Are the Professions Doomed?

*Author’s note: this post relates specifically to the “Designing Expert Legal Systems,” class taught at the TRU Faculty of Law by Professor Katie Sykes. Some references may be obscure to the passing reader, but the overall message remains*

As a law student enrolled in a legal app-making class, you might wonder, as I sometimes do, if you are contributing to the demise of your chosen profession. We recognize the need for access to justice, but cringe as our LOC balances climb.

But is this fear rational? Can access to justice, well-paid professionals and artificial intelligence co-exist? Can we have our app-selected cake and eat it too? Or does the transfer of Jake’s beautiful mind into a question flow indicate that the human touch is no longer relevant?

One of the best (though anecdotal) arguments I have heard to the contra comes from the fundamental human experience: no matter how tight machines reason, they are missing the human component. Would you feel comfortable, for example, with an app deciding the fate of a murderer – particularly considering the high bar for conviction? That is, if someone’s liberty were at stake, would you trust a machine to make the relevant considerations, both factual and moral, to determine that person’s sentence?

To me, these questions infringe on issues of conscience and emotion. It is easy to program a machine on the basis of pure logic (the if-then’s and yes/no’s we’re familiar with as Neota magicians). But the forces driving these rules are harder to pin down. Why is it logical to have a specific legal outcome, in the context of human ethics and morals? At some point, rationality loops back to human emotion. Ultimately, our sense of justice (sociopaths aside), comes not from logic, but from our feelings. It is unlikely that we will project these feelings onto apps, as we don’t fully understand them ourselves. As thinkers like Sam Harris point out, consciousness very much remains a mystery, and might always lie beyond human explanation.

Existential threats aside, there are reasons to believe we will still be gainfully employed. As Tara Vasdani pointed out, there is an explosion of entrepreneurial options for those (such as ourselves) entering the workforce during the human-AI transition. And there is reason (amidst clouds) for hope, even beyond these “first-finder” opportunities.

Richard and Daniel Susskind, a father and son team from England, detail their predictions for the impending techno-age. The bad news is that they expect a fundamental dismantling of the professions as we know them. The need for specialists with particular knowledge/skillsets will inevitably collapse as information is widely disseminated and applied by increasingly smarter machines. Expert knowledge will cease to be monopolized by scholars undergoing years of focused training. The upside – beyond the obvious boon for democracy and access to justice – is that this new technology will require engineers (including knowledge technicians), implementers, managers, and maintenance personnel of all stripes. And, if you are reading this because you are part of the DLES class at TRU Law, you can rest easy knowing you are already a part of vanguard (*pats back*)!

Jokes aside, Daniel Susskind offers some practical advice for young workers: “learn to be good at the sorts of things these systems…cannot do or…try to build the machines” yourself. It is a matter of staying ahead of the curve, rather than being underneath it. More hearteningly, he seems to think that conventionally trained professionals are up to this task. When asked about aspiring doctors and lawyers, he recommends (with caveats) that they take a “traditional” path:

     “But be far more agnostic and open minded along the way about opportunities that come up. Because what’s interesting is that if you look at these technologies – take the systems developed by DeepMind or the ones that recognise melanomas by Sebastian Thrun’s team at Stanford – these teams contain lots of domain experts, such as trained doctors.”

While the message is complicated, it is clear that young professionals still hold an advantage in the job market. The difference, for law students, is that our advantage now stems from exposure to new ideas and thinkers (and networking opportunities), rather than formal education, as it did in the past. The opportunities that lie ahead for us are hard to predict, but will undoubtedly lie outside of our traditional conceptions of what lawyers “do.” In the long-run, Universal Basic Income, and machine replacement of labour, might make these considerations moot. Until then, be kind to the machines, and pray that they decide to erase your debt.

Sources:

Harris, Sam. “The Mystery of Consciousness,” (October 11, 2001) Samharris.org.

<https://samharris.org/the-mystery-of-consciousness/>.

 

Susskind, D. and Susskind, R. The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will

Transform the Work of Humans and Experts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

 

Tucker, Ian “The Observer: Daniel Susskind: ‘Automation of jobs is one of the greatest

questions of our time,’” (January 28, 2020) The Guardian.

<https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/18/automation-jobs-universal-basic-income-daniel-susskind-interview>.

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