questions about privacy, fair data practices, and liberty.
There are also conflicts over values at stake in worker replacement. Osborn & Frey’s study The Future Of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation? tries to rank order 702 positions on the degree of likelihood of their automation. They characterize recreational therapists as least automatable, and title examiners and searchers as the second most automatable. But many video games offer forms of therapy, and therapeutic jobs (like masseur) and even higher-touch jobs could, in principle, be computerized. Furthermore, at least in the United States in the wake of MERS, there has been a loss of “confidence in real property recording systems.” Title insurance may hinge on legal questions that are still up in the air in certain states. Yes, further automation and recognition of things like MERS might “cut the Gordian knot,” but that solution would also inevitably trench on other values of legal regularity and due process.
In summary: automation anxieties could be as overblown now as they were in the 1960s. And the automation of each occupation, and tasks within occupations, will inevitably create conflicts over values and social priorities. Far from a purely technical question, robotization always implicates values. The future of automation is ours to master. Respecting workers, rather than assuming their replaceability of, would be a great start.