Advancing and emerging technologies will have a significant impact on the world of work in the future as more and more jobs become vulnerable to computerisation and automation.  The increased use of robotics and artificial intelligence could have huge legal implications for employers.  Lewis Silkin explores some of those implications.

Robots are replacing us at work – and not even lawyers are safe!  Many jobs are increasingly vulnerable to computerisation or automation.  According to experts at Oxford University, almost half of current jobs could be carried out by robots or computers within the next decade or two.  The inexorable march of technological innovation will have a significant impact on the world of work and employment law.    

Rise of the machines

Hardly a day goes by without another announcement or prediction that robots are set to take over the world of work.  Google recently showcased its development of computerised cars.  Honda continues to develop its household robot, Asimo.  Japanese firm, Softbank, recently unveiled a robot it claims can read human emotions.  Even this small selection of technological advances could radically alter job prospects for drivers, cleaners and care workers. 

Such breakthroughs appear to be accompanied by an insatiable appetite for automation among employers.  Demand for robots is driven by employers’ desires to offset shortages in manpower, stem rising wage costs and increase efficiency.  Factories are increasingly staffed by industrial robots, computerised checkouts are replacing sales staff and cashiers and labour-saving service robots are hoovering-up household and domestic jobs.

It’s not hard to see why employers find robots so attractive.  They don’t get bored or impatient and are rarely badly behaved or late for work.  If a robot did breach its terms of engagement, it could be brought into line with a twist of a screwdriver or a tweak of a computer program, rather than a written warning or disciplinary hearing.  Androids don’t dream of retirement, nor require pension provision.  Machines don’t demand paid holidays.

Regulating the robots 

The legal implications of this increased use of robotics and artificial intelligence in the workplace could be huge.  Legislators will be faced with devising rules, policies and procedures to tackle technology-related legal issues.  There may even be a need for robot-specific laws. 

Employees constantly monitored by the gaze of CCTV cameras may require enhanced protection if their workplace privacy is to be safeguarded.  Data protection laws developed in the era of floppy disks and table-bound databases may need remodelling. 

 Similarly, workers using exoskeletons to perform labour-intensive tasks may find that their use of workplace robotics requires an overhaul of health and safety laws.  What licences should be required for operating such technology?  How will liability for any injuries be assessed?  How do you carry out a risk assessment on a robot?  Regulators may need to consider fresh guidance. 

Robots are unlikely to replace all human workers, but policies and/or legislation may be needed to at least limit or slow down the elimination of certain types of jobs.  Will redundancy laws have to be revised, or should employers be obliged to set aside cash for retraining workers whose jobs are lost to technology?  

Judgment day for lawyers? 

The advantages of using automatons have led to employers favouring robots over human staff for many jobs involving routine or repetitive tasks.  But are robots now set to march on the professional services sector too?  The Oxford University study found that even some legal tasks, such as research carried out by paralegals and legal assistants, were at high risk of automation.

 In fact, the robot invasion of the law firm has already started.  Simple tasks, such as searching for relevant evidence in gigabytes of electronic documents, are being conducted by technology known as predictive coding.   A lawyer highlights the relevant information in a small set of documents, which are then fed into computer software that uses them as a basis for analysing a much larger set of documents.   

The hunt for online brand abuse and intellectual property fraud is also increasingly being carried out by sophisticated search engines, rather than by a junior lawyer armed with Google and a picture of the client’s trademark. 

Should lawyers be concerned about losing their job to a courtroom-ready C-3PO or a suited and booted R2D2?  Almost certainly not – at least for the foreseeable future.  Artificial intelligence must be able to replicate the creative and social intelligence needed, for example, to advise on whether to bring a claim, draft a bespoke contract or perform other more advanced tasks.  Even if legal algorithms and formulas could be successfully coded into software, as well as researching, analysing, drafting, arguing and reasoning, lawyers need to develop relationships with their clients and be able to offer counsel in often emotional and highly charged situations.  The prospect of significant automation in the profession is still in the realm of science fiction but cognitive advances in robots, such as IPsoft’s robot Amelia, might mean it doesn’t stay there for long. 

By Matt Ward and Kathryn Weaver, Lewis Silkin


Are all jobs capable of being filled by machines? Are there any that are uniquely "human" jobs? Share your thoughts about the future of technology in the workplace using the comments section below.

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