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.


BERG’s Robot-Readable World

Paul Raven @ 04-08-2011

I was on a focus group panel last week, and had a real fanboy moment when I discovered that one of my fellow panellists was employed by the notorious polymathic design consultancy BERG. When I expressed a fascination with their output, I was assured that their studio – far from being the Wonka-esque factory of chaotic genius I liked to imagine – largely consisted of people sat staring at computer monitors. (I still think I was lied to, and they just do the magical stuff out back somewhere.)

Name-dropping anecdotes aside, there’s a more pertinent reason I mention BERG, and it’s this post by Matt Jones, titled “The Robot-Readable World”. It is long, and it is full of stuff; Jones collects a whole disparate bunch of thinkers and thoughts and synthesises it all into something coherent, compelling and challenging. It also pretty much sums up why I count myself as a BERG fanboy – even if all they do really is just stare at monitors a lot, if that results in this sort of output, then I can feel a lot better about my own working practices.

TL;DR: I’m a bit busy today, so go read something awesome someone else wrote. It’s about robots ‘n’ shit, yeah?


Stupid responses to wicked problems, part [x]

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2011

Seems lots of people can see the potential long-term problems with the plans of Foxconn (and doubtless many others) to replace human manufacturing labour with robots. Sadly, that doesn’t preclude them coming up with the most myopic and reactionary response possible:

Despite my love of robots since childhood – as the high point of technology and for the technological challenges they present – we must remain vigilant about how they are helping us. If it turns out they are making our lives worse, I will be first in the luddite line with my sledgehammer.

Yes, Noel, yes! Because it’s the robots that are deciding the course of macroeconomics, isn’t it? Sneaky robots! Thank heavens for your vigilant sledgehammer; I shall sleep easier at night knowing you’re watching for that critical moment when a systemic drift manifests as an observable (if ill-defined) impact on our privileged Western lifestyles, ready and willing to destroy the tools of potential oppression, yet leaving the hands that would wield them unharmed!

Idiot. We cannot detach ourselves from our technologies; we are a cyborg species and always have been. Hairshirt back-to-basics primitivism is as unachievable and naive as Singularitarianism. Robots are tools, just like looms; why destroy a morally neutral tool when you could instead work on the systemic problems which make that tool into a vector of oppression?

Fight the fist, not the gauntlet.


Haunted hands and foraging swarmbots

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2011

Couple of freaky videos to set you up for the weekend, both courtesy of New Scientist. First up, PossessedHand is a device whose inventors hope will help musicians (and, one assumes, other folk who do fiddly stuff with their hands) get their muscle memory up to scratch more quickly:

And secondly, here’s a gang of super-simple “Kilobots” that display cooperative swarm behaviour as the result of very simple programming:

Apologies for the last few days being a bit content-thin; lots of balls in the air at the moment, and I’m doing my best not to drop any. Have a good weekend! 🙂

 


Robots: unpopular in the home, increasingly popular on the front

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2011

We’ve made mention previously of Japan’s strategy to help its rapidly greying population with robot home-help, which is a wonderful idea on paper… but there are a few problems: for a start, effective useful robots aren’t cheap, and the care recipients aren’t actually that keen on the idea.

“Robotic support of the infirm and elderly has got to be aimed at improving quality of life,” says Geoff Pegman, managing director of one of the UK’s few robot manufacturers R.U.Robots. “It should not just be for governments to save money in caring for them.”

Robot guides have been removed from hospitals because they “put patients off”

The Japanese government and care industry now seems to agree after robots have turned out to be too expensive, impracticable and sometimes unwelcome, even in “robot friendly” Japan.

The country’s biggest robot maker Tmsuk created a life-like one-metre tall robot six years ago, but has struggled to find interested clients.

Costing a cool $100,000 (£62,000) a piece, a rental programme was scrapped recently because of “failing to meet demands of consumers” and putting off patients at hospitals.

“We want humans caring for us, not machines,” was one response.

That said, one look at the institutional care system in the UK should be enough to tell you that human-provided care isn’t de facto better; the underlying problem seems to be the way we’re increasingly viewing the elderly and infirm as a sort of toxic asset on the social balance sheet, something to be stored away out of sight, “managed” with minimal resource expenditure. “Grannyfarming” – especially in light of of a new ConDem policy of withdrawing most regulatory oversight from an already deeply corrupt and greedy industry – is a shocking business; when pictures of animals being neglected on a similar scale are broadcast, there’s a national uproar. A sad state of affairs.

But there’s a definite pattern emerging, wherein we’re turning to machines to do the sort of jobs that meatfolk aren’t so keen on. According to Wired, one in fifty soldiers in Afghanistan is a robot. One assumes they’ve been programmed carefully so as not to get disillusioned with the task of exporting democracy and deciding to leak sensitive documents to whistleblower websites…


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