Fireflies and Algorithms

fireflies

We’ve been looking at workfare — the legislated link between jobs and the social safety net. An article published last week  — Fireflies And Algorithms — The Coming Explosion Of Companies[1] brought the specter of workfare to the legal profession.

Reading it, my life flashed before my eyes, beginning with one particular memory:  me, a newly-hired associate, resplendent in my three-piece gray pinstripe suit, joining the 4:30 queue at the Secretary of State’s office, clutching hot-off-the-word-processor Articles of Incorporation and a firm check for the filing fee, fretting whether I’d get my copy time-stamped by closing time. We always had to file today, for reasons I don’t remember.

Entity choice and creation spanned transactional practice:  corporate, securities, mergers and acquisitions, franchising, tax, intellectual property, real property, commercial leasing….  The practice enjoyed its glory days when LLC’s were invented, and when a raft of new entity hybrids followed… well, that was an embarrassment of riches.

It was a big deal to set up a new entity and get it just right — make sure the correct ABC acquired the correct XYZ, draw the whole thing up in x’s and o’s, and finance it with somebody else’s money. To do all that required strategic alliances with brokers, planners, agents, promoters, accountants, investment bankers, financiers…. Important people initiated the process, and there was a sense of substantiality and permanence about it, with overtones of mahogany and leather, brandy and cigars. These were entities that would create and engage whole communities of real people doing real jobs to deliver real goods and services to real consumers. Dissolving an entity was an equally big deal, requiring somber evaluation and critical reluctance, not to mention more time-stamped paperwork.

Fireflies And Algorithms sweeps it all away — whoosh! just like that!– and describes its replacement:  an inhuman world of here-and-gone entities created and dissolved without the intent of all those important people or all that help from all those people in the law and allied businesses. (How many jobs are we talking about, I wonder — tens, maybe hundreds of thousands?) The new entities will do to choice of entity practice what automated trading did to the stock market, as described in this UCLA Law Review article:

“Modern finance is becoming an industry in which the main players are no longer entirely human. Instead, the key players are now cyborgs: part machine, part human. Modern finance is transforming into what this Article calls cyborg finance.”

In that “cyborg finance” world,

“[The “enhanced velocity” of automated, algorithmic trading] has shortened the timeline of finance from days to hours, to minutes, to seconds, to nanoseconds. The accelerated velocity means not only faster trade executions but also faster investment turnovers. “At the end of World War II, the average holding period for a stock was four years. By 2000, it was eight months. By 2008, it was two months. And by 2011 it was twenty-two seconds….

Fireflies And Algorithms says the business entity world is in for the same dynamic, and therefore we can expect:

“… what we’re calling ‘firefly companies’ — the blink-and-you-miss-it scenario brought about by ultra-short-life companies, combined with registers that remove records once a company has been dissolved, meaning that effectively they are invisible.”

Firefly companies are formed by algorithms, not by human initiative. Each is created for a single transaction — one contract, one sale, one span of ownership. They’re peer-reviewed, digitally secure, self-executing, self-policing, and trans-jurisdictional — all for free or minimal cost. And all of that is memorialized not in SOS or SEC filings but in blockchain.

“So what does all this mean?” the article asks:

“How do we make sense of a world where companies — which are, remember, artificial legal constructs created out of thin air to have legal personality — can come into existence for brief periods of time, like fireflies in the night, perform or collaborate on an act, and then disappear? Where there are perhaps not 300 million companies, but 1 billion, or 10 billion?”

Think about it. And then — if it hasn’t happened yet — watch your life flash before your eyes.

Or if not your life, at least your job. Consider, for example, a widely-cited 2013 study that predicted 57% of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation. Even if that prediction is only half true, that’s still a lot of jobs. And consider a recent LawGeex contest, in which artificial intelligence absolutely smoked an elite group of transactional lawyers:

“In a landmark study, 20 top US corporate lawyers with decades of experience in corporate law and contract review were pitted against an AI. Their task was to spot issues in five Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), which are a contractual basis for most business deals.

“The study, carried out with leading legal academics and experts, saw the LawGeex AI achieve an average 94% accuracy rate, higher than the lawyers who achieved an average rate of 85%. It took the lawyers an average of 92 minutes to complete the NDA issue spotting, compared to 26 seconds for the LawGeex AI. The longest time taken by a lawyer to complete the test was 156 minutes, and the shortest time was 51 minutes.”

These developments significantly expand the pool of people potentially needing help through bad times. Currently, that means workfare. But how can you have workfare if technology is wiping out jobs?

More on that next time.

[1] The article was published by OpenCorporates, which according to its website is “the world’s largest open database of the corporate world and winner of the Open Data Business Award.”

On the Third Hand Cont’d.

working robot

Will the machines take over the jobs?

In a recent TED talk, scholar, economist, author, and general wunderkind Daniel Susskindl[1] says the question is distracting us from a much bigger and more important issue:  how will we feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves if we no longer work for a living?:

“If we think of the economy as a pie, technological progress makes the pie bigger. Technological unemployment, if it does happen, in a strange way will be a symptom of that success — we will have solved one problem — how to make the pie bigger — but replaced it with another — how to make sure that everyone gets a slice. As other economists have noted, solving this problem won’t be easy.

“Today, for most people, their job is their seat at the economic dinner table, and in a world with less work or even without work, it won’t be clear how they get their slice. This is the collective challenge that’s right in front of us — to figure out how this material prosperity generated by our economic system can be enjoyed by everyone in a world in which our traditional mechanism for slicing up the pie, the work that people do, withers away and perhaps disappears.

Guy Standing, another British economist, agrees with Susskind about this larger issue. The following excerpts are from his book The Corruption of Capitalism. He begins by quoting Nobel prizewinning economist Herbert Simon’s 1960 prediction:

“Within the very near future – much less than twenty-five years – we shall have the technical capacity of substituting machines for any and all human functions in organisations.”

And then he makes these comments:

“You do not receive a Nobel Prize for Economics for being right all the time! Simon received his in 1978, when the number of people in jobs was at record levels. It is higher still today. Yet the internet-based technological revolution has reopened age-old visions of machine domination. Some are utopian, such as the post-capitalism of Paul Mason, imagining an era of free information and information sharing. Some are decidedly dystopian, where the robots — or rather their owners — are in control and mass joblessness is coupled with a ‘panopticon’ state[2] subjecting the proles to intrusive surveillance, medicalized therapy and brain control. The pessimists paint a ‘world without work.’ With every technological revolution there is a scare that machines will cause ‘technological unemployment’. This time the Jeremiahs seem a majority.

 “Whether or not they will do so in the future, the technologies have not yet produced mass unemployment… [but they] are contributing to inequality.

“While technology is not necessarily destroyed jobs, it is helping to destroy the old income distribution system.

“The threat is technology-induced inequality, not technological unemployment.”

Economic inequality and income distribution (sharing national wealth on a basis other than individual earned income) are two sides of the issue of economic fairness — always an inflammatory topic.

When I began my study of economics 15 months ago, I had never heard of economic inequality, and income distribution was something socialist countries did. Now I find both topics all over worldwide economic news and commentary and still mostly absent in U.S. public discourse (such as it is) outside of academic circles. On the whole, most policy-makers on both the left and right maintain their allegiance to the post-WWII Mont Pelerin neoliberal economic model, supported by a cultural and moral bias in favor of working for a living, and if the plutocrats take a bigger slice of pie while the welfare rug gets pulled on the working poor, well then so be it. If the new robotic and super-intelligent digital workers do in fact cause massive technological unemployment among the humans, we’ll all be reexamining these beliefs, big time.

Finland flag smaller

I started this series months ago by asking whether money can buy happiness, citing the U.N.’s World Happiness Report. The 2018 Report was issued this week, and who should be on top but… Finland! And guess what — among other things, factors cited include low economic inequality and strong social support systems (i.e., a cultural value for non-job-based income distribution). National wealth was also a key factor, but it alone didn’t buy happiness:  the USA, with far and away the strongest per capita GDP, had an overall ranking of 18th. For more, see this World Economic Forum article or this one from the South China Morning Post.

We’ll be looking further into all of this (and much more) in the weeks to come.

[1] If you’ve been following this blog for awhile and the  name “Susskind” sounds familiar, a couple years ago, I blogged about the future and culture of the law, often citing the work of Richard Susskind, whose opus is pretty much the mother lode of crisp thinking about the law and technology. His equally brilliant son Daniel joined him in a book that also addressed other professions, which that series also considered. (Those blogs were collected in my book Cyborg Lawyers.) Daniel received a doctorate in economics from Oxford University, was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, and is now a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford. Previously, he worked as a policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and as a senior policy adviser in the Cabinet Office.

[2] The panopticon architectural structure was the brainchild of legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham. For an introduction to the origins of his idea and its application to the digital age, see this article in The Guardian.

Bright Sunshiny Day Cont’d.

David Lee TED talk

Last time, we heard David Lee[1] express his conviction that, far from destroying human jobs, robotic technology will unleash human creativity on a wonderful new world of work. His perspective is so remarkably and refreshingly upbeat that I thought we’d let him continue where he left off last week:

“I think it’s important to recognize that we brought this problem on ourselves. And it’s not just because, you know, we are the one building the robots. But even though most jobs left the factory decades ago, we still hold on to this factory mindset of standardization and de-skilling. We still define jobs around procedural tasks and then pay people for the number of hours that they perform these tasks. We’ve created narrow job definitions like cashier, loan processor or taxi driver and then asked people to form entire careers around these singular tasks.

“These choices have left us with actually two dangerous side effects. The first is that these narrowly defined jobs will be the first to be displaced by robots, because single-task robots are just the easiest kinds to build. But second, we have accidentally made it so that millions of workers around the world have unbelievably boring working lives.

“Let’s take the example of a call center agent. Over the last few decades, we brag about lower operating costs because we’ve taken most of the need for brainpower out of the person and put it into the system. For most of their day, they click on screens, they read scripts. They act more like machines than humans. And unfortunately, over the next few years, as our technology gets more advanced, they, along with people like clerks and bookkeepers, will see the vast majority of their work disappear.

“To counteract this, we have to start creating new jobs that are less centered on the tasks that a person does and more focused on the skills that a person brings to work. For example, robots are great at repetitive and constrained work, but human beings have an amazing ability to bring together capability with creativity when faced with problems that we’ve never seen before.

“We need to realistically think about the tasks that will be disappearing over the next few years and start planning for more meaningful, more valuable work that should replace it. We need to create environments where both human beings and robots thrive. I say, let’s give more work to the robots, and let’s start with the work that we absolutely hate doing. Here, robot, process this painfully idiotic report.

“And for the human beings, we should follow the advice from Harry Davis at the University of Chicago. He says we have to make it so that people don’t leave too much of themselves in the trunk of their car. I mean, human beings are amazing on weekends. Think about the people that you know and what they do on Saturdays. They’re artists, carpenters, chefs and athletes. But on Monday, they’re back to being Junior HR Specialist and Systems Analyst 3.

“You know, these narrow job titles not only sound boring, but they’re actually a subtle encouragement for people to make narrow and boring job contributions. But I’ve seen firsthand that when you invite people to be more, they can amaze us with how much more they can be.

“[The key is]to turn dreams into a reality. And that dreaming is an important part of what separates us from machines. For now, our machines do not get frustrated, they do not get annoyed, and they certainly don’t imagine.

“But we, as human beings — we feel pain, we get frustrated. And it’s when we’re most annoyed and most curious that we’re motivated to dig into a problem and create change. Our imaginations are the birthplace of new products, new services, and even new industries.

“If we really want to robot-proof our jobs, we, as leaders, need to get out of the mindset of telling people what to do and instead start asking them what problems they’re inspired to solve and what talents they want to bring to work. Because when you can bring your Saturday self to work on Wednesdays, you’ll look forward to Mondays more, and those feelings that we have about Mondays are part of what makes us human.”

We’ll give the other side equal time next week.

[1] David Lee is Vice President of Innovation and the Strategic Enterprise Fund for UPS.

Gonna Be a Bright, Bright, Sunshiny Day

We met Sebastian Thrun last time. He’s a bright guy with a sunshiny disposition who’s not worried about robots and artificial intelligence taking over all the good jobs, even his own. Instead, he’s perfectly okay if technology eliminates most of what he does every day because he believes human ingenuity will fill the vacuum with something better. This is from his conversation with TED curator Chris Anderson:

“If I look at my own job as a CEO, I would say 90 percent of my work is repetitive, I don’t enjoy it, I spend about four hours per day on stupid, repetitive email. And I’m burning to have something that helps me get rid of this. Why? Because I believe all of us are insanely creative… What this will empower is to turn this creativity into action.

“We’ve unleashed this amazing creativity by de-slaving us from farming and later, of course, from factory work and have invented so many things. It’s going to be even better, in my opinion. And there’s going to be great side effects. One of the side effects will be that things like food and medical supply and education and shelter and transportation will all become much more affordable to all of us, not just the rich people.”

Anderson sums it up this way:

“So the jobs that are getting lost, in a way, even though it’s going to be painful, humans are capable of more than those jobs. This is the dream. The dream is that humans can rise to just a new level of empowerment and discovery. That’s the dream.”

Another bright guy with a sunshiny disposition is David Lee, Vice President of Innovation and the Strategic Enterprise Fund for UPS. He, too, shares the dream that technology will turn human creativity loose on a whole new kind of working world. Here’s his TED talk (click the image):

David Lee TED talk

Like Sebastian Thrun, he’s no Pollyanna:  he understands that yes, technology threatens jobs:

“There’s a lot of valid concern these days that our technology is getting so smart that we’ve put ourselves on the path to a jobless future. And I think the example of a self-driving car is actually the easiest one to see. So these are going to be fantastic for all kinds of different reasons. But did you know that ‘driver’ is actually the most common job in 29 of the 50 US states? What’s going to happen to these jobs when we’re no longer driving our cars or cooking our food or even diagnosing our own diseases?

“Well, a recent study from Forrester Research goes so far to predict that 25 million jobs might disappear over the next 10 years. To put that in perspective, that’s three times as many jobs lost in the aftermath of the financial crisis. And it’s not just blue-collar jobs that are at risk. On Wall Street and across Silicon Valley, we are seeing tremendous gains in the quality of analysis and decision-making because of machine learning. So even the smartest, highest-paid people will be affected by this change.

“What’s clear is that no matter what your job is, at least some, if not all of your work, is going to be done by a robot or software in the next few years.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Like Thrun, he believes that the rise of the robots will clear the way for unprecedented levels of human creativity — provided we move fast:

“The good news is that we have faced down and recovered two mass extinctions of jobs before. From 1870 to 1970, the percent of American workers based on farms fell by 90 percent, and then again from 1950 to 2010, the percent of Americans working in factories fell by 75 percent. The challenge we face this time, however, is one of time. We had a hundred years to move from farms to factories, and then 60 years to fully build out a service economy.

“The rate of change today suggests that we may only have 10 or 15 years to adjust, and if we don’t react fast enough, that means by the time today’s elementary-school students are college-aged, we could be living in a world that’s robotic, largely unemployed and stuck in kind of un-great depression.

“But I don’t think it has to be this way. You see, I work in innovation, and part of my job is to shape how large companies apply new technologies. Certainly some of these technologies are even specifically designed to replace human workers. But I believe that if we start taking steps right now to change the nature of work, we can not only create environments where people love coming to work but also generate the innovation that we need to replace the millions of jobs that will be lost to technology.

“I believe that the key to preventing our jobless future is to rediscover what makes us human, and to create a new generation of human-centered jobs that allow us to unlock the hidden talents and passions that we carry with us every day.”

More from David Lee next time.

If all this bright sunshiny perspective made you think of that old tune, you might treat yourself to a listen. It’s short, you’ve got time.

And for a look at a current legal challenge to the “gig economy” across the pond, check out this Economist article from earlier this week.