International Bar Association On Robotics and Artificial Intelligence: good overview but careful not to frighten the horses

The IBA has published a report on the impact of robotics and AI on the workplace. Its central concern is the need to refashion employment law. The co-ordinator of the report, Gerlind Wisskirchen, said ‘The AI phenomenon is on an exponential curve, while legislation is doing its best on an incremental basis. New labour and employment legislation is urgently needed to keep pace with increased automation.’  The central argument is for an internationally agreed approach to issues such as liability for damage and accident caused by autonomously driven vehicles. However, the paper has a wider value in bringing together and summarising the impact of technological advances on labour markets, education and international competitiveness.

The paper adopts the analysis that we have entered a fourth industrial revolution. There are a variety of numerical options: some prefer a ‘second machine age’. But, the IBA goes for Industry 1.0 as the age of ‘industrialisation’; Industry 2.0 as electrification; Industry 3.0 as digitalisation – the first part of the current revolutionary phase which can be seen as beginning in the 1970s and characterised by an initial replacement of human labour by computers g through word processing; and finally 4.0 – ‘the technical integration of cyber physical systems into production and logistics’.  (Alas, the language does sometimes get opaque and probably suffers in translation). This age is characterised by the control of production by machines; real-time production (stocks at a minimum, just in time production); decentralisation of production; individualisation. Pick your examples. The IBA report gives ‘smart factories’, autonomous cars, Facebook, Airbnb and Uber, Spotify and Netflix.

The strength of the report, also its weakness, is that it is an attempt to provide a comprehensive summary of secondary sources. So, it is capable of fascinating overviews but finds it hard to avoid reliance on statistics that, individually, may be contestable. However, its analysis of the global consequences looks pretty accurate. Just as within countries there will be winners and losers, so there will be between countries. Those like The Netherlands, the Nordic countries, Qatar, Singapore, the US (no mention of the UK – so much for our post-Brexit world relevance) will profit from the technological advance. India and China may also see returns from their investment in education as a replacement for their formerly largely low wage economies. Developing countries in Central, South America, North Africa and Indonesia will be further held back. There are massive global consequences for such growing inequality:

Further complicating the matter is the rising birth rate in the North Africa and Arabic countries, which will lead to high rates of youth unemployment … only 40 per cent of the younger generation is in employment and most of these jobs are low paid jobs without social security  … It does not come as a surprise that many youths – especially those who are better educated – would like to leave their countries to migrate to Western developed countries.

Continuing global crisis seems inevitable as the benefits of technological advances are disproportionately experienced in ‘Western developed countries and Southeast Asia’. These inequalities between countries will reflect winners and losers within them. Jobs with predictable content will go.

A possibly surprising element of the report is the relatively small coverage given to the implications for the legal profession. Having expressed the need for changes in educational values to cover more attention to co-operative and flexible working, creativity and technological understanding, the IBA authors take what some would see as a rather complacent view of the effects of the legal profession: ‘the risk of being replaced by intelligent software of a machine is low for member of the legal profession (three to five per cent)’. This seems suspiciously precise and, indeed, the paper proceeds to give examples of how technology is already impacting on, for example, contract review and case research. Without really following the point up, the authors delicately dip their toes into the trouble waters of the billable hour versus the fixed fees. But, internal discussion is not the focus of the authorial team and the report quickly slides off to looking at doctors and others. This is a bit of a pity and is probably the result of not wishing to offend anyone within the IBA’s broad church.

Given its identification of global trends of some momentum, its treatment of the legal profession looks, however, distinctly too skimpy – particularly as no less than four Bar Associations – the ABA. our Law Society, the New South Wales Law Society and the Singapore Academy of Law have all produced individual reports on the impact of technology on their members. AI will not, as its proponents keep saying, entirely replace lawyers but it seems inconceivable that it will not have a major effect within major sectors for the profession – predominantly those in high value commercial work.  Pick your own figure for the percentage of likely job losses but I would go much higher than three to five per cent – surely 20 to 30 per cent of those involved in work that involves high consideration of data that can ultimately be automated. However, the paper is worth a read if only as a reminder that the impact of Brexit on the UK economy and globally may actually be as nothing compared with technological change for which we may prove even more unprepared.

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