Thursday, August 24, 2006

Automating intellectual jobs

A while ago Whimsley wrote about lawyerbots that are toodling around the web looking for trademark violations. He says that companies create lawyerbots that operate on eBay, generating complaints to eBay when they come across a product that might violate their trademark. eBay processes the complaints programmatically, so sometimes an item is withdrawn from sale when no human has ever considered whether it should be or not. This has resulted, for example, in a third-party book about software being removed from eBay even though it violates no trademark.

Whimsley seems a bit grumpy about this development. Maybe I'm just being perverse, but I think it sounds pretty neato. (Wouldn't it be cool if we all had our own lawyerbot to protect our interests and automatically communicate with other lawyerbots. Just put my libel case winnings in my bank account, please!)

But the whole notion of lawyerbots raises the issue of the automation of intellectual jobs and how it's creeping up on us, just as in previous times we adjusted to the automation of manufacturing and service jobs. I can imagine many parts of a lawyer's job that could be handled by application-to-application processing. (Since I'm currently executor of a will and having to spend far too much time in a lawyer's office, that sounds good to me.)

I write computer manuals, and for a long time there has been talk about automating what I do. That's not going to happen; for example, when API references are generated from code comments, that just means that I have to go into the source code and write the code comments. But there has been automation that has reduced the number of writers who are required, with DITA and the reuse of text leading the way.

Similarly, we can and probably will automate vast chunks of what is done by lawyers, doctors, politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, computer scientists, and so on. This could lead to a reduction in prices, just as manufactured goods are much cheaper than they used to be. That could be important. For example, now, if you are charged with a crime and have enough money that you are ineligible for government-paid legal assistance, you will likely go broke defending yourself. Ditto if you get involved in a contested divorce settlement. Even handling a real estate transaction costs hundreds or thousands of dollars in legal fees, when most of the work is rote. It would be a social revolution if the cost of getting legal advice became more reasonable.

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