Technologizing Industries: How Technological Developments Impact Manual Labor and Service Jobs

After years of developing models and formulas to predict the future, the most brilliant scientists have been bested by Hollywood’s most creative. From creating television shows like The Jetsons, to films like I, Robot, writers and directors have already predicted the future.

In The Jetsons, which premiered in the early 1960s, George Jetson works a grueling two-hour workday1 making machine parts that are vital to the computer-automated society in which he lives. In I, Robot, which premiered forty years after The Jetsons, in 2004, robots work alongside humans — assisting them in their daily lives.2 Despite their forty-year difference, the idea that humans will heavily rely on computers has not changed.

In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act “establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards.”3 Labor regulations that protect workers often increase labor costs for businesses because employers must pay their employees a minimum wage. While businesses, globally, have substituted manual labor jobs for machines, China has pushed the frontier further by moving to replace part of its labor force with industrial robots to combat rising labor costs and increase profits.4 Ironically, displaced laborers may find themselves in robotic manufacturing and assembly, like George Jetson. Employees of manual labor industries are not the only ones at risk, however; service industries, like the legal field are in danger of downsizing too.

With the development of artificial intelligence, like that of IBM’s new TrueNorth chips, which “behave like neurons — the basic building blocks of biological brains,”5 it is only a matter of time until computers will complete tasks that only humans are currently capable of performing.

Supercomputers, like IBM’s Watson, have analytical and searching abilities that would turn into an entry-level attorney’s worst nightmare if the computer had an algorithm for operating legal databases and writing drafts of memos and briefs.6

Should attorneys have anything to fear? Instead of spending hours drafting briefs and memos, attorneys will be able to take basic drafts made from computer programs and edit them to perfection. Even if a computer can tailor the brief or memo,7 it is unlikely the computer will be able to assess the arguments’ strength and organize them accordingly. Although attorneys will have more time to spend on other projects, they will have to bill less hours for service. The billing requirements may even change at firms because of the software’s efficiency. The nature of client-attorney relationships, however, will likely stay the same because attorneys will still provide a human element to their customer service, like counseling and support.

As horrific as these technological developments sound for some attorneys, consumers who could not previously afford representation will be more likely to retain counsel. Moreover, attorneys who may become displaced in areas like e-Discovery could find themselves practicing in Alternate Dispute Resolution or entering the Judiciary, where human judgment is essential.

  1. See Matt Novak, Automating Hard or Hardly Automating? George Jetson and the Manual Labor of Tomorrow, Smithsonian (Feb. 19, 2013), http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/automating-hard-or-hardly-automating-george-jetson-and-the-manual-labor-of-tomorrow-20694353/?no-ist
  2. See Matthew Tobey, I, Robot (2004), Rotten Tomatoes (Last visited Sept. 25, 2015), http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/i_robot/
  3. Compliance Assistance – Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), U.S Dep’t of Labor (Last updated Dec. 12, 2014, 12:41 AM), http://www.dol.gov/whd/flsa/
  4. See Adam Minter, Robots Leave Behind Chinese Workers, Bloomberg View (Apr. 9, 2015, 5:00 PM), http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-04-09/robots-leave-behind-chinese-workers
  5. Cade Metz, IBM’s “RODENT BRAIN” CHIP COULD MAKE OUR PHONES HYPER-SMART, WIRED (Aug. 17, 2015, 7:00 AM), http://www.wired.com/2015/08/ibms-rodent-brain-chip-make-phones-hyper-smart/
  6. See Debra Cassens Weiss, Are you smarter than a robot? Lawyers, surgeons make list of jobs being replaced by computers, ABA Journal (Feb. 26, 2015, 10:44 AM), http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/are_you_smarter_than_a_robot_lawyers_surgeons_make_list_of_jobs_being_repla
  7. See John O. McGinnis and Russell G. Pearce, COLLOQUIUM: THE LEGAL PROFESSION’S MONOPOLY ON THE PRACTICE OF LAW: THE GREAT DISRUPTION: HOW MACHINE INTELLIGENCE WILL TRANSFORM THE ROLE OF LAWYERS IN THE DELIVERY OF LEGAL SERVICES, 82 Fordham L. Rev. 3041, 3051 (2014).

Author: Divij Pandya

Divij Pandya is an Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal. He graduated cum laude from Rutgers University - Newark in 2014 with a major in Economics and minor in Political Science. For his Honors Capstone Project, Divij completed a senior thesis entitled, An Analysis of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 from 1965 to 2014. While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Divij participated in the student government and served as its president in 2014. In the summer of 2015, he interned at the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, NJ for the Honorable Bonnie J. Mizdol, A.J.S.C. Currently, Divij is the President of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and the Recording Secretary of the Student Bar Association.