Could lawyers and doctors soon be replaced by robots?by Giles Wilkes / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Four years ago, a poem called “For the Bristle- cone Snag” found its way into the Archive, a student magazine published at Duke University in the United States. Containing the less-than-immortal lines, “They attacked it with mechanical horns because they love you, love, in fire and wind,” the nine-line stanza appears to muse on the destruction of a tree. There is a reason for the poem’s clumsiness: it was written by a computer algorithm, created by an undergraduate curious to see how artificial intelligence could create something as inherently human as poetry.
On the evidence of “For the Bristlecone Snag” it is too soon to predict when the TS Eliot Prize will be won by a robot. But elsewhere, few occupations can rest easy. Resistance is not so much futile as economically bad form. Ever since the Luddite machine-breaking rebellion 200 years ago, a key part of every economist’s training has been to learn to scoff at technophobes. Machine efficiency allows resources to go further so what does it matter if workers are displaced? An evolving economy generates new uses for their labour, usually tasks that are less grimy and repetitive than before. Of course it is better to be the person who invents or owns the machine than a worker who suddenly finds he or she is surplus to requirements. But these distributional trembles should be dealt with by the political class, not economists.
As miners have been replaced by coal-cutting machines and bank clerks by computerised ledgers, this complacency has held firm. But the latest, information-centred, phase of industrial revolution has a more unnerving character. The replacement of human labour by machines was supposed to hit a limit. At some point, routine tasks such as scanning warehouse inventory evolve into the less routine, such as deciding a marketing strategy or designing an undergraduate course. Beyond this limit, there is meant to be a space where mankind’s skills remain irreplaceable, securely remunerated and with the humans still firmly in charge.