New Statesman Predicts a Robot Revolution

There are many well founded fears about progress and how intellectual property may come to reshape our society. The New Statesman however, has hit on the most solid and grounded fear of them all: that robots are coming to steal your job. And not just blue collar jobs either, Alex Hern’s article opines that white collar jobs like journalists, doctors, and lawyers will fall under the crushing grip of our android overlords sometime in the near future. One section even states the possibility that Microsoft will have an automatic legal writing assistance program that will somehow lay off every legal solicitor. The article goes on to imagine a world of 20% unemployment, a world comparable to a modern version of the industrial revolution, where formerly skilled workers becomes useless as the robots eat away at all of the good jobs. In a previous post, I was critical of the alarmism surrounding the rise of 3D printing because it didn’t seem that the situation could ever be as bad as the opponents of 3D printing imagined but at least that article was grounded in some reality. 3D printing will most likely be commonplace within the next two to three years, but robotic journalists and lawyers? Ignoring the more technologically advanced robots that are military grade, highly experimental test projects, the most advanced robots in the world have the amazing abilities to win every game of rock-paper-scissors, walk up stairs, or partially mimic human speech patterns. This are all physically impressive abilities for automatons, but their ability to perform more abstract functions remains distant. Even if we include those military grade, highly experimental test projects we initially discounted, even the most advanced robot so far, DARPA’s ATLAS2, is not expected to be able to function effectively without a controller for some time. His software codes are still being perfected; he won’t have any practical independence for possibly years. Not to mention, the programming and technology require to make Atlas is so exorbitantly expensive that it has cost millions of dollars to develop that one single unit.

This is what’s so fundamentally wrong about the New Statesman article. Worry about robots taking jobs like these might be a realistic concern 30 or 40 years from now, but the article worries about it happening almost immediately. Sometime in the next few years someone will develop software that will perfectly emulate the thinking patterns of a legal counsel in order to draft your motions for you. It’s absurd. We don’t even have technology that can properly emulate human speech patterns, but somehow we’ll develop software accurate enough in its emulation human character and knowledge of legal theory that it will be able to fully remove the human element? Even if such a thing were possible, it would be exorbitantly costly. The hypothetical situation New Statesman imagines, where this type of software comes in a standard Microsoft Office bundle, could not possibly be that cheap. Software that makes it easier for existing writers to write movie scripts already costs hundreds of dollars on by itself now imagine that software could actually write the entire script on its own, the cost would exponentially higher because the programming would be exponentially more difficult to fully integrate. And that’s just for film writing software, I imagine that legal writing software would be even more complex and more difficult to program considering the tens of thousands of pages of legal code that would have to be programmed in to the software along with thousands of relevant court decisions and constant updates for whenever laws are changed or added, which occurs on a daily basis. But the most questionable part of the article’s over reactive musings, is the final lines, where Hern predicts that intellectual property law acts as the only shield that can protect us from this impending robot apocalypse. If these robotic advancements are already so sophisticated that we have to fear them completely replacing legal counsel within the next couple of years, how will legal code really prevent this? If we’re already at the turning point, a bit of legal code won’t stop an impending revolution any more than a line of sandbags will stop a hurricane. Fortunately for the New Statesman, that revolution is decades away at least, so we can still use legal codes in such a way to discourage robotic overthrow of our current economic system through their systematic takeover of current white collar jobs. Is it possible that robots will some day takeover the white collar sector? In theory, I guess it could happen in that there will be some point in time where robots will be of sufficiently advanced intelligence to usurp these positions. But in practice, the white collar sector being automated would affect a large swath of middle class and perhaps even upper class citizens, something that most governments would be eager to avoid at all costs, so realistically it’s unlikely to happen the way New Statesman predicts.

If nothing else, this article shows one major necessity of IP law: to help prevent gross overreaction to simple technologies. The fact that even a fairly reputable publication like New Statesman could be so prone to unprovoked histrionics shows just how easily people can be led into mistrusting technology. Thankfully, IP laws give us the ability to more easily control these technologies and thus help control public fears about them.

Kevin James
Intern at