The future of work, the practice of law and computers that drive cars

unclear complexIBM’s Watson Computer famously can play chess better than flesh-and-blood chess masters can, and it is a Jeopardy champion. It has cousins that can drive cars. Now Watson is coming after lawyers.

Pretty clearly, Watson can pass a bar exam already. But, it doesn’t just come up with answers to questions. It synthesizes information, develops arguments and puts them forth in a logical way. IBM’s general counsel modestly avers,

Watson won’t replace the judgment of a senior law firm partner, but it could eventually handle tasks of senior associates. [IBM] sees [Watson] researching and writing a memo summarizing the law and suggesting the most persuasive arguments and precedents. Or it might quickly review stacks of contracts . . ..’It would have encyclopedic knowledge and an inexhaustible work ethic.’

It’s not just Watson and lawyers. Lawrence Summers, Vivek Wadwha, Ray Kurzweil are asking what work will be left for anybody to do — when machines begin doing all they are capable of. (I particularly like Wadwha’s suggestion that, within 20 years, it will be illegal for people to drive automobiles.)

The “future of work” is a topic keeps coming up.

The thinkers don’t agree about where we are headed. But they do agree that, in this second machine age that is upon us, education and laws will be key — because what’s coming will be, well, new. People are about to be pushed out of the knowledge business. What’s left for people will be skills. And, principal among needed skills will be the ability to boldly go where we have not gone before. The skills for doing what’s new, that’s what will be needed.

To me, that says (i) the educations we will need must be of the liberal arts, and (ii) the skills we must bring must be those that lawyers came in with.

Lawyers are often hung with the label of being precedent-bound. Look at that another way: applying precedents wisely is a skill needed to understand and manage new problems.

The lawyer skills that are depreciating most rapidly are the abilities to extract answers from existing data, and to process almost anything.

The skills that are appreciating most are the abilities to navigate uncertainty: to discern how precedent provides guidance on new ground, to advise when answers are not known, and to act where outcomes are hard to predict.

It will be a good computer that has those skills.

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Comments

  • Stephen  On August 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

    Those last two paragraphs sound like you are describing the difference between “analysis” and “judgment.”

    Like

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