Susskind: Lawyers wrong to think technology cannot replace them

Susskind: Machines can deliver the outcomes clients want in news ways

Lawyers are wrong to think that there are tasks beyond technology that only they can carry out, Professor Richard Susskind has warned.

He urged lawyers of the future not to look to compete with the machines, but to help build them instead.

Addressing the recent Westminster Legal Policy Forum in London on technology and the law, the academic – whose various positions include IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice – talked about how systems were becoming increasingly capable.

“We’re even seeing systems, which fascinate me, in the area of affective computing that can both detect and express human emotions.

“A system more accurately than any human being can now look at a human smile and tell whether or not that smile is fake or genuine. A system more accurately than any human being can listen to two female voices and tell whether or not they belong to a mother and a daughter.

“Systems now are also being developed that can respond themselves, express emotion. HuggieBots – robots that give you a hug. And empirical research has shown that in terms of duration and intensity human beings prefer being hugged by a HuggieBot than by another human being.”

The empathy that lawyers say sets them apart from machines may similarly be replicable. Professor Susskind said: “There’s no reason to believe our machines won’t outperform us in being able to recognise and now respond to the emotions of those they’re advising.”

On the plus side for lawyers, this was still some time away. “In terms of AI, the short-term claims are hugely exaggerated; many people saying within 18 months or two years legal practice is going to be transformed.

“This, for a whole bundle of reasons, it seems to me is very unlikely. However, I think the long-term impact is grossly understated. When you get into the 2030s and 2040s, we’re going to live in a very different world, a workplace that will be as alien as us today as a distant planet.”

So the next 10 years would see technological advance shift from automation to transformation.

“Almost all the work that has so far gone on in technology for lawyers has been automation. It’s been taking pre-existing, ineffective past practices, and streamlining, optimising, improving, turbo charging them, but not really taking the great benefit of technology which is fundamentally to transform, replace old inefficient ways of working.”

Another element was what Professor Susskind has called the “AI fallacy” – namely, “the mistaken assumption that the only way you can get computers to do clever things is by copying the way human beings do them”.

He said: “Lawyers say this all the time. They say ‘well, I’ve heard all about this about AI, but the work I do really requires me to think and to be creative, a machine can’t do either of these things and therefore I’m safe.’

“But that’s to misunderstand that machines can actually deliver the outcomes that clients want, but in entirely news ways.

“They’re using brute force processing power, lots of data, clever algorithms. They don’t use the same toolkit as us. So the fallacy is to suppose that unless machines can mimic or copy us, they can’t replace us.”

It may well be that new jobs then arise, “but in due course machines will take them on as well”. In another 20 or so years, “it’s hard to avoid the conclusion… that there will simply be a lot less for human beings to do”.

This would be good news for legal services users, as it would make legal and court services “available to many rather than a few.

That left lawyers and policymakers with a choice: competing with these emerging technologies – believing that there were tasks they would not be able to do – or building them.

“I’m not saying [the former is] a terrible idea, but… it’s pushing against the grain to say that at the heart of your personal career plan, or your business strategy, or your national policy. is to compete with these increasingly capable machines.

“The other option for me is far more attractive. I say this to every student that’s emerging from law school. You have the opportunity not simply to take the baton from the person ahead and practise law as all previous generations have done.

“You have the opportunity to shape the next generation of legal provision…

“I say to all lawyers – clients don’t actually want lawyers. They want the outcomes you bring. I say to judges as well that they don’t want judges and courts. They want the outcomes.

“So we need, it seems to me, in this era, to be far clearer about the outcomes that our clients and our citizens want and we need to use the power of technology not simply to automate our old ways of delivering these outcomes, but to deliver these outcomes in fundamentally new and different ways.”

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