ABA Techshow

Automation may dull brain skills, author Nicholas Carr warns Techshow

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Nicholas Carr

Photo of Nicholas Carr by Merrick Chase.

As the legal industry embraces automation, it’s extremely important for humans to remain actively engaged or risk losing their skills.

One of the main themes of ABA Techshow is to get attorneys to embrace technology so that they may run more efficient practices. Automation, in particular, is an attractive option for lawyers so that they may focus their energies on more important matters instead of the mundane. However, in his keynote address on Friday afternoon inside a packed ballroom at the Hilton Chicago, author Nicholas Carr warned of the dangers of blindly embracing automation.

According to Carr, humans in other industries that rely heavily on automation, such as navigation, agriculture or parts of the medical profession, have experienced a sharp decline in their skills and talents as a result of computers taking over.

“For any profession going through automation, it’s very easy to fall in love with the productivity, speed and efficiency of computers to the point that you do begin to lose subtle human expertise,” Carr said. “Striking the right balance between the computer and the human is going to be the big challenge ahead of the legal profession. Where do we stop automation in order to retain deep human talent?”

Carr warned that computers are progressing so rapidly that they are even taking over tasks that people would not normally associate with automation. For instance, in agriculture, robots are used to pick lettuce. Carr noted that performing this seemingly simple task actually requires a high level of sophistication, including having a soft touch and being able to differentiate between heads of lettuce and other plants that resemble them.

“What this shows is that very subtle manual skills we assumed would be the exclusive purview of humans are moving very quickly over to computers,” said Carr.

In that vein, some lawyers are already moving on from using automation to take care of mundane, time-wasting tasks. Carr pointed out that with software like LexMachina, lawyers can use technology to perform advanced functions like make litigation decisions and perform predictive analysis – tasks once thought to be the exclusive domain of attorneys.

“There’s always going to be a gap between what a computer can do and what an experienced legal mind is capable of,” said Carr. “But I think we’ll find out in the years ahead that the gap is closing.”

In the meantime, it’s important for humans to protect their ability to engage in deep thought. In this age of smartphones and big data, that is a task that is easier said than done.

“As we immerse ourselves in a digital environment, it’s very much a mixed blessing,” said Carr, who cited a study that found that smartphone users check their phones, on average, 150 times a day. “We constantly have access to new information, but we become slaves to our devices.”

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