Robot lawyers, human cashiers

Paul Raven @ 30-09-2011

Looks like the deeper implications of ubiquitous robotic automation is really starting to sink in. Sure, wondering about the fate of Foxconn’s underpaid manufacturing drones is one thing, but when white-collar professions are threatened, you can believe that handwringing’s gonna happen. That said, Slate charmed me with their subheadline about expert systems and law: “Software could kill lawyers. Why that’s good for everyone else.” What,that needs to be explained?

Oh, I kid, I kid. Not all lawyers are unprincipled scumbags! But as the Slate piece points out, the ones who are could find their business models drying up, especially in the lucrative patent and IP law sectors…

In the last few years, the law has seen a rush of technological innovation, all stemming from computers’ increasing capacity to decipher and understand written documents. Many law firms now use “e-discovery” tools that can scan large caches of evidence in search of interesting facts and figures. Firms also have software to draft legal documents in a fraction of the time a human would take. And a few services on the horizon might do even more—negotiate the terms of a contract, for instance, or determine whether or not you should sue.

Automation will bring legal services to the masses. Many people who ought to hire an attorney to handle business or personal disputes can’t afford to do so. Software could potentially step in when you want to fight your mortgage lender, draw up contracts to start a small business, or sue for child-support payments.

While legal automation will be a boon for those who can’t afford representation, it’s bad news for lawyers. The industry is already in a slump, and law school is no longer seen as a sure path to riches. Because software will allow fewer lawyers to do a lot more work, it’s sure to drive down both price and demand.

A world with less patent trolls and ambulance-chasers sounds just fine to me.

Kevin Kelly’s had his thinking cap on, too; the 7 stages of Robot Replacement are the result:

  • A robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do.
  • OK, it can do a lot, but it can’t do everything I do.
  • OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.
  • OK, it operates without failure, but I need to train it for new tasks.
  • Whew, that was a job that no human was meant to do, but what about me?
  • My new job is more fun and pays more now that robots/computers are doing my old job.
  • I am so glad a robot cannot possibly do what I do.

Zing. First they came for the Foxconn drones, but I said nothing…

… but wait a second, because not all tasks of human productivity are amenable to automation. Furthermore, as end-users, we’re sometimes not very keen on robots that do certain jobs, even if they do they in ways that are technically more efficient. Alex Knapp brings news that will please anyone who hates those self-service tills at the supermarket:

Another supermarket chain is ending self-checkout lanes in favor of more cashiers. This time it’s the Big Ychain, which is eliminating self-checkout in all of its 61 stores because of an internal study that showed that they caused more delays and customers were less satisfied with them than checkout lanes run by lowly humans.

This announcement comes on the heels of major grocery chain Albertson’s announcement in July that it was eliminating self-checkouts in about a third of their stores.

According to a recent Food Marketing Institute study, fewer people are using self-checkouts at the grocery store. They accounted for 22% of all supermarket transactions in 2007, but have since declined to 16% of transactions in 2010. The same study noted that customers were more satisfied with human-run checkout lanes.

Those self-service tills suffer from a number of problems, not least of which are the powerful duo of poor UI design and user stupidity, but deep down, people just don’t like them. Perhaps this is just a lingering sense of the uncanny; they’re still new enough that almost everyone can remember shopping “the old way”, so maybe a sort of lingering cognitive dissonance is at work, which would perhaps fade after a certain acclimatisation period.

But perhaps not. We’re social beings, us humans, and by social I mean the exact opposite of Facebook et al; with a few exceptions, we tend to like interacting with other human beings, and what could be more human, more intrinsic to our cultural bedrock, than the exchange of goods? I’m not suggesting here that a conversation with a checkout operator is likely to be the highlight of your day (in fact, I suspect the subtle reinforcement of social hierarchy that comes from being served may play a role in the deep appeal of such transactions), but I don’t think it’s a wild theory to suggest that the classic “cubicle dystopia” of a world full of people who only ever interact via distance-spanning media is an impossibility. (For one thing, the nigh-universal revulsion we have for the concept – y’know, the thing that makes it a dystopia rather than a utopia –  is a pretty good indicator that, whether biologically or culturally, we’re wired to find that set-up extremely unappealing.)

I’m put in mind of Iain M Banks’ post-scarcity civilisation, The Culture. I can’t remember which novel it appears in, but someone from beyond the Culture is being shown around one of the big arcology/spaceships, and all the restaurants and bars and entertainment venues are staffed by actual living beings (and drones, which as high-functioning AIs, count as people). The visitor expresses surprise that anyone would work when they didn’t have to, and Banks has their Culture host explain that people serve drinks and cook food and play music for others because it’s inherently satisfying to do so. We flinch from the idea at first, but that’s because we’re caught in a world where work gets exchanged for tokens, which are then taken away from us again in exchange for the things we need to survive; in a culture with no money and no physical wants, working for the sheer pleasure of having something to do doesn’t seem crazy at all. Or it certainly doesn’t to me; heck, most of the really horrible jobs I’ve had were horrible because of the conditions and the hours rather than the work itself. That said, I do not include my week working on a waste-collection lorry in that set; there are definitely jobs that are very amenable to automation. (I note wryly that most of them are the ones that are very poorly paid and farmed out to the least fortunate under the current set-up…)

So my theory is that, if all goes well, we’ll automate only the jobs that no one wants to do, but I also suggest that, if the trend is allowed to work out (i.e. no civilisational collapse interferes with our potential trajectory out of the chrysalis of consumerist capitalism), we might find ourselves surprised at which jobs get automated and which ones get kept on. That said, the route between that state and our status quo is a pretty perilous one, and – as usual – it’s the folk at the bottom of the pyramid who’ll be sidelined by automation in a world where we don’t guarantee a universal basic standard of living. It’s high time we faced up to the fact that those two problems are intimately related to one another.

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2 Responses to “Robot lawyers, human cashiers”

  1. FTLNewsFeed says:

    Actually, I think the reason for the failure of self-service checkouts was the failure in design/implementation and store’s unwillingness to trust their customers at checkout. Every time I’d use one of these checkouts it’d whine if I scanned an item and then did not immediately put the item in the grocery bag on top of its weighted plate to determine that the item that I scanned matched with its weight. So I couldn’t easily bag large items or scan/bag efficiently to make the process go any faster. Of course then it’d lock up and wait for a customer service manager to come over and allow the transaction to proceed without having to place it on the weighing plate. All of this mistrust and inefficiency would detract from the experience and make me wish for a human being, just so that I could speed along — now isn’t that something? …

  2. Michael says:

    Agreed, FTLNewsFeed. Now, when the lines are sufficiently short, I go through the human checkout just to avoid the hangup when something scans wrong (I’m not allowed to type in my own UPC code) or the scales get confused. Not to mention it’s nice to talk to the cashier while they’re scanning my stuff.

    Paul, I assume “waste-collection lorry” is just a “garbage truck” over here, right? The guys that get to ride on the back of the truck and swing down and pick up the can and dump it in? Lots of boys dream of doing that when they grow up (I know I did) and so I can certainly imagine a post-scarcity economy also allowing people to do silly physical tasks like that just to enjoy the weather. (But the robots would take over when it rained.)

    Actually, one of the things about a post-scarcity “job” is that it won’t have the aspect of work that people hate the most: having to do it. If you just want to go to the movies instead, a post-scarcity economy won’t care. So recreational bartending or cooking or garbage manning will be just a hobby thing. And seen like that, there’s a lot of stuff that would be fun if it were just your hobby.

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