New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

Artificial intelligence and the law

20 January 2017

The possible implications of artificial intelligence (AI) innovations for law and public policy in New Zealand will be looked at in a ground-breaking Law Foundation study.

AI technologies are those that can learn and adapt for themselves. Capabilities classified as AI include successfully understanding human speech, competing in strategic games such as chess, and self-driving cars. Crime prediction software and “AI lawyers” are also part of the process.  

The three-year project, supported by a $400,000 Law Foundation grant, is being run out of Otago University.  

Project team leader Colin Gavaghan says AI technologies pose fascinating legal, practical and ethical challenges.  

One example is PredPol, the technology widely used by police in American cities to predict where and when crime is most likely to occur. PredPol has been accused of reinforcing bad practices such as racially-biased policing. Some US courts are also using predictive software when making judgments about likely reoffending.

“Predictions about dangerousness and risk are important, and it makes sense that they are as accurate as possible,” Dr Gavaghan says.

“But there are possible downsides – AI technologies have a veneer of objectivity, because people think machines can’t be biased, but their parameters are set by humans. This could result in biases being overlooked or even reinforced.”  

At least one American law firm now claims to have hired its first AI lawyer to research precedents and make recommendations in a bankruptcy practice.  

“Is the replacement of a human lawyer by an AI lawyer more like making the lawyer redundant, or more like replacing one lawyer with another one? Some professions – lawyers, doctors, teachers – also have ethical and pastoral obligations. Are we confident that an AI worker will be able to perform those roles?” Dr Gavaghan says.

The Law Foundation’s Executive Director Lynda Hagen says the study will be funded under the Foundation’s Information Law and Policy project (ILAPP), a recently-established $2 million fund dedicated to developing law and policy in New Zealand around IT, data, information, artificial intelligence and cyber-security.  

“New technologies are rapidly transforming the way we live and work, and ILAPP will help ensure that New Zealand’s law and policy keeps up with the pace of change,” Ms Hagen says.   

The AI study is the fourth approved under ILAPP. The first is examining how to regulate digital or crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin that use blockchain technology. The other two projects will cover “smart contracts” and the digitisation of law, and how to regulate new technologies like driverless cars, drones, Uber and Airbnb.

More information on the ILAPP projects is available here.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019