The People Who Train the Robots to Do Their Own Jobs

“This time, make sure to shoot the bad guy, Robby.”

The New York Times has an interesting piece by Daisuke Wakabayashi today that profiles some people who are helping programs meant to replace all or part of their jobs to learn how to do the job better. The jobs include travel agent, executive assistant, lawyers and paralegals, customer representative, and software engineer.

Lola is one example. They describe themselves as

…a new kind of travel company that provides on-demand, personal travel service through a smartphone app. The Lola app instantly connects people to our team of travel agents who find and book flights, hotels, and cars for our customers. We also provide support while they’re on their trips.

The name Lola is shorthand for longitude and latitude, a system created to make seaborne navigation easier, and in that same spirit, we started Lola to give more people access to a premium level of travel care.

The story profiles one of the company’s travel agents, Rachel Neasham, that the software program (named “Harrison”) watches to learn how to better handle client situations.

The executive assistant job is the focus of, a New York-based start-up offering an artificial intelligence assistant to help people schedule meetings. Diane Kim works with the artificial intelligence systems they call either Andrew or Amy Ingram (initials “A.I.”) and “coaches” the program on the finer points of how to handle situations. For example:

Early on, the A.I. assistant sent emails to potential attendees saying that the assistant would be happy to put something on the boss’s “calendar,” but some people found that wording to be cold, and not always appropriately deferential to the other attendees. changed the wording so that the A.I. assistant says it would be happy to “find a time” that works for all attendees. doesn’t pretend the assistants are human. But Ms. Kim still gets satisfaction when people don’t realize that the assistants are robots. People ask them out on dates. They receive thank-you emails from happy customers even though, as robots, they don’t need gratitude.

“They’re shocked and surprised that they were talking to an A.I.,” she said.

Legal Robot is a start-up that uses artificial intelligence to translate legalese into plain English. Dan Rubins is the CEO and he got the idea for the company after seeing six corporate lawyers, each billing at hundreds of dollars an hour, inspecting a contract looking for capitalization errors.

Having reviewed nearly a million legal documents, Legal Robot also flags anomalies (strange wording or clauses) in contracts. “Lawyers have had 400 years to innovate and change the profession, and they haven’t done it,” said Mr. Rubins, who is not a lawyer. “It’s time for some outside help.”

He said legal documents are well suited to machine learning because they are highly structured and repetitive. Legal Robot tapped a vast trove of contracts prepared by human lawyers in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission — “a cesspool of legal language,” Mr. Rubins said — as well as past documents from law firms who wanted to help train Legal Robot’s systems.

Mr. Rubins doesn’t think A.I. will put lawyers out of business, but it may change how they work and make money. The less time they need to spend reviewing contracts, the more time they can spend on, say, advisory work or litigation.

“I really don’t think we’re going to get rid of lawyers,” he said. “Unfortunately, we still need them.”

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of large and small companies working on A.I./robotic applications. Most will fail, but the point is that the evolutionary process is well-underway in this new frontier.

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