February 2017 Bar Bulletin
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February 2017 Bar Bulletin

When Will a Robot Replace You?

By Larry G. Johnson


Yes, the question is not “if,” but “when” super-smart artificial intelligence (“AI”) will revolutionize, if not completely replace, trial lawyers and our rickety litigation system.

The coming changes that AI will unleash in law and justice cannot be fully imagined — humans are, after all, notoriously bad at predicting the future. Still, for guidance as to what the future portends, all we have to do is look at what is already happening at one insurance company in Japan to get a glimpse.

I am talking about the “IBM Watson Explorer,” installed by Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance at a cost of $1.7 million and $128,000 in annual maintenance fees. This AI came on line at the beginning of this year, replacing 34 claims adjusters and thus saving the company some $1.1 million a year.1

What This AI Can Do

Here is what this software does, apparently more efficiently than humans:

The AI will scan hospital records and other documents to determine insurance payouts, according to a company press release, factoring injuries, patient medical histories, and procedures administered. Automation of these research and data gathering tasks will help the remaining human workers process the final payout faster, the release says….

Watson AI is expected to improve productivity by 30%, Fukoku Mutual says. The company was encouraged by its use of similar IBM technology to analyze customers’ voices during complaints. The software typically takes the customer’s words, converts them to text, and analyzes whether those words are positive or negative. Similar sentiment analysis software is also being used by a range of US companies for customer service; incidentally, a large benefit of the software is understanding when customers get frustrated with automated systems.2

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how this kind of artificial intelligence will find its way into law firms, the courts and alternative dispute resolution systems. I can picture it already: a human voice generated by a computer takes depositions and then instantly analyzes the substantive content, the witness’s body language and voice stresses, and all of that data goes into a gigantic database of every similar case ever decided. When the AI is satisfied it has all the facts it needs in a matter, it renders its decision. Case closed. No need for appeals.

What AI Portends for Lawyers

It is certain that the changes from AI will come at ever-increasing speeds and at ever-decreasing costs. Indeed, the changes may come so overwhelmingly fast that we will face severe challenges in our ability to adapt to them.3

Since humans are so terrible at making predictions, I feel no compunction in making some of my own, but again using a current phenomenon from which to extrapolate: The Finns just decided to launch an experiment that could lead to guaranteeing to all of its citizens a base income.

Finland has become the first country in Europe to pay its unemployed citizens a basic monthly income, amounting to 560 euros ($587), in a unique social experiment which is hoped to cut government red tape, reduce poverty and boost employment….

The trial aims to discourage people’s fears “of losing out something,” (a spokesman) said, adding that the selected persons would continue to receive the 560 euros even after receiving a job.4

My guess is that approach is the wave of the future: “helicopter money” for everybody at some base amount, since the vast majority of people will no longer have marketable skills. And for the legal profession, that could well include not just paralegals and legal assistants, but many superfluous lawyers as well.

I, for one, think that will be a good thing. Just imagine if lawyers’ inflated egos and emotions were taken out of a litigation process that many think is far too adversarial, expensive, stupid and inefficient. What if 90 percent or more of disputes could be resolved by advanced AI, the contours of which we are presently incapable of predicting, and cases could be resolved in very short order?

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