Age of Robots

The father-and-son authors of The Future of the Professions predicted radical change in the sector. 

But the tense skepticism in the room dissipated as each senior partner or director quietly acknowledged he or she would be a survivor, even if algorithms and artificial intelligence swept away the consultant or solicitor in the next seat.

This cohort may well reach retirement unscathed — and without much incentive to alter how they work. 

As Richard Susskind said afterwards, “it’s hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they have got their model wrong”. 

But change is coming. The main difference of opinion is over its pace and extent.

You can already ask Kim, a legal “virtual assistant” launched by Riverview Law, for help managing your caseload, or get Ross, IBM Watson’s “super intelligent attorney”, to research the entire body of law in seconds. 

A report by The Law Society, the trade body for solicitors in England and Wales, expects the impact of this type of automation to level off by 2020. 

Take financial journalism. Three years is typically spent as a trainee building confidence and skill by churning out news about corporate earnings. 

This is precisely the type of report that, quite rightly, Associated Press now produces automatically, in partnership with a company called — ominously for all columnists — Automated Insights.

Another parallel is aviation, where crashes often trigger fears that autopilots are undermining human skills. 

Interviewed last year about the 2009 Air France crash, Delmar Fadden, Boeing’s former chief of cockpit technology, told Vanity Fair that, having automated 98 per cent of pilots’ routine work, “we really worry about the tasks we ask them to do just occasionally”.

The answer is not to halt the march of the robots. Indeed, technology is part of the solution. 

Novice astronauts are not trained by sending them on repeated costly moonshots. 

They practice the tasks and challenges they will face in carefully designed simulations, until they are finally ready for the launch pad.

As Prof Susskind points out, law students at the University of Strathclyde play out real-world legal problems in a fictional virtual community called “Ardcalloch”.

Knowledge can be imparted in other ways, including simply by working closely, apprentice-style, with senior colleagues. 

Most will value the guidance received as a beginner from experienced editors and writers but no longer are they needed to write five similar corporate earnings stories a day to achieve mastery. 

Newbies can acquire specific skills through working, under close supervision, on a sample of the basic tasks they once spent years slogging through.

We are living in a different age and sooner or later this age will cause serious and unanticipated implications for everyone.
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