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Can robots replace avocados?

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By Elizabeth C. Tippett and Charlotte Alexander 5 minutes Read

Imagine what a lawyer does on a given day: researching files, writing briefs, advising clients. While technology has nibbled at the contours of the legal profession for some time, it’s hard to imagine these complex tasks being performed by a robot.

And it is these complicated and personalized tasks that have led technologists to include lawyers in a broader category of jobs considered to be fairly secure in a future of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.

But, as we discovered in a recent research collaboration to analyze legal briefs using a branch of artificial intelligence known as machine learning, the work of lawyers is much less secure than we thought so. Turns out, you don’t have to completely automate a job to fundamentally change it. All you have to do is automate some of it.

While this may be bad news for tomorrow’s lawyers, it could be great for their future clients, especially those who are struggling to afford legal assistance.

Technology can be unpredictable

Our research project, in which we collaborated with computer scientists and linguists at MITER, a federally funded nonprofit research and development organization, was not supposed to focus on automation. As law professors, we tried to identify the textual characteristics of successful and unsuccessful legal briefs.

We have assembled a small cache of legal briefs and opinions of judges and processed the text for analysis.

One of the first things we learned is that it can be difficult to predict which tasks are easily automated. For example, quotes in a memoir, such as “Brown v. Board of Education 347 US 483 (1954) ”, are very easy to locate and separate from the rest of the text. This is not the case with machine learning software, which was triggered by the punctuation blizzard inside and outside the quote.

It was like those CAPTCHA boxes you are asked to fill out on websites to prove you’re not a robot: a human can easily spot a telephone pole, but a robot will be confused by all the background noise. of the image.

A technological shortcut

Once we figured out how to identify citations, we inadvertently stumbled upon a methodology to automate one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of legal practice: legal research.

MITER scientists used a methodology called “graphical analysis” to create visual networks of legal citations. Graphical analysis allowed us to predict whether a thesis would “win”, based on the performance of other theses when they included a particular citation.

Later, however, we realized that the process could be reversed. If you were a lawyer responding to the other party’s brief, you would normally have to laboriously search for the right cases to cite using an expensive database. But our research suggested that we could create a database with software that would simply point lawyers to the best cases to cite. All you have to do is put the other party’s file in the machine.

Now, we haven’t actually built our hotkey search engine. It would take a mountain of legal briefs and legal opinions to do anything useful. And researchers like us don’t have open access to data like this, even the government-run database known as PACER charges per page.

But it shows how technology can turn any extremely time-consuming task for humans into one where the heavy lifting can be done with one click.

A story of partial automation

Automating the difficult parts of a job can make a big difference both to those doing the work and to consumers on the other side of the transaction.

Take, for example, a hydraulic crane or a forklift. While today people regard the use of a crane as manual labor, these motorized machines were seen as labor saving devices when they were first introduced, as they supplanted human power involved in moving heavy objects.

Forklifts and cranes, of course, weren’t replacing people. But as if to automate the work of legal research, electric machines multiplied the amount of work that a person could accomplish in a unit of time.

The partial automation of sewing machines at the start of the 20th century is another example. In the 1910s, women working in textile factories were no longer responsible for sewing on one machine – as is the case today, on a home sewing machine – but fighting over an industrial-grade machine. with 12 needles sewing 4000 stitches per minute. These machines could automatically do all the tedious hemming, sewing and even sewing work of the “white underwear embroidery cut”. Like an airline pilot flying on autopilot, they didn’t sew as long as they watched the machine for problems.

Has the transition been bad for workers? Maybe a little, but it was a godsend for consumers. In 1912, women browsing the Sears mail order catalog had the choice of “drawers” with premium hand-embroidered trims and a much cheaper machine embroidery option.

Likewise, automation could help reduce the cost of legal services, making them more accessible to the many people who cannot afford a lawyer.

DIY avocado

Indeed, in other sectors of the economy, technological developments in recent decades have allowed companies to shift work from paid workers to customers.

Touchscreen technology, for example, has allowed airlines to install check-in kiosks. Similar kiosks are almost everywhere, in parking lots, gas stations, grocery stores and even fast food restaurants.

At one level, these kiosks replace the paid labor of employees with the unpaid labor of consumers. But this argument assumes that anyone could access the product or service when it was performed by an employee.

In the context of legal services, the many consumers who cannot afford a lawyer are already completely forgoing court proceedings or dealing with legal claims themselves, often with poor results. If partial automation means that a busy legal aid lawyer now has time to handle more client files, or clients can now afford to hire a lawyer, everything the world will be better off for it.

Additionally, technology-based legal services can help consumers better represent themselves. For example, the Missouri Federal District Court now offers a platform to help people filing for bankruptcy prepare their forms, either on their own or with a free 30-minute meeting with an attorney. Because the platform offers a head start, the lawyer and the consumer can better utilize the 30-minute time slot.

More help for consumers may be on the way – there are a multitude of tech startups scrambling to automate various types of legal work. So while our research hotkey machine wasn’t built, powerful tools like this might not be far off.


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