Tag Archives: automation

Robot lawyers, human cashiers

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.

The Lights In The Tunnel: free ebook about automation economics

Martin Ford, much like many of us, has some concerns about the future. Unlike most of us, he’s written a book about it: The Lights In The Tunnel looks at the economic implications of the technological acceleration curve that Singularitarian cheerleaders are so fond of, and suggests it may be at the root of the current economic crisis as well as the ones yet to come. From the website blurb:

The book directly challenges nearly all conventional views of the future and illuminates the danger that lies ahead if we do not plan for the impact of rapidly advancing technology.  It also offers unique insights into how technology will intertwine with globalization to shape the twenty-first century and explores ways in which the economic realities of the future might be leveraged to drive prosperity and to address global challenges such as poverty and climate change.

I’ve had a review copy sitting in my to-be-read pile for ages, and hope to get to it eventually (though I’m not expecting a cheery life-affirming feeling as a result – this isn’t the sort of book you write in order to tell everyone how great the future is going to be). If you’re interested in what Ford has to say, however, there’s no need to lash out for the hardcopy – you can now download a PDF version for free at the book’s website, and the license has been tweaked so you’re perfectly at liberty to copy and share it with friends.

If you take a look, why not drop back here and let us know what you think. Is Ford just another doomsayer pundit, or is he onto something? Is he stating the obvious, or unearthing buried truths?

Homeopapes: journalism by machine

Here’s an interesting piece at Wired UK that picks up the “OMG journalism is dying” ball and runs with it in the direction of automated machine-to-machine and machine-to-person news aggregation:

NewsScope is a machine-readable news service designed for financial institutions that make their money from automated, event-driven, trading. Triggered by signals detected by algorithms within vast mountains of real-time data, trading of this kind now accounts for a significant proportion of turnover in the world’s financial centres.

Reuters’ algorithms parse news stories. Then they assign “sentiment scores” to words and phrases. The company argues that its systems are able to do this “faster and more consistently than human operators”.

Millisecond by millisecond, the aim is to calculate “prevailing sentiment” surrounding specific companies, sectors, indices and markets. Untouched by human hand, these measurements of sentiment feed into the pools of raw data that trigger trading strategies.


Here and there, interesting possibilities are emerging. Earlier this year, at Northwestern University in the US, a group of computer science and journalism students rigged up a programme called Stats Monkey that uses statistical data to generate news reports on baseball matches.

Stats Monkey relies upon two key metrics: Game Score (which allows a computer to figure out which team members are influencing the action most significantly) and Win Probability (which analyses the state of a game at any particular moment, and calculates which side is likely to win).

Combining the two, Stats Monkey identifies the players who change the course of games, alongside specific turning points in the action. The rest of the process involves on-the-fly assembly of templated “narrative arcs” to describe the action in a format recognisable as a news story.

The resulting news stories read surprisingly well. If we assume that the underlying data is accurate, there’s little to prevent newspapers from using similar techniques to report a wide range of sporting events.

The first knee-jerk question here is “can (or should) we trust those algorithms to remain uncorrupted? How easy would it be for such a system to create news that wasn’t true, or that spun the truth in a particular direction?”

The instant counterargument would be to ask how much more prone to corruption and error an automated system would be compared to the existing human-based systems… all trust needs to be earned, after all, and (speaking for myself) I’ve little trust in the worldview of any media outlet when viewed in isolation. I aggregate my incoming news already through a bunch of semi-manual processes and routines; would something that removes the drudgery of that be inherently bad, or does the risk lie in our laziness and subconscious gravitation toward echo-chambers of our own ideas? Is there any such thing as objective news (at least about anything that really matters, a category which I feel sports doesn’t really occupy)?

All this talk of truth, trust and objective realities puts me in mind of Philip K Dick – more specifically “If There Were No Benny Cemoli”, with its homeopapes churning out news of a planetary adversary who may or may not actually exist. Can anyone recommend more stories that deal with similar themes?

And I, for one, welcome our new robot scientists

robot with laptopRobots are ideal for doing human tasks that are repetitive, like screwing lids on cosmetic bottles, welding car panels… and now making scientific discoveries. Columbia University’s “Adam” machine is “the first automated system to complete the cycle from hypothesis, to experiment, to reformulated hypothesis without human intervention”.

The demonstration of autonomous science breaks major ground. Researchers have been automating portions of the scientific process for decades, using robotic laboratory instruments to screen for drugs and sequence genomes, but humans are usually responsible for forming the hypotheses and designing the experiments themselves. After the experiments are complete, the humans must exert themselves again to draw conclusions.


They armed Adam with a model of yeast metabolism and a database of genes and proteins involved in metabolism in other species. Then they set the mechanical beast loose, only intervening to remove waste or replace consumed solutions. […]

Adam sought out gaps in the metabolism model, specifically orphan enzymes, which scientists think exist, but which haven’t been linked to any parent genes. After selecting a desirable orphan, Adam scoured the database for similar enzymes in other organisms, along with the corresponding genes. Using this information, it hypothesized that similar genes in the yeast genome may code for the orphan enzyme.

The process might sound simple — and indeed, similar “scientific discovery” algorithms already exist — but Adam was only getting started. Still chugging along on its own, it designed experiments to test its hypotheses, and performed them using a fully automated array of centrifuges, incubators, pipettes, and growth analyzers.

After analyzing the data and running follow-up experiments — it can design and initiate over a thousand new experiments each day — Adam had uncovered three genes that together coded for an orphan enzyme. King’s group confirmed the novel findings by hand.

Score one for the Singularitarians – autonomous systems that can follow the scientific method without supervision would surely be a component of an emergent self-improving artificial intelligence, if I understand the theory correctly. [image by jurvetson]

And why not outsource our more tedious scientific tasks to robot underlings? After all, we’ve been fairly unhesitating in our rush to do the same with warfare… no matter how ethically blurred an idea that may be:

Old tech meets high tech in one-man sailing vessel

Project Green Jet proposed design

Although my primary diet as a young fiction-reader was science fiction (Asimov, Heinlein, Andre Norton) and fantasy (Tolkien, Lewis, Lloyd Alexander), there was one most assuredly non-SF or F series that captured my imagination almost as much: Arthur Ransome‘s series of 12 books about English kids “messing about in boats,” which began with Swallows and Amazons (still in print after eight decades, and soon to be both a musical and a motion picture !).

Which is why this (very long) article from Gizmag on sailing in general and something called the Green Jet Project in particular caught my eye (via :

Green Jet uses automated systems controlling non-conventional sails to offer a glimpse of the future of sail – faster, more efficient, less labour intensive with minimal environmental impact. The vision is a superyacht sailed by one man with a touchscreen.

Several screens of interesting information later:

Hydraulic motors will pull the sail to its 55 metre height (top of the rig is 62m) in around 30 to 40 seconds and each sail can rotate through 160 degrees on a pivot point to best catch the wind. Navigation is touch-screen and simple, though the system that sails the boat is far from that, not to mention monitoring an array of weather information systems.

Designer Erik Sifrer is currently seeking backers for the project, which he expects would require more than 70 million euro and three to six years to bring to fruition.

A vast sailing vessel (57 metres, in this case) under the command of just a single person? There’s only one possible response to that vision, if you’re an Arthur Ransome reader: as Nancy Blackett would surely say, “Jibbooms and bobstays!”

(Image: Mides Design)