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Actually, You Should Be Scared of Robots

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 06, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When it comes to our automated future, a common refrain is that while automation will elimination some jobs, it will lead to growth overall. You need someone to lube up the robots' joints, after all, and someone to teach machines how to learn. Last year, for example, researchers found that an increasingly automated economy would "self-correct," creating new, more complex jobs and keeping wages and equality relatively stable.

Turns out, the data points the opposite direction. In a new paper, the same two researchers, Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, looked at the actual evidence form U.S. labor markets and found that increased automation reduced employment and wages. So, what does this mean for the future? And more importantly, what does this mean for legal professionals?

More Robots, Fewer Jobs, Lower Wages

In their earlier paper, published last May, Acemoglu and Restrepo modeled the impacts of automation and argued that "[u]nder reasonable conditions, there exists a stable balanced growth path in which" automation and the creation of new jobs "go hand-in-hand," essentially balancing each other out. Their new paper examines real-world data and comes to a different conclusion.

When automation displaces jobs, there was little increased employment to offset the loss, the pair determined. Robots have eliminated up to 670,000 jobs between 1990 and 2007, the study found. In some isolated areas, the addition of one robot per thousand workers eliminated 6.2 jobs and dropped wages by 0.7 percent.

"The market economy is not going to create the jobs by itself for these workers who are bearing the brunt of the change," Acemoglu said, according to the New York Times.

What this might mean for you and me remains unknown. While there's been plenty of speculation about the effect that automation and AI will have on the law, this study was looking at real-life robots, the kind of machines that assemble circuit boards or weld together car parts. These hunks of metal can't do the more sophisticated work that professionals do (not even doc review).

But that doesn't mean that legal professionals will avoid the impacts of increased automation. A separate study by the McKinsey Global Institute looked at 2,000 tasks attorneys typically complete. It found that 23 percent of them could be handled by automation -- computer automation, rather than robots, that is.

That won't lead to the elimination of the lawyer class, but it could significantly reduce the work, particularly rote work, that is available to flesh-and-blood attorneys. And if that job displacement follows the pattern identified by Acemoglu and Restrepo, that's not good news for the profession.

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