First, the Global Employment Institute of the International Bar Association – I have been knocking about the IBA for years, but had no clue it had such an institute – published a report on ‘Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and Their Impact on the Workplace’. This is one of those reports which will have you looking over your shoulder, waiting for the perfectly dressed robot to open the door and ask you kindly to pack up your belongings and leave.
I do not intend to cover the full scope of the report. It focuses on future trends of intelligent systems on the labour market in general (the internet of things, the fourth industrial revolution, those scary things), and looks at the resulting legal problems. You will be pleased to know that its predictions for lawyers are not particularly frightening. It rehearses well-known areas such as contract review, on-line dispute resolution, and fixed fees, and comes to the conclusion that lawyers are mostly safe for the time being.
But when speaking about the impact on jobs in general, it says that governments might have to take steps to protect some. The state might want to declare which jobs, such as childcare, should be performed exclusively by humans. (Please, put lawyers in that category.) Further, the state might want to introduce ‘human quotas’ in particular sectors, or introduce a ‘made-by-humans’ label, or a tax for the use of machines.
The ‘made-by-humans’ label caught my eye, as it did several others who have written about the report. Among the reasons it caught my eye was that I have a daughter who is already part of that trend. She is a film-maker, and though there are mighty animation studios which make fabulous films with computer animation (think Toy Story and many others), she deliberately makes films using the very laborious, time-consuming stop-motion technique that only humans can manage. She expressly excludes automation, and prefers the shapes that emerge from human-made artefacts over computer perfection.
It is easy to see how the ‘made-by-humans’ label will stick with lawyers, no matter what artificial intelligence might achieve. There will always be clients who prefer seeing a human about a serious legal problem over using a machine.
And this takes me to the second recent report. It comes from the European Commission’s DG Justice, which has just produced a package on the misleading practices of travel comparison websites.
These websites are among the finest fruits of the popular computer revolution. Their success has wrought havoc on the travel agency industry. They have allowed everyone to become their own travel agent. I suspect that all readers of this article will regularly – indeed maybe only - use one for their own travel arrangements. And yet there are problems with such perfection, as the commission points out.
Together with the network of European Consumer Centres, the commission checked 352 travel websites at the end of last year. In 32% of them, the price on the page of the comparison list was not the same as the price ultimately displayed in the booking page. In 30%, the total price (inclusive of taxes) – or the way it was calculated – was not clear. Prices were not reliable in around two-thirds of the websites. In addition, over 25% gave the impression that certain offers were scarce (e.g. ‘only 2 left’, ‘only available today’), without specifying that this scarcity applied strictly to their own website; and so on and so on.
These practices do not comply with legal requirements, specifically with the provisions of European consumer law. It is maybe not surprising to learn as a result that travel websites – not regulated as easily and directly as lawyers, say – are now among the most frequent sources of consumer complaints in Europe.
It is clear to me that we are going to face similar issues in the future with the approximate results that are the inevitable consequence of mass online dispute resolution, quick and cheap as it may be (travel websites are also quick and cheap). We will face the same when people use justice kiosks, do-it-yourself justice apps, or whatever other technology will be available. This is not to knock such developments, all of which I favour. It is to say that the ‘made-by-humans’ label will clearly continue to be popular and necessary in the law for a long time, to take account of the variety of human needs and the requirements of effective regulation.
Maybe we will even be able to persuade the government to keep quotas open for us as an endangered species.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs