Looking the Wolf in the Eye – The Rise of the Robots: technology and the threat of mass unemployment by Martin Ford

This book is scary, readable and worth looking at even by those who concern is tightly focused on an issue like legal services for people on low incomes. It has established itself as one of the classic in its field. Published in the autumn of 2015 by Oneworld Publications, it does not specifically cover the legal sector. Its analysis is, however, very relevant to any assessment of how technology might affect the society within which legal services will be delivered and how many jobs even with professions, will be wiped out.

The central thesis is that automation is not only a threat to low skilled and low educated workers. Technology is likely to replace any job where the work predictable – a lower threshold than routine. If a job could be done by anyone or anything that studied a detail record of what has been done in the past then there will be an algorithm for that and, in the long term, human agency in its performance is history. An age of robotics is coming and it will be consuming jobs rather too near yours for comfort.

The consequences of such an advance are frightening. The author points out that many of the refuges within the economy for those on its margins will disappear. McDonalds alone employs on close to 2m workers around the world. These may have given birth to the phrase ‘McJobs’ but ‘Historically, low wages, few benefits and a high turnover rate have helped make fast food jobs easy to find, and fast food jobs, together with other low-skill positions in retail, have provided a kind of private sector safety net for works with few other options’. Already, the fast food sector is employing ‘far more mature workers who rely on their jobs for their primary income’ rather than moonlighting students and casual workers. Since 2011, McDonalds has been introducing touch screen ordering in its outlets. Coming soon to a restaurant near you are machines that will make, cook and deliver your burger to you just as you want it (and as you usually order it) – without human agency and potentially monitored only by a remote offsite manager.

And the revolution is going to take place not only in fast food. Same day delivery will give internet ordering retail operations like Amazon even more of an edge on physical shops. At its peak, Blockbuster video shops employed 60,000 people: they have all gone in the face of kiosks and internet delivery. Driverless delivery and cars will wipe out another army of low paid workers, often disproportionately immigrants establishing themselves in a new country. Agriculture is going to be a fertile area for the replacement of migrant or low paid labour by machines. Precision application of fertiliser or waters will be good for the environment and cost-effectiveness but bad for labour. Artificial intelligence will allow the replacement of staff in customer call centres by computers that can recognise natural speech patterns. The major UK banks have shed close on 200,000 jobs in the five years since 2010. Overall estimates of job losses to automation are astronomic – 50 per cent in the US according to an Oxford University study; 35 per cent in the UK according to a House of Lords committee; 20 per cent in the EU according to the OECD.

The book identifies six trends in the modern economy: stagnant wages; the creation of a ‘bear’ market for labour but a ‘raging bull’ for corporations; a combination of job creation, lengthening jobless recoveries and soaring long term unemployment’; soaring inequality; declining incomes and underemployment for recent university graduates; an increasing polarisation of labour between a rich upper layer of managers and a poorly paid bottom layer alongside more part-time jobs. The result is a dystopian vision of a secure upper class and a highly insecure precariat. What is more, consumer demand in the economy as a whole will drop as only the top dogs have much disposable income.

Such an analysis is not really new. There are any number of sic fi films where you can see it worked out as an art form. The winners usually live in luxury above ground: the losers inhabit a subterranean hell. Mr Ford is a pretty complete pessimist. He is not having it that there will be alternative work opportunities arise as old ones disappear. Profits are going to be increasingly concentrated in large firms with small workforces. The paradigm will be Google which makes more than General Motors ever did on the basis of employing 38,000 people as against the carmakers’ peak of 840,000. And, within all industries, data will be captured on how jobs are done: ‘Organisations are likely to flatten. Layers of middle management will evaporate and many of the jobs now performed by both clerical workers and skilled analysts will simply disappear’. And what is also happening within sectors is what the head of one Californian data analyst calls ‘a winner-takes all consolidation’. To the winner go the spoils.

So, what will be the effect of all this on legal services for those on low incomes? Mr Ford has only a short section specifically on law. He points out the effect of e-Discovery software will evaporate large numbers of paralegal and entry level jobs. But, as a sort of positive, it is likely to increase the potential client pool and the type of problem on which advice will be sought will reflect the precarious employment and life patterns of those in uncertain employment. Second, there seems little reason for legal services sector to face the economy-wide hollowing out –  become what he calls a ‘collapsing pyramid’.

However, Mr Ford may have a weakness. All that he says might be true but it may also be that human beings remain social animals and respond to people more than machines, however much they resemble machines. After all, who would have predicted the rise of coffee houses and the veneration of the art of the barrista (something that even the Susskinds missed)? Transactional law and legal research may prove more vulnerable than the aspects of law that involve interpersonal relationships and advice. Those who are poor and marginalised need not only advice but a champion.

And, Mr Ford may also underestimate the power of the state – if driven by the right politics – to counteract that of the corporation. You can certainly see how more automation will not affect – and may increase – the need for the human-oriented jobs. There will be a real need for those like counsellors, social workers, teachers, personal trainers and psychotherapists. These may not be productive but they are necessary. The problem is that the state’s revenues are being squeezed as never before so there is a reduction in sports, culture and education just at the point where these could give continuing importance to people’s lives. In the UK, these are just the jobs that the current government is decimating. The state will be need to transfer the aggregation of reward from a small number of corporations to the greater good. Mr Ford, like many similar authors, favours some form of basic income – a potentially pretty revolutionary idea for societies that have been encouraged to rail against non-working benefit recipients for so long.But these are the macro-economic questions where economics fades into the political.

In the meantime, the book underlines the need for lawyers to keep studying how the delivery of legal services is changing; to accept that this time there will be major disruption within a five to ten year period; that they will need to be really agile to keep afloat in a new environment; and, boy, will  there be people who will need low or no cost legal help.

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