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Can robots be lawyers? Yeah … Nah

28 July 2016 - By Geoff Adlam

Photo of a robot lawyer
The future lawyer? Probably not...

Massey University academic David Brougham hit the news last month when he said many jobs currently considered high skill – like accountants, lawyers and researchers – consist of a set of repetitive actions that can be codified and done by a robot.

Dr Brougham said there is report writing software now available that is “practically flawless”.

His comments came with the release of a survey to gauge the extent to which service sector employees are aware of the potential impacts of smart technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence.

His survey found that 87.5% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “Smart technology, artificial intelligence, robotics or algorithms could take my job”.

“Despite experts like Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking warning about mass unemployment in the future, it seems very few New Zealanders are making any plans to change out of jobs that might disappear over the next five to 10 years,” he says.

Dr Brougham says it is important for people to research the impact technology is having in their sector and to move away from the expectation of a linear career.

Elsewhere in this issue we look at the views of New Zealand’s legal educators on the increasing role of technology in delivering legal services.

New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck says while artificial intelligence (AI) is being used in the legal profession to assist with research, she does not believe lawyers’ jobs are at risk.

Ms Beck says it is a matter of technology changing the nature of the job. One good example is the recent “hire” of an AI attorney called ROSS by US law firm Baker & Hostetler to carry out research in its bankruptcy practice.

She says at present a robot cannot pick up on interpersonal nuance, and lawyers deal with problems that require human rapport and understanding.

Robot judges?

While human contact and presence may continue to be an essential ingredient of the delivery of legal services, the backroom research and delivery of advice and decisions is a different story.

The intersection of technology and law is growing rapidly. A poll of over 300 attendees at a Robots and Lawyers Conference in London on 21 June 2016 found that 48% of respondents’ firms already use some form of artificial intelligence – but only 4% felt that lawyers will eventually be replaced by robots.

The Law Society of England and Wales’ Law Gazette reported that the conference was told that University of Liverpool research suggests a decision-making algorithm could be as effective at dispensing justice as a judge.

Professor Katie Atkinson said the research looked at whether computer programs could replicate the reasoning that judges go through.

The researchers examined a body of case law covering 32 cases, and the programs had a 96% success rate. They got “only” one case wrong.

Professor Atkinson says she sees the technique as a “decision support tool” to help make reasoning “faster, more efficient and consistent”, assimilating data over time so it will be there to help and support with the reasoning.

But, should robots replace judges?

Robot judges may work in some circumstances, but an interesting (and concerning) situation has arisen in Wisconsin in the United States. Defendant Eric Loomis received a six-year prison sentence for eluding the police and operating a vehicle without its owner’s consent, with the judge telling him that he presented a “high risk”.

According to the New York Times, the judge told Mr Loomis that he had worked out the sentence because of his rating on the COMPAS assessment – described as a secret algorithm used in the Wisconsin justice system to calculate the likelihood that someone will commit another crime.

COMPAS was developed by a private company, Northpointe Inc, and its assessments are made from a survey of the defendant and information about their past conduct. Northpointe appears to be fiercely protective of its product and refuses to provide details of how the assessments are made, the factors used, and the weightings given (male/female, young/old, etc). They do confirm that the results are backed by “research”.

Mr Loomis has appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is expected to make a ruling some time soon. A previous appeal to the Supreme Court over a COMPAS-assisted prison sentence was unsuccessful.

Wisconsin is not alone in using algorithms (often termed “risk assessments”) as part of its sentencing process. Utah, Virginia and Indiana are among several states which use them. Pennsylvania is just about to test a set of algorithms developed over the past six years to inform sentencing judges about a defendant’s risk of being arrested again.

It’s also interesting that Wisconsin is one of nine states which use “criminal justice algorithms” where the software tools are privately owned. University of Maryland Journalism Professor Nicholas Diakopoulos has been having a frustrating time trying to obtain information on how algorithms used in the criminal justice system are constructed. He has had little success in using the Freedom of Information Act to request information from all 50 states. Is Minority Report still science fiction?

Back to lawyers…

Kathryn Beck is in good company when questioning the assumption that robots can replace lawyers. At the end of 2015, US academics Dana Remus and Frank S Levy published the results of their analysis of available technology and information on time allocation in large law firms.

“Can Robots Be Lawyers? Computers, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law” (available for download from SSRN) assesses the frequently-advanced arguments that automation will soon replace much of the work lawyers do.

Professors Remus and Levy find three core weaknesses in the popular assumptions. They note a failure to engage with technical details to appreciate the capacities and limits of existing and emerging software. There is also an absence of data on how lawyers divide their time among various tasks – only some of which can be automated. The third reason is possibly most compelling: “inadequate consideration of whether algorithmic performance of a task conforms to the values, ideals and challenges of the legal profession.”

Hopefully Massey’s Dr Brougham has also considered another of the key points made: “the existing literature’s narrow focus on employment effects should be broadened to include the many ways in which computers are changing (as opposed to replacing) the work of lawyers”.

Legal practice will change, however

A series of papers to be published in the University of Toronto Law Journal shortly will look at how the “big data” and AI revolution will affect law. Postively, the authors see a future for human lawyers, who will be able to use technological tools to do their jobs better.

In a preliminary paper outlining their research (“Law in the Future”, Benjamin Alarie, Anthony Nibelett & Albert H Yoon), the authors say they hypothesize that the growth of big data, AI and machine learning will have important effects “that will fundamentally change the way law is made, learned, followed, and practised”.

They note that in early 2016 an artificially intelligent machine defeated grandmaster Lee Sedol in a game of Go – previously unthinkable to people who had thought a machine could never master the “uniquely human” game which is seen as too subtle and too beautiful for a machine.

“Some believe machines will never be able to perform the tasks currently performed by lawmakers, judges, and lawyers... an understanding of law requires deep philosophical and moral reasoning skills that machines can never replicate.”

However, the authors say, this scepticism is much in the same vein as the scepticism of whether a computer could beat a human at chess, Jeopardy!, or Go.

“We argue that machines will perform many of the tasks currently performed by lawmakers, judges, and lawyers. But, rather than offer a dystopian vision of a legal world run by machines, we suggest that the changes will be mostly beneficial.”

While the legal world will have to wait for their full vision, the authors say they will be looking at changes in three different directions:

Changes to how the law is made

The technological revolution will have a dramatic effect on the production of law. The authors say they envision a world where the greater provision of information allows lawmakers to write not just more complete laws, but better laws. “New laws – called ‘micro-directives’ – will be more circumstance-specific than rules and more precise than standards”.

Changes to how individuals understand the law

Technological changes will lead to increasing democratisation of the law. It will become much less expensive for individuals to understand their legal rights and obligations. “We hypothesize that individuals and corporations will use technology to gain more accurate and more individualised information about how to optimally navigate the legal system”.

Changes to the legal services industry

Will the automation of legal services be the death knell for lawyers? No, say the authors. They note that technology has disrupted a number of other industries to the detriment of established players and the labour force – Wikipedia has destroyed the encyclopaedia industry, YouTube and Netflix have changed the way individuals watch television, and Uber is in the process of disrupting the taxi industry. “Such disruption comes at a cost, borne by those who fail to innovate.”

However, the authors say they will argue that technology will augment rather than replace lawyers. Lawyers will need to adapt, as particular tasks become automated. “But in the same way that electronic spreadsheets changed the nature of accounting ... the effect of augmenting technologies will be net positive for the legal services industry. Innovative law firms will be able to provide cheaper, faster, more accurate legal advice.”

Last updated on the 28th July 2016