erik lundegaard

Monday March 07, 2011

Why a Coin Toss Isn't a Treasure Hunt, and Other Missed Opportunities in the New York Times' Tech-Law Article

What do you do with a quote that doesn't quite work?

This is how John Markoff ended his New York Times piece on the sorting capabilities of computers and computer programs, such as e-discovery, replacing expensive teams of lawyers during the discovery phase of a case:

The computers seem to be good at their new jobs. Mr. Herr, the former chemical company lawyer, used e-discovery software to reanalyze work his company’s lawyers did in the 1980s and ’90s. His human colleagues had been only 60 percent accurate, he found.

“Think about how much money had been spent to be slightly better than a coin toss,” he said.

The End.

Except ... that analogy is horrible, isn't it? You flip a coin and you get one of two results: heads or tails. You send people searching for something and the results are infinite: they can find zero percent of what they're looking for, 12.1 percent of what they're looking for, 76.7 percent of what they're looking for. They can find 12 related cases and miss none, or miss three, or miss 346. Discovery would be a lot easier if, like a coin toss, it had to wind up one of two ways.

My instinct would be not to use the quote, since it fudges the point of the story, but maybe I'm alone here.

* *

The article, by the way, focuses on technology and the law, but the money quote is about all of us:

David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the United States economy is being “hollowed out.” New jobs, he says, are coming at the bottom of the economic pyramid, jobs in the middle are being lost to automation and outsourcing, and now job growth at the top is slowing because of automation.

“There is no reason to think that technology creates unemployment,” Professor Autor said. “Over the long run we find things for people to do. The harder question is, does changing technology always lead to better jobs? The answer is no.”

I tend to disagree with the professor on this—I think technology does create unemployment—and would question his use of subject and object in the second sentence of the second graf (“we” sounds like it includes “me,” i.e., him, while “people” sounds like it doesn't include “me,” i.e., him), but the larger point is scary and needs to be reiterated. What kind of society are we allowing ourselves to create here? Techies thrive, apps are free, the rest of us work at Cinnabon.

Now they're using such software for policing:

The software seeks to visualize chains of events. It identifies discussions that might have taken place across e-mail, instant messages and telephone calls.

Then the computer pounces, so to speak, capturing “digital anomalies” that white-collar criminals often create in trying to hide their activities.

Meaning the same types of folks who wrote the software for iPhone's autocorrect, which tells you, mostly incorrectly, what you want to write, are creating the software to determine whether or not you're a criminal. You havé the rogge to demain silent.*

*Yes, my Autocorrect is set for French. Years ago, I had the iPhone's language set to French, and, like the far-flung soldier that keeps fighting long after the war, Autocorrect keeps trying to correct my English into French. There's no obvious setting to fix this so I've simply turned my Autocorrect OFF. (Settings —> General —> Keyboard)**

**Once I figured out how to turn Autocorrect OFF, though, which is like two seconds ago, I guessed the solution. Under Settings —> General —> International, the second item is Keyboards, under which there are four: the four languages I've played around with: English, French, Chinese and Danish. Once I deleted everything but English, and turned Autocorrect back ON, it was autocorrecting in English again.***

***Still a bug. Probably corrected in later versions of iPhone.****

****Technology: Making life easier.

Posted at 08:14 AM on Monday March 07, 2011 in category Technology  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard