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Advances in Automation

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Some friends of mine are plaintiffs in a multi-million dollar lawsuit that seems to go on forever. The defendants' attorneys employ every conceivable ruse to prolong the proceedings driving up the costs in the hope my friends will run out of money or just give up. Their latest gambit was to dump 5,000 pages of heretofore unseen documentation on the court that my friends must now pay their attorneys to review carefully -- adding substantially to their cost.

But advancing technology may soon bring about significant changes in the way the legal system works, discouraging delaying tactics and forcing quicker court decisions. One of the disruptive new technologies reported by McKinsey & Company are advances in data analytics -- low-cost computer power, machine learning and interfaces that "understand" how humans think and operate.

Clearwell Systems, a Silicon Valley company that analyzes legal documents for pretrial discovery, recently scanned more than half a million documents and zeroed in on the 0.5 percent that were relevant for an upcoming trial. A task that would have normally taken a team of lawyers several weeks to perform took only three days.

The new technology also offers promise to the medical profession. After winning its celebrated match on Jeopardy, IBM's computer Watson turned to cancer research. It read more than 600,000 medical-evidence reports, 1.5 million patient records and 2.0 million pages of clinical trial reports and medical journal articles. This data bank is now the core of a decision support application for oncologists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

The overall implications of these advances are truly awesome. Up until now, the critical problem in the digital revolution has been information overload. Government, business and the military are swamped with more information than they can digest and analyze. Every time some terrorist act transpires, we learn that someone had raised a red flag about the perpetrators but that it got lost in the pile of red flags. But now the same technology will offer creative ways to manage it -- identifying what is important and calling it to the attention of decision makers.

Of course, McKinsey & Company does not call these things "disruptive" technologies for nothing. Up until now, advances in digital technology have tended to displace low skill workers, such as those who made simple devices on manufacturing assembly lines. This new wave of digital technology will begin displacing knowledge workers who may think themselves immune to automation.

The eventual impact of this change -- as with all advances in technology -- will be gains in productivity and creation of a new generation of career opportunities. But the transition phase will be difficult for many people.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements.

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