Here come the robot lawyers! Is that a good thing?

Here come the robot lawyers! Is that a good thing?

What do you call 5,000,001 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start! Hah! While there may be some truth to the joke given the unprofessional behavior of many lawyers, the question is whether we want robot replacing human lawyers as decision makers for global reaching legal — and policy — decisions. I think not.

Robot lawyers aren’t pure fantasy. As reported in Who Will Own the Robots, an article in MIT Technology Review, Narrative Science is a Chicago based company which is “able to take data — say, the box score of a baseball game or a company’s annual report — and not only summarize the content but extract a ‘narrative’ from it.” Imagine that Google — or Microsoft! — creates an app called “Robot Lawyer.” You download the app, choose your accent (Chinese, Russian, or, um, So Cal surfer), input your facts, and then ask your legal questions. The input-output algorithm of the Robot Lawyer system resembles the means-end reasoning of the human mind.

But does it? Have you ever seen War Games? If you haven’t seen it, in the movie, the Department of Defense (“DOD”) replaces human with computer fingers on the nuclear bomb buttons. With everything governed by that intelligence, the chances of error decrease, right?

Wrong. In the movie, Matthew Broderick unintentionally — and easily — hacks — surprising, eh? — the government’s server. He ends up playing a virtual game of thermonuclear war with Joshua, the war game computer that the DOD created to play war games without actually conducting nuclear war. When Broderick intentionally launches a virtual nuclear attack from U.S.S.R. on the U.S. through Joshua, the DOD generals without computer knowledge think it is a real nuclear attack.

Why? Because those generals were living in their virtual tech cave — a system closed off from objective reality — and were tempted to trust that system rather than wait for reports from humans in the field to see if bombs were actually dropping. (Not only that, but the generals didn’t understand the workings of Joshua. Only Joshua’s father, and Broderick did, which is why these outsiders saved the world from catastrophe.)

No matter how rational lawyers make the legal system appear, it is not. External political factors can change the outcomes of cases which, without these unpredictable intervening influences, can be more susceptible to prediction by simple law applied to facts reasoning. In this respect, law practice is more akin to a humanistic art form merged with soft science than a pure mathematical system. While artificial intelligence can supplement the art of human decision making, it cannot replace it.

That’s why I’d prefer a creative, principled, and savvy Atticus Finch from To Kill of Mockingbird as my lawyer over his Robot Lawyer counterpart any day.