Saturday, June 15, 2013
In a New York Times Op-Ed, Paul Krugman discusses a new report by the business consulting firm McKinsey & Company that describes several disruptive technologies and the likely impact they will have on the labor market. One such technology is described generically as "automation of knowledge work."
The McKinsey report describes this technology as sophisticated artificial intelligence software and "machine learning" which will be able to perform many "knowledge worker" tasks that had previously been considered "impossible or impractical" to do by machine. This new fangled software will be able to answer "unstructured" questions from clients and customers (i.e. those posed in the language of ordinary conversation rather than precisely formulated queries) which opens up the possibility of "sweeping change" in the way such knowledge work gets done. The report further posits that sophisticated analytical software might be used to augment the work of highly skilled workers (law partners, for example) meaning that some of the lower skilled workers who had previously provided support work (i.e. associates) would see their jobs disappear in favor of automation.
Clearly, this kind of thing has already been happening in the legal field for some time as predicative coding software has replaced armies of document review software at some large firms (and providing more sophisticated analytical data than its human counterpart in the process). It's also the kind of thing Richard Susskind has been predicting for years would happen since, in his opinion, some of the day-to-day work done by lawyers is not that sophisticated and thus is easily amenable to automation.
Returning to Mr. Krugman's Op-Ed, he thinks that if the above predictions turn out to be correct, the middle class is kind of screwed. The solution? We're going to need a good government-funded safety net to provide for all the displaced "knowledge workers." Yikes.