When Watson Comes For Your Job, Give It To Him

Published in Online Spin, May 13, 2016.

It has begun.

A week ago, the venerable law firm BakerHostetler announced a new hire, Ross. Ross is joining the bankruptcy department of the 100-year-old firm. Despite being new to practicing law -- BakerHostetler is Ross’ first job -- Ross brings a myriad of skills to the role. In addition to reading and understanding language, Ross can also “postulate hypotheses when asked questions, research, and then generate responses (along with references and citations) to back up its conclusions.”

You’ve guessed it: Ross is the world’s first artificially intelligent “lawyer,” based on IBM’s Watson.

High-profile AI flops like Microsoft’s Tay and Facebook’s glitchy chatbots may have created the impression that artificial intelligence isn’t quite ready for prime time, but Watson is hitting home run after home run.

At Georgia Tech this year, students were helped online by a Watson-powered artificially intelligent “teaching assistant” -- and no one knew the difference.

The robots are coming, and they’re not just gunning for factory workers and truck drivers. They’re after the white collar wrapped snugly around your middle-class neck, and they are much, much better than you.

That’s a good thing, by the way. In 2013, medical insurer WellPoint (now Anthem) claimed that, in tests, Watson had a 90% success rate in diagnosing lung cancer. The success rate of human doctors? A mere 50%.

As a Wired article explained, Watson had ingested “more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence [and] more than two million pages from medical journals and [had the] ability to search through up to 1.5 million patient records for further information… It would take at least 160 hours of reading a week [for a human doctor] just to keep up with new medical knowledge as it's published, let alone consider its relevance or apply it practically.”

You’re better off having Watson diagnose you. You’re better off with Watson answering your questions about the exam, or reviewing the case law as it applies to your bankruptcy proceedings. In ways big and small, your life will be better when artificial intelligence begins to realize its true potential.

Which leaves us just one teensy question. When lawyers, teaching assistants, and diagnosticians -- along with accountants, marketers, and, yes, factory workers and truck drivers -- are replaced by Watson and his brethren, what will you do?

If you’re thinking you’ll look for another job, it’s time to go a level deeper. The idea that we need to be gainfully employed is so ingrained that we regularly forget we made it up. Our work is an integral part of our self-identity. What happens when an integral part of your self-identity disappears?

As J. Bradford Delong, a Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, puts it, “[M]any people derive their self-esteem from their jobs. As labor becomes a less important part of the economy, and working-age men, in particular, become a smaller proportion of the workforce, problems related to social inclusion are bound to become both more chronic and more acute.”

It’s no wonder the idea of a universal basic income is starting to sound pretty appealing. In a 5,000-word essay on FiveThirtyEight, Andrew Flowers describes a plethora of basic income experiments and possible motivations for undertaking them: improving the welfare system, offering a solution to the specter of technological unemployment, giving people the freedom to pursue their creative expression.

We don’t yet have enough data to know whether a universal basic income will work. But pull the plug on Watson, and you’ve traded an accurate cancer diagnosis for a 40-hour-a-week job. Personally, I’d rather have Watson.