When Average Is Over, Let’s Hope You Can Enhance the “Genius Machines.”

December 31st, 2013

Ronald Bailey reviews in Reason Tyler Cowen’s new book, Average is Over (which I have downloaded, but not yet read). Here is the intro:

The rise and spread of intelligent machines has led to increasing income inequality and anemic job growth. And this dynamic is likely to be permanent. Such is the arresting and depressing thesis proposed by the George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen in his provocative new book, Average Is Over.

The American economy is becoming a “hyper-meritocracy” in which workers will either be big earners or big losers, Cowen believes. He blames this bifurcation on the rise of “genius machines,” which are increasingly doing the routine intellectual work that once supported millions of middle-income workers. If your skills enhance the work of ever-more-intelligent machines, you’ll likely be a big earner. If your skills do not complement the computer, you’re liable to be a big loser. “Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other,” writes Cowen. “That’s why average is over.”

Those middle-class jobs just aren’t coming back, Cowen claims. “The financial crash was a very bad one-time event that revealed, rather suddenly, this more fundamental long-term structural problem, namely that a lot of workers had been overemployed relative to their skills,” he writes.

These trends are very applicable to the practice of law. Whether lawyers like it or not–or whether it actually results in an improvement in the quality of legal services–many of the more mundane tasks of law that can be commoditized will be delegated to “genius machines.” Lawyers who can make those machines smarter (those than can do math), and can learn from them, will prosper. Those who can’t will have a tougher time. It won’t be enough for lawyers to say, oh I can’t do computers, can’t my admin do that for me!

Cowen uses an example of chess computers that collaborate with a team of humans, who many not themselves be grandmasters.

So what is the future of work? Cowen cites Freestyle chess as a model of man-machine integration at work. Freestyle chess is a rapid-fire variation on the game played by teams who consult various computer programs for their assessments of the best moves. The computer outputs are evaluated by the human team members, who are not themselves necessarily highly ranked players. The combined man-machine chess teams regularly outscore the best grandmasters.

Similarly, in the future, the most successful doctors, lawyers, teachers, marketers, and retailers will be members of teams skilled in the use of intelligent machines to inform and guide their decisions. For example, a patient’s symptoms and test results could be uploaded into a comprehensive program for an initial diagnosis. This kind of diagnostic procedure need not be done by physicians, but by technicians whose skills enable them to identify when the diagnostic outputs of smart machines need to be supplemented by the insights of a team of doctors.

This is an interesting model for legal-tech development. This is what I have referred to for some time as assisted decision making. Computers won’t replace lawyers, but will provide data to allow lawyers to make more informed decisions.

So, in other words, learn!

In the meantime, Cowen has given you fair warning: If you don’t want to welcome robot overlords someday, it can’t hurt to take advantage of any opportunity to upgrade your skills.