The hypothetical falls within Law Land, although probably outside the areas most readers of Adam Smith, Esq. practice in: Crime. The colloquy touches on the subtle question of whether human investigators will be over-awed by the presumed rationality, comprehensiveness, dispassion, and just plain brute power of Watson’s processes and defer to his “answers:”

Knowledge@Wharton: When you talk about Watson working in areas like health care and crime detection, should we be concerned that people will have too much faith in its analysis? For example, we’ve seen cases in which the knowledge that when a spouse is killed the husband or wife is the most likely suspect can circumvent the exploration of other scenarios. Is there a similar concern with Watson that we’ll have too much confidence in its analysis, so that other avenues — which even though they are less likely could still be correct — may not be pursued?

Becker: That’s actually the main purpose of Discovery Advisor — to look for potential, subtle connections, not necessarily the obvious ones. The obvious connections are self-evident, so you don’t need Watson to find [them]. The fact that a spouse is an obvious suspect in a domestic murder case — you don’t need Watson for that.

The Discovery Advisor is focused on the opposite [problem]: looking for all those subtle, indirect, weak signal connections; finding the nonobvious connections and the fertile ground for investigation and for human expertise to pay attention; helping humans find where the needle in the haystack might be.

Becker also offers some thoughtful observations on the state of “design” in technology—yes, that would be part of his formal job—including recognizing the premise that design has heretofore been treated most often as an afterthought. He analogizes it to a house where doorways are too low or walls are too close together; the industry needs to begin with basic hygiene, which means standards. He’s optimistic in that online applications (big screen and small screen) are now being developed with the user experience as a priority.

How does one actually do that? “Get out of the building and watch people use your product. […] The second thing I would say is: hire professionals [who] have experience in this. [And the third thing is] your culture has to promote it.” Apple, he notes, is known for its great design “not because they have the most designers, but from Steve Jobs on down there was an appreciation of design and the importance that things work well.”

Here’s the message for Law Land: Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could all keep this in mind:

You have to inculcate a culture that says, “At the end of the day, we’re trying to solve a problem for somebody or provide some sort of value for someone. We’d better understand and be able to articulate what that is.”

Finally, we come to the question we opened with: Watson, job creator or job destroyer?

Becker notes that every advance in technology up until now has ended up creating more (and of course quite different) jobs than it destroyed. But this time around there’s strenuous debate among economists as to whether that answer isn’t too glib by half. In all fairness to Becker (and to Knowledge@Wharton), this topic is far too broad to be settled in an interview.

Perhaps the ultimate question we need to address is whether technology will really help us excel at what humans are best at—judgment, nuance, discernment, insight, serendipity, pursuing insatiable curiosity—or whether technology will, by seemingly serving our every need, ultimately denature us and cause our skills to atrophy.

We don’t know the answer, of course, but lest you think this is all speculation for the future, it’s already playing out in the cockpits of commercial aircraft all over the globe. Autopilots are now so good that pilots are forgetting how to fly. Then, when the emergency comes, they’re lost. “Months and months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” as the aviators’ old joke has it.

Will the day come when lawyers structuring a deal have lost the spark of insight? Will all our e-discovery, document-tagging, issue-surfacing, document-drafting, auto-templating, software reduce us to the condition of pilots? And if so, will it be time to de-tune the autopilot and force us to grab the controls manually a lot more often?


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