As clever as Watson the computer was on Jeopardy!, computers will never be able to replace something professionals bring to their practices: the ability to think. This was hit home to me in John Searle’s brilliant reprise in the Wall Street Journal of a paper from 30 years ago, “Watson Doesn’t Know It Won on ‘Jeopardy!’”
Lawyers, accountants, doctors and dentists all rely on machines to help them do their work, but who would ever want to assign a really tough job to a machine when a great professional was available?
Anyone can buy Turbo Tax, but sophisticated tax situations require sophisticated accountants who make judgment calls on lightly-tested IRS regulations, and who can talk to the IRS and negotiate on a client’s behalf. As we all know, negotiation is about facts, but it’s about persuasion too. Persuasion can involve emotion, humor, and a host of other things we can’t program for because they don’t involve the manipulation of symbols – Watson’s signature (and only) calling card.
Say you are in the dentist’s chair. Watson has now been programmed to operate a dental drill. A patient has a button that can shut Watson off and stop the drill whenever there’s pain or discomfort, so dentists figure that’s a perfect substitute for a human being sitting there saying, “Just let me know if it hurts and we’ll stop right away.”
None of us would go for Watson. If you said it hurt, you would have to say how it hurt, and how much, and just where. If you find “for sales, press 4” annoying, imagine what it would be like to have that kind of response from a machine wielding a drill.
When it comes to lawyers, Paul Krugman of the New York Times took the bait dangled by self-interested e-discovery companies who argue that computers can vastly reduce the number of lawyers needed to look at documents in discovery.
Enter Ralph Losey of ediscoveryteam.com, with a convincing essay that rebuts the Times story: New e-discovery software that can scan documents may be fine, but
Advanced e-discovery search and review technologies all still require lawyers to operate. They still require skilled attorneys to fit the technologies into a larger legal methodology. They still require the [electronic discovery] to be understood. The software programs do not run themselves. They are only a tool. They are just a hammer, and without a carpenter, they will not build a case on their own.
As Searle wrote, while playing on Jeopardy!,
Watson did not understand the questions, nor its answers, nor that some of its answers were right and some wrong, nor that it was playing a game, nor that it won—because it doesn’t understand anything.
Any professional that obtuse would lose his license.