The Digital Associate: Is Watson the next threat to law firm jobs?
This week, we have been talking about some of the benefits of human-generated search engines versus those of computer-generated search engines. According to Pete Cashmore’s article, Humans vs. automated search: Why people power is cool again, it seems that the scale might be tipping in favor of human-generated research results. Citing “Google fatigue” and the creation of content farms—efforts to manipulate Google’s algorithmic search capabilities to deliver high quantity but low quality sources—Cashmore explains that “the pendulum appears to be swinging back: Google is broken . . . and people-power is the best fix.” Despite Cashmore’s declaration that machine-powered decision making might be on it’s way out, yesterday I stumbled across an interesting, and somewhat scary blog post that seems particularly relevant in light of our class discussions. In earlier blog posts, classmates have commented on Watson, the computer that is wiping the floor with the human contestants on Jeopardy. As it turns out, Watson might pose a threat not only to the Ken Jenningses of the world, but also to junior associates at law firms everywhere.
According to a recent post on the Wall Street Journal Law Blog (http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2011/02/15/the-next-threat-to-associate-hiring-its-elementary-my-dear/), Watson might actually be a viable threat to the number of first-year associate jobs in the market. Watson, named for IBM’s first CEO, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., is a machine that possesses artificial intelligence. It is able to both understand questions asked of it and learn to deliver better answers over time. And it does all of this in a matter of seconds. Although making it clear that computers will not actually be able to replace attorneys, in that a computer would not be able to substitute a lawyer’s “mature and sound reasoning,” the article suggests that this technology could certainly cut down an a law firm’s need to hire so many first year associates.
IBM’s general counsel Robert Weber directly addresses the use of Deep QA, the technology underlying Watson, as a new way to conduct legal research. In a recent article published in the National Law Journal he writes, “you could have a vast, self-contained database loaded with all of the internal and external information related to your daily tasks, whether you’re preparing for litigation, protecting intellectual property, writing contracts or negotiating an acquisition. Pose a question and, in milliseconds, Deep QA can analyze hundreds of millions of pages of content and mine them for facts and conclusions — in about the time it takes to answer a question on a quiz show.” (http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202481662966&Why_Watson_matters_to_lawyers&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1).
This is scary stuff for a generation of law students that has already faced the near insurmountable task of getting hired following the collapse of the market in October of 2008. Just as the tide looks like it might be turning, it seems that a new obstacle is presenting itself. IBM is just beginning to look into how this technology can serve as a boon to the legal profession (Weber notes that Watson could also prove helpful as a fact-checker in courtrooms during trial), if not a bust to young lawyers hoping to break into it. Watson can successfully and efficiently accomplish much of a first-year associate’s workload—gathering facts and identifying ideas that might be useful in crafting legal arguments. And, in a fraction of the time that it takes a young lawyer to complete these tasks. Whereas a first year associate must spend time trying to come up with the search terms to enter into a Westlaw or Lexis search (or a search using free legal resources!), there is no need for Watson to waste time on this task. It will spit out answers to the natural language questions asked of it.
In Cashmore’s article, software developer Jeff Atwood wonders, “[a]re we seeing the first signs that algorithmic search has failed as a strategy? Is the next generation of search destined to be less algorithmic and more social?” According to the articles referenced above, it seems that the answer is probably no. With the possibilities presented by Deep QA, it seems that Google’s algorithm might just be scratching the surface of machine-generated research. Watson shows us that any definitive death knell for machine-based research is premature.
Although unable to explore the real-life benefits of Deep QA (at this time, anyway), for fun I decided to conduct my own experiment to see if I got better quality results using people-powered or machine-powered search engines. I looked up “Hudson Valley weddings” on Bing and on Yahoo. To my surprise, the results were exactly the same. The results pages actually matched. I then decided to add Google to the mix, and found that the Google results page was slightly different. Google actually listed some vendors, adding some variety to the results that Bing and Yahoo provided. Despite the variety, I might give a slight advantage to Bing. Bing offered other related search terms, which can be pretty helpful when you do not know exactly what you’re looking for. In particular, “Hudson Valley Outdoor Wedding Sites” and “Small Outdoor Weddings Hudson Valley” both generated a list of links I had not yet viewed. Although it seems that computer-generated searches worked best for me this time, and that the research benefits promised by IBM and Watson could change the legal landscape, for the time being, I’m not quite ready to give up on human-powered searches altogether. I’m hoping Pete Cashmore is right.