Justice in the Rear-View Mirror

When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.[1]

Covid-19 has forced the Courts to adopt new ways of working in the lock-down environment.

Before the advent of Covid-19 the Court system in New Zealand operated as it has for decades – a paper-based system based on the courthouse as a physical meeting place, bringing together large numbers of people in a central location. It may be described as the “in person” or “physical presence” model with the “Courthouse as a Place”. The Courthouse has been symbolic of justice delivery, often an imposing temple-like structure with solid emblems representing the majesty of the law and the delivery of just outcomes and firm retribution for the wicked.

The threat posed by Covid-19 to public safety and to the community at large along with a lock-down preventing movement and gatherings has challenged that model. It has required change and that change has had to be implemented quickly so that essential justice services might still be delivered.

In some respects the “Courthouse as a Place” model still prevails. Courtrooms throughout the country have the ability to hear cases remotely using Virtual Meeting Room technology – a significant movement forward from the earlier use of Audio-Visual links (AVL) that have been in place for some years. 220 virtual meeting rooms have been set up across 267 court locations and these are being increased. More collaboration tools are anticipated and the number of virtual private network connections to the Court system have increased from 500 to over 2000.

In addition a form of electronic filing of court papers has been implemented although this is by no means a full-featured e-filing regime.

For a number of reasons it is not possible to conduct a full scale judge alone criminal trial remotely without the consent of the defendant, although under the present law it is possible to conduct a civil hearing using remote technology.

Nevertheless, the speed with which the Ministry and the Judiciary have moved to put these systems in place is admirable. It shows what can be done to implement new communications technologies within the justice system. Although what has been provided is by no means perfect, nor is it as wide ranging as those of us who favour greater use of technology in the justice system would like, it is a start – a proof of concept forced on us by necessity. It is something upon which the Court system could and should build to make justice more available and accessible in the future.

Before Covid-19 forced changes upon the system, there was no disaster plan for the circumstances that have been presented. The Spanish influenza epidemic of the early 20th century could provide no answers to the problems facing the Courts. There was, in fact, no Plan B. But Plan B – or at least the beginnings of it – are now in place.

The problem is that these innovations, developed as they have been to meet the challenges of delivering justice in a lockdown, are seen as temporary. At the end of the Covid-19 emergency  we in New Zealand will return to “physical presence” model conducted in courthouses throughout the country. It is argued that courthouses serve an important role as the local face of justice for communities.

The suggestion is that the use of technology is not how justice should be delivered in New Zealand. At the moment the problem is that the use of technology has been forced upon us, like it or not, and the solutions arising should not be discarded as no longer fit for purpose or a temporary emergency expedient.

In the overall scheme of things the issue of remote access and videoconferencing is a small part of a much bigger picture that involves the digitization of the Court record. There are already solutions available for this such as that offered by Caselines and about which I was talking back in 2013!

But remote access and digital presence have been dismissed based on the perception that a digital Court system does not – cannot – replicate the level of public and community engagement in the processes of justice and it can’t really replicate the public understanding that flows from a Court house based system for justice. The current use of digital technology has been forced upon the Courts – a stopgap measure; a temporary expedient.

The view is that the “in person” model involving a face to face exchange involving the Judge, counsel and the defendant is important, along with the presence of the Court as a place where the community comes together to provide support for victims and for defendants. It is argued that it is by way of those opportunities for early interventions which can prevent re-offending and subsequent re-engagement with the criminal justice system. I gather that this approach is based on research done by a Professor Ian Lambie and to which Chief Justice referred in her paper to the Criminal Bar Association Conference in 2019.

The concern is that there seems to be an overuse of AVL which is considered lacking in the richness of the information that can be passed between people in a face to face situation. There is unhappiness with the increased use of AVL that the Covid 19 crisis has made necessary but it is recognized it a necessity.

In many respects I consider that the these views about AVL and remote hearings, informed in part by the view of Professor Lambie, are as much cultural as anything else. The majority of the judiciary, myself included, have grown up with the “in presence” model. It is what we are used to. The reality is that more and more people are becoming used to getting their information remotely and are able to make the necessary adjustments in their cognitive and reactive thinking. The human race is known for its ability to adapt and lawyers and judges must be part of this adaptation.

So where does this leave us? There are a number of realities that we have to face. The first is that whether we like it or not we are in the middle of a revolutionary process – and not a political revolution but a revolution that will affect our entire society. We simply will not return to the world as it was in December 2019. All will change – change utterly.

We have to recognize that the post-Covid-19 world will be a different one from that to which we are used. And the realities of the revolution will not become apparent for some considerable time. My own view is that there will be social disruption and dislocation that will continue until at least the end of 2021. Around about then we may see some form of stability – I do not use the word “normalcy” because that suggests a return. There will be no return.

As a result of the circumstances that have been forced upon us we have had to adapt to new methods of communication and information exchange. A whole older generation a few weeks ago thought an email was the cutting edge of technology. Within a very short period of time they have discovered that video calling their friends and family is not some black art for which they need a computer technician.

If there are lawyers and Judges who have made that discovery, they will then likely make the mental jump and ask why on earth the same thing cannot be usefully done in a court. Digital systems and remote hearings may not be the way for all cases but they can be used for many and may provide a more effective, relevant, accessible, versatile justice system than we had before.

Although I know that some of the arguments in favour of the “in person” “Courthouse as a Place” model are based upon elements of the Rule of Law and the importance of full engagement and the symbolic trappings surrounding the administration of Justice, the changes that have been forced upon us demonstrate the fragility and brittleness of those arguments and indeed of the system itself.

But to say that it will be “business as usual” once things settle down, to suggest a full return to the clumsy, archaic, rear view system that has been so much a part of the past ignores the fact that there are effective technological system for the delivery of justice services.

Covid 19 and the lockdown forced the Courts to scramble for solutions to important services that they provide. Why? Because there was no Plan B. The Covid 19 crisis demonstrated that it was unacceptable to argue that “this is the only way because it is the way that we have done it.”

What the Covid 19 crisis has done is forced us to recognize that we must have alternatives. There will be other crises in the future that will require us to move fast and break things. We should always have a Plan B and one that can be deployed seamlessly and easily to whatever threats arise. Remote hearings and greater use of technology form part of that Plan B, have been deployed and can be improved and developed further.

The ball of opportunity has been placed before us. It may be, if we pick it up, there may be a few stumbles and a few drops. Better that than never to have picked up the ball at all.


[1] McLuhan, M. and Q. Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Co-ordinated by J. Agel. (1967). New York, London, Toronto: Bantam Books. pp 74 – 75.

Do Social Network Providers Require (Further?) Regulation – A Commentary

This is a review and commentary of the Sir Henry Brooke Student Essay Prize winning essay for 2019. The title of the essay topic was “Do Social Network Providers Require (Further?) Regulation

Sir Henry Brooke was a Court of Appeal judge in England. He became a tireless campaigner during retirement on issues including access to justice. His post-judicial renown owed much to his enthusiastic adoption of digital technology although he spear-headed early initiatives for technology in courts and led and was first Chair of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) – a website that provides access to English and Irish case and statute law. Upon his retirement many came to know of him through his blog and tweets. He drafted significant sections of the Bach Commission’s final report on access to justice, and also acted as patron to a number of justice organisations including the Public Law Project, Harrow Law Centre and Prisoners Abroad.

The SCL (Society for Computers and Law) Sir Henry Brooke Student Essay Prize honours his legacy.  For 2019 the designated essay question this year was 2000-2,500 words on the prompt “Do social network providers require (further?) regulation?” the winner was Robert Lewis from the University of Law. His essay considers some of the regulatory responses to social media. His starting point is the events of 15 March 2019 in Christchurch.

The first point that he makes is that

“(h)orrors such as Christchurch should be treated cautiously: they often lead to thoughtless or reflexive responses on the part of the public and politicians alike.”

One of his concerns is the possibility of regulation by outrage, given the apparent lack of accountability of social networking platforms.

He then goes on to examine some examples of legislative and legal responses following 15 March and demonstrates the problem with reflexive responses. He starts with the classification of the live stream footage and the manifesto posted by the alleged shooter. He referred to a warning by the Department of Internal Affairs that those in possession of the material should delete it.

He then examines some of the deeper ramifications of the decision. Classification instantly rendered any New Zealander with the video still in his computer’s memory cache, or in any of his social media streams, knowingly or not, potentially guilty of a criminal offence under s.131 of Films Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993. He comments

“Viewing extracts of  the footage shown on such websites was now illegal in New Zealand, as was the failure to have adequately wiped your hard drive having viewed the footage prior to its classification. A significant proportion of the country’s population was, in effect, presented with a choice: collective self-censorship or criminality.”

Whilst he concedes that the decision may have been an example of civic responsibility, in his opinion it did not make good law. Mr. Lewis points out that the legislation was enacted in 1993 just as the Internet was going commercial. His view is that the law targets film producers, publishers and commercial distributors, pointing out that

“these corporate entities have largely been supplanted by the social network providers who enjoy broad exemptions from the law, which has instead been inverted to criminalise “end users”, namely the public which the law once served to protect.”

He also made observations about the maximum penalties which are minimal against the revenue generated by social media platforms.

He then turned his attention to the case of the arrest of a 22 year old man charged with sharing the objectionable video online. He commented that

“that faced with mass public illegality, and a global corporation with minimal liability, New Zealand authorities may have sought to make an example of a single individual. Again, this cannot be good law.”

Mr. Lewis uses this as a springboard for a discussion about the “safe harbor” provisions of the Communications Decency Act (US) and EU Directive 2000/31/EC, which created the “safe harbour” published or distributed.

Mr Lewis gives a telling example of some of the difficulties encountered by the actions of social media platforms in releasing state secrets and the use of that released information as evidence in unrelated cases. He observes

“The regulatory void occupied by social network providers neatly mirrors another black hole in Britain’s legal system: that of anti-terrorism and state security. The social network providers can be understood as part of the state security apparatus, enjoying similar privileges, and shrouded in the same secrecy. The scale of their complicity in data interception and collection is unknown, as is the scale and level of the online surveillance this apparatus currently performs. The courts have declared its methods unlawful on more than one occasion and may well do so again.”

A theme that becomes clear from his subsequent discussion is that the current situation with apparently unregulated social media networks is evidence of a collision between the applicability of the law designed for a pre-digital environment and the challenges to the expectations of the applicability of the law in the digital paradigm. For example, he observes that

“The newspapers bear legal responsibility for their content. British television broadcasters are even under a duty of impartiality and accuracy. In contrast, social network providers are under no such obligations. The recent US Presidential election illustrates how invidious this is.”

He also takes a tilt at those who describe the Internet as “the Wild West”.

“This is an unfortunate phrase. The “wild west” was lawless: the lands of the American west, prior to their legal annexation by the United States, were without legal systems, and any pre-annexation approximation of one was illegal in and of itself. In contrast, the social network providers reside in highly developed, and highly regulated, economies where they are exempted from certain legal responsibilities. These providers have achieved enormous concentrations of capital and political influence for precisely this reason.”

He concludes with the observation that unlawful behaviour arises from a failure to apply the law as it exists and ends with a challenge:

“ In England, this application – of a millennium-old common law tradition to a modern internet phenomenon such as the social networks – is the true task of the technology lawyer. The alternative is the status quo, a situation where the online publishing industry has convinced lawmakers “that its capacity to distribute harmful material is so vast that it cannot be held responsible for the consequences of its own business model.””

The problem that I have with this essay is that it suggests a number of difficulties but, apart from suggesting that the solution lies in the hands of technology lawyers, no coherent solution is suggested. It cites examples of outdated laws, of the difficulty of retroactive solutions and the mixed blessings and problems accompanying social media platforms. The question really is whether or not the benefits outweigh the disadvantages that these new communications platforms provide. There are a number of factors which should be considered.

First, we must recognize that in essence social media platforms enhance and enable communication and the free exchange of ideas – albeit that they may be banal, maudlin or trivial – which is a value of the democratic tradition.

Secondly, we must recognize and should not resent the fact that social media platforms are able to monetise the mere presence of users of the service. This seems to be done in a number or what may appear to be arcane ways, but they reflect the basic concept of what Robert A. Heinlein called TANSTAFL – there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Users should not expect service provided by others to be absolutely free.

Thirdly, we must put aside doctrinaire criticisms of social media platforms as overwhelming big businesses that have global reach. Doing business on the Internet per se involves being in a business with global reach. The Internet extends beyond our traditional Westphalian concepts of borders, sovereignty and jurisdiction.

Fourthly, we must recognize that the Digital Paradigm by its very nature has within it various aspects – I have referred to them elsewhere as properties – that challenge and contradict many of our earlier pre-digital expectations of information and services. In this respect many of our rules which have a basis in underlying qualities of earlier paradigms and the values attaching to them are not fit for purpose. But does this mean that we adapt those rules to the new paradigm and import the values (possibly no longer relevant) underpinning them or should we start all over with a blank slate?

Fifthly, we must recognize that two of the realities in digital communications have been permissionless innovation – a concept that allows a developer to bolt an application on to the backbone – and associated with that innovation, continuous disruptive change.

These are two of the properties I have mentioned above. What we must understand is that if we start to interfere with say permissionless innovation and tie the Internet up with red tape, we may be if not destroying but seriously inhibiting the further development of this communications medium. This solution would, of course, be attractive to totalitarian regimes that do not share democratic values such as freedom of expression

Sixthly, we have to accept that disruptive change in communications methods, behaviours and values is a reality. Although it may be comfortable to yearn for a nostalgic but non-existent pre digital Golden Age, by the time such yearning becomes expressed it is already too late. If we drive focused upon the rear view mirror we are not going to recognize the changes on the road ahead. Thus, the reality of modern communications is that ideas to which we may not have been exposed by monolithic mainstream media are now being made available. Extreme views, which may in another paradigm, have been expressed within a small coterie, are now accessible to all who wish to read or see them. This may be an uncomfortable outcome for many but it does not mean that these views have only just begun to be expressed. They have been around for some time. It is just that the property of exponential dissemination means that these views are now available. And because of the nature of the Internet, many of these views may not in any event be available to all or even searchable, located, as many of them are, away from the gaze of search engines on the Dark Web.

Seventhly, it is only once we understand not only the superficial content layer but the deeper implications of the digital paradigm – McLuhan expressed it as “the medium is the message” can we begin to develop any regulatory strategies that we need to develop.

Eighthly, in developing regulatory strategies we must ask ourselves whether they are NECESSARY. What evil are the policies meant to address. As I have suggested above, the fact that a few social media and digital platforms are multi-national organisations with revenue streams that are greater than the GDP of a small country is not a sufficient basis for regulation per se – unless the regulating authority wishes to maintain its particular power base. But then, who is to say that Westphalian sovereignty has not had its day. Furthermore, it is my clear view that any regulatory activity must be the minimum that is required to address the particular evil. And care must be taken to avoid the “unintended consequences” to which Mr Lewis has referred and some of which I have mentioned above.

Finally, we are faced with an almost insoluble problem when it comes to regulation in the Digital Paradigm. It is this. The legislative and regulatory process is slow although the changes to New Zealand’s firearms legislation post 15 March could be said to have been done with unusual haste. The effect has been that the actions of one person have resulted in relieving a large percentage of the population of their lawfully acquired property. Normally the pace of legislative or regulatory change normally is slow, deliberative and time consuming.

On the other hand, change in the digital paradigm is extremely fast. For example, when I started my PhD thesis in 2004 I contemplated doing something about digital technologies. As it happens I didn’t and looked at the printing press instead. But by the time my PhD was conferred, social media happened. And now legislators are looking at social media as if it was new but by Internet standards it is a mature player. The next big thing is already happening and by the time we have finally worked out what we are going to do about social media, artificial intelligence will be demanding attention. And by the time legislators get their heads around THAT technology in all its multiple permutations, some thing else – perhaps quantum computing – will be with us.

I am not saying therefore that regulating social media should be put in the “too hard” basket but that what regulation there is going to be must be focused, targeted, necessary, limited to a particular evil and done with a full understanding of the implications of the proposed regulatory structures.

Artificial Intelligence and Legal Practice

I was invited to deliver a paper on the impact of artificial intelligence on lawyers and legal practice. There has been a considerable amount of concern that automated systems are going to replace lawyers and that sentences will be imposed by computer. I don’t see that as a future.

Along with Richard Susskind I see a more nuanced outcome that will involve the automation of repetitive tasks and a redeployment of lawyers into other areas of legal activity.

The Paper was delivered to the NZ Law 25th Anniversary Conference in Auckland on 29 September 2017. A copy of the paper and the presentation follow.

 

 

 

CTC 2017 – The Online Court

This year I was invited to present a paper at the National Center for State Courts biannual conference – Courts Technology Conference 2017. I was asked to present a paper on the development of the Online Court project in England and some of the thinking behind that project.

I have had an interest in this project since Professor Richard Susskind’s report on February 2015 and have followed the reports issued by Lord Briggs. There are two things of particular significance.

The first is that the project demonstrates the disruptive effect of technology and the way in which the deployment of technological solutions may result in quite significant changes in process without destroying or compromising the underlying  philosophies of a just system of dispute resolution provided by the State.

The second thing is the types of technology that may be deployed to make the online court work. The paper I prepared for the Conference looked at these two aspects of the matter along with a consideration of some of the positives and potential negatives of the project. Most of the negatives are in fact answerable.

The technological solutions that I considered were conceptual only and I wish I could have attended the July Online Courts hackathon in London. It is highly likely that the technical section of my paper would have had a completely different approach.

Here is a copy of the paper:

The powerpoint slides that were a part of the presentation follow

The session was live streamed and recorded and the video follows

I hope that this material is useful.

 

Lawyers and Judges in the Online Court

This post is very much a random “on-the-fly” collection of thoughts about the way in which lawyers and Judges may have to change their working methods on the Online Solutions Court environment. It does not offer a nuanced fully developed systematic set of proposals or thoughts but rather an informal stroll through possible outcomes. It could form the basis for a more formalised study at a later time.

 

The technologically driven transformation of the civil process proposed by Professor Richard Susskind and Lord Justice Sir Michael Briggs are going to require some re-alignment of ways of working by both lawyers and judges.

The English Online Solutions Court proposals have developed in part to answer problems experienced by citizens who may have a legal claim which they wish to have addressed but for who the costs and complexity of the legal and court process present a barrier.

The Susskind\Briggs proposals envision the provision of processes which will allow citizens to directly access information about their potential claims, receive machine based recommendations as to the steps that may or may not be available and offer some suggestions as to probability of success or otherwise. From there the citizen may commence proceedings using online processes and step through the evaluation, dispute containment and hearing tiers as set out in the discussion documents that have developed the thinking behind the online solutions court.

Although the prospective litigant does not have to seek legal advice, the involvement of lawyers in not excluded from the process.

Perhaps the first major cultural shift will be to change from the adversarial stance that characterises litigation to a more problem solving focus. The emphasis of the Online Solutions Court is to find a solution to a problem and the larger part of the resource and process is dedicated to that end. The hearing before a decision maker, where the parties delegate the outcome to a Judge is the least acceptable outcome. Although the Fisher and Ury “Getting to Yes” model is well embedded in problem solving thinking, this type of approach is going to have to be one of the major shifts in emphasis for lawyers.

The Online Solutions Court models as proposed by Susskind/Briggs shifts the emphasis from lawyer control of the process of litigation to client or litigant control. The model also envisages a complete change of focus for the process, the objective being a solution or resolution rather than getting the case before a decision maker (Judge) to determine the matter. Thus if and when lawyers are involved in a matter in the Online Solutions Court they will not drive or direct what is happening. This relinquishment of control (subject to client’s instructions) means that the dispute is not lawyer driven. Letting go of that mind set will be significant.

Rather the involvement of the lawyer may well be on an “as needed” basis. For the first phase – case evaluation – the lawyer’s role will be minimal. Online evaluation, predictive analytics and other AI tool will provide that initial “advice” and potential outcomes. A lawyer may be asked for a second opinion, but as the term suggests, lawyer involvement will be secondary to the litigant controlled matter.

In this respect, given that the litigant interaction with the OSC will have been through an online process, any lawyer involvement may be accessed by the litigant\client remotely as well. This model of ”on demand” lawyering is not new. Models exist in BLP’s Lawyers on Demand (LOD) Evershed’s Agile and Allen & Overy’s Peerpoint. In New Zealand the McCarthy service offered by Minter Ellison Rudd Watts is another example.

Although the examples given are offerings by large law firms, the agile lawyer in the OSC environment should be able to provide a form of advice service for OSC litigants, recognising that the nature of the query and the scope of the advice may be quite restricted and will not be part of an ongoing matter. Thus the role of the lawyer may well be segmented in the particular proceeding, reflecting some of Susskind’s predictions in Tomorrow’s Lawyers and The Future of the Professions.

In addition to providing the service online the agile OSC lawyer may consider deploying a number of communications platforms for providing advice or information. The 140 character limitation of Twitter may preclude its use, but the use of chatbots for routine enquiries or other forms of voice recognition software may be deployed as well as virtual face to face systems such as Skype or online chat services – encrypted of course.

So it is clear that the lawyer in the OSC space is going to have to be tech savvy and attuned to the cultural shift that will be required. The OSC lawyer will need to be able to shift from the office desk model of advice to the mobile smartphone always on 24\7 model perhaps with an integrated application for the calculation and online bank transfer payment of the modest fee that the commoditised advice will justify.

The Susskind\Briggs model is aimed towards minimal judicial involvement although that said it is inevitable that Judges will be involved as disputes will reach them. One of the ways in which decisions will be made is “on the papers” although the papers will be digital. Judges will have to become more acclimatised to taking text and illustrative material from a screen. The OSC model would discourage the urge to print the material out and deal with it in the tradition “on the papers” way. One advantage with the digital on screen process is that the snagging of a finger or thumb on an errant staple will be avoided. But deciding matters on the basis or written or file based information is quite common for Judges.

Adaptation to an online hearing will require a shift on the part of lawyers and judges. The current paper based model has been underpinned by the oral hearing which requires all participants to be in the same place at the same time. Place doesn’t matter with a hearing in the OSC. The big difference will be getting used to communicating via Skype or some other form of audio-visual link process. Susskind suggested that online hearings could be conducted by teleconference but my view is that there is little technological difference if an AVL solution were deployed and would give a “human” element albeit via a screen rather than a disembodied voice across a conferenced  phone connection.

However it is this absence of “physicality” that is likely to require the biggest cultural and behavioural shift on the part of judges and lawyers. My own experience is that there is an initial phase of apprehensiveness in using AVL but as one uses it more frequently one becomes used to it so that ultimately it becomes routine. One is able to make the necessary adjustments of visual focus and oral clarity and it isn’t long before what appears to be the odd scenario of a person sitting in a room talking to a computer screen vanishes as the desire to address and deal with the problem in hand comes to the fore.

These are just a few brief thoughts about some of the skills and cultural changes that may be required by lawyers and Judges in the OSC space. The comments and observations by Richard Susskind and Sir Michael Briggs in their various reports provide some signposts for where lawyers may need to adapt. What is important to remember is that although the OSC provides a novel way of addressing litigation, the objective – an accessible, user friendly, litigant controlled system that will provide a resolution based on the law – fundamentally remains the same.

Artificial Intelligence and Law(s)

In Philip K. Dick’s book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” – made into the brilliant movie “Bladerunner” directed by Ridley Scott – the genetically engineered replicants, indistinguishable from human beings, were banned from Earth and set to do work on off-world colonies. There was a fear of the threat that these “manufactured” beings could pose to humans.

Isaac Asimov’s extraordinarily successful “Robot” series of short stories and books had a similar premise –  that intelligent robots would pose a threat to humans. In “Androids” the way that the replicants were regulated was that they were shipped off-world and if they returned to Earth they were hunted down and “retired”. Asimov’s regulatory solution was a little more nuanced. Robots, upon the creation of their positronic brains, were programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics. These were as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These three laws were the foundation of all the tensions that arose in Asimov’s stories. How were the Three Laws to be applied? What happens when there is a conflict? Which rule prevails?

The stories are classified as science fiction. I prefer to treat them as examples of statutory interpretation. But underpinning the Three Laws and the reason for them was what Asimov called “The Frankenstein Complex” – a term he coined for fear of mechanical men or created beings that resemble human beings. And his answer to that fear and how it could be mitigated was the Three Laws.

A similar call recently went out about how we should deal with Artificial Intelligence. A report entitled “Determining Our Future: Artificial Intelligence”  written collaboratively by people from the Institute of Directors and the law firm Chapman Tripp, whilst pointing out the not insubstantial benefits that artificial intelligence or “smart systems” may provide, has a significant undertone of concern.

The report calls for the Government to establish a high-level working group on AI which should consider

“the potential impacts of AI on New Zealand, identifying major areas of opportunity and concern, and making recommendations about how New Zealand should prepare for AI-driven change.”

The writers consider AI is an extraordinary challenge for our future and the establishment of a high level working group is a critical first step to help New Zealand rise to that challenge. It seems to be the New Zealand way to look to the Government to solve everything, problematical or otherwise which says interesting things about self-reliance.

The report is an interesting one. It acknowledges the first real problem which is how do we define AI. What exactly does it encompass? Is it the mimicking of human cognitive functions like learning or problem solving. Or is it making machines intelligent – intelligence being the quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment.

Even although there seems to be an inability to settle upon a definition a more fruitful part of the examination is in the way in which “smart” computing systems are used in a range of industries and there is the observation that there has been a significant increase in investment in such “smart” systems by a number of players.

The disruptive impact of AI is then considered. This is not new. One of the realities of the Digital Paradigm is continuing disruptive change. There is little time to catch breath between getting used to one new thing and having to confront and deal with a new new thing. Disruption has been taking place from before the Digital Paradigm and indeed back to the First Industrial Revolution.

There is a recognition that we need to prepare for the disruptive effects of any new technology, but what the report fails to consider is the way in which disruptive technologies may ultimately be transformative. There is some speculation that after an initial period of disruption to established skills and industries, AI may lead to greater employment as new work becomes available in areas that have not been automated.

The sense of gloom begins to increase as the report moves to consider legal and policy issues. Although the use of AI in the legal or court process – I prefer to use the term expert legal systems – is not discussed, issues such as whether AI systems should be recognised as persons are mentioned. In this time of Assisted Birth Technologies and other than purely natural creation of life, it is not an easy question to answer. “Created by a human” doesn’t cut it because that is the way that the race has propagated itself for millennia. “Artificially created by a human” may encompass artificial insemination and confine people who are otherwise humans to some limbo status as a result.  But really what are we talking about. We are talking about MACHINE intelligence that is driven by algorithms. I don’t think we are talking about organic systems – at least not yet.

But it is the last question in that section that gives me cause for pause. Are New Zealand’s regulatory and legislative processes adaptive enough to respond to and encourage innovations in AI? What exactly is meant by that? Should we have regulatory systems in place to control AI or to develop it further? That has to be read within the context of the introductory paragraph

“AI presents substantial legal and regulatory challenges. These challenges include problems with controlling and foreseeing the actions of autonomous systems.”

Then the report raises the “Frankenstein Complex.” The introductory paragraph reads as follows:

“Leaders in many fields have voiced concerns over safety and the risk of losing control of AI systems. Initially the subject of science fiction (think Skynet in the Terminator movies), these concerns are now tangible in certain types of safety-critical AI applications – such as vehicles and weapons platforms – where it may be necessary to retain some form of human control.”

The report goes on to state:

Similar concerns exist in relation to potential threats posed by self-improving AI systems. Elon Musk, in a 2014 interview at MIT, famously called AI “our greatest existential threat”.
Professor Stephen Hawking, in a 2014 interview with BBC said that “humans, limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded by AI”.

Stanford’s One-Hundred Year Study of AI notes that

“we could one day lose control of AI systems via the rise of superintelligences that do not act in accordance with human wishes – and that such powerful systems would threaten humanity”.

Google’s DeepMind lab has developed an AI ‘off-switch’, while others are developing a principles-based framework to address security.

Then the question is asked

“What controls and limitations should be placed on AI technology.”

I think the answer would have to be as few as possible consistent with human safety that allow for innovation and continued development of AI. It must be disturbing to see such eminent persons such as Hawking and Musk expressing concerns about the future of AI. The answer to the machine lies in the machine as Google has demonstrated – turn it off if need be.

The report closes with the following observation.

The potential economic and social opportunities from AI technologies are immense. The public and private sectors must move promptly and together to ensure we are prepared to reap the benefits, and address the risks of AI.

And regulation is the answer? I think not.

Artificial Intelligence as a Tool for Lawyers

My particular interest in AI has been in its application to the law so let’s have a brief look at that issue. Viewed dispassionately the proposals are not “Orwellian” nor do they suggest the elevation of “Terminator J” to the Bench. It may also serve to put a different perspective on AI and the future.

In a recent article, Lex Machina’s Chief Data Scientist observed that data analytics refined information to match specific situations.

“Picture this: You’re building an antitrust case in Central California and want to get an idea of potential outcomes based on everything from judges, to districts, to decisions and length of litigation. In days of law past, coming up with an answer might involve walking down the hall and asking a partner or two about their experiences in such matters, then begin writing a budget around a presumed time frame. “

Howard says that analytics change the stakes. “Not only are you getting a more precise answer,” he attests, “but you’re getting an answer that is based on more relevant data.”

Putting the matter very simplistically legal information either in the form of statutes or case law is data which has meaning when properly analysed or interpreted. Apart from the difficulties in location of such data, the analytical process is done by lawyers or other trained professionals.

The “Law as Data” approach uses data analysis and analytics which match fact situations with existing legal rules.

Already a form of data analysis or AI variant is available in the form of databases such as LexisNexis, Westlaw, NZLii, Austlii or Bailii. Lexis and Westlaw have applied natural language processing (NLP) techniques to legal research for 10-plus years. The core NLP algorithms were all published in academic journals long ago and are readily available. The hard (very hard) work is practical implementation. Legal research innovators like Fastcase and RavelLaw have done that hard work, and added visualizations to improve the utility of results.

Using LexisNexis or Westlaw, the usual process involves the construction of a search which, depending upon the parameters used will return a limited or extensive dataset. It is at that point that human analysis takes over.

What if the entire corpus of legal information is reduced to a machine readable dataset. This would be a form of Big Data with a vengeance, but it is a necessary starting point. The issue then is to:

  1. Reduce the dataset to information that is relevant and manageable
  2. Deploy tools that would measure the returned results against the facts or a particular case to predict a likely outcome.

Part (a) is relatively straight forward. There are a number of methodologies and software tools that are deployed in the e-Discovery space that perform this function. Technology-assisted review (TAR, or predictive coding) uses natural language and machine learning techniques against the gigantic data sets of e-discovery. TAR has been proven to be faster, better, cheaper and much more consistent than human-powered review (HPR). It is assisted review, in two senses. First, the technology needs to be assisted; it needs to be trained by senior lawyers very knowledgeable about the case. Second, the lawyers are assisted by the technology, and the careful statistical thinking that must be done to use it wisely. Thus, lawyers are not replaced, though they will be fewer in number. TAR is the success story of machine learning in the law. It would be even bigger but for the slow pace of adoption by both lawyers and their clients.

Part (b) would require the development of the necessary algorithms that could undertake the comparative and predictive analysis, together with a form of probability analysis to generate an outcome that would be useful and informative. There are already variants at work now in the field of what is known as Outcome Prediction utilising cognitive technologies.

There are a number of examples of legal analytics tools. Lex Machina, having developed a set of intellectual property (IP) case data, uses data mining and predictive analytics techniques to forecast outcomes of IP litigation. Recently, it has extended the range of data it is mining to include court dockets, enabling new forms of insight and prediction. Now they have moved into multi-District anti-trust litigation.

LexPredict developed systems to predict the outcome of Supreme Court cases, at accuracy levels which challenge experienced Supreme Court practitioners.

Premonition uses data mining, analytics and other AI techniques “to expose, for the first time ever, which lawyers win the most before which Judge.”

These proposals, of course, immediately raises issues of whether or not we are approaching the situation where we have decision by machine.

As I envisage the deployment of AI systems, the analytical process would be seen as a part of the triaging or Early Case Assessment process in the Online Court Model, rather than as part of the decision making process. The advantages of the process are in the manner in which the information is reduced to a relevant dataset performed automatically and faster than could be achieved by human means. Within the context of the Online Court process it could be seen as facilitative rather than determinative. If the case reached the decision making process it would, of course, be open to a Judge to consider utilising the “Law as Data” approach with, of course, the ultimate sign-off. The Judge would find the relevant facts. The machine would process the facts against the existing database that is the law and present the Judge with a number of possible options with supporting material. In that way the decision would still be a human one, albeit machine assisted.

Conclusion

As we embark down this road let us ensure that we do not over-regulate out of fear. Let us ensure that innovation in this exciting field is not stifled and that it continues to develop. The self-aware, self-correcting, self-protecting Skynet scenario is not a realistic one and, in my view, needs to be put to one side as an obstruction and recognised for what it is – a manifestation of the Frankenstein complex. And perhaps, before we consider whether or not we travel the path suggested in the report we should make sure that the Frankenstein complex is put well behind us.

 

From Theory to Practice – Software Models and Evidence for the Online Court

In the paper below I look at some of the ways in which technology may be applied to proposals for on-line Courts.

The proposals by Richard Susskind the JUSTICE paper and Lord Justice Sir Michael Briggs are based upon the availability of technical solutions to fulfil the promise inherent in the new models for resolving disputes. I emphasise that in using that phrase I envisage, as did Professor Susskind, the dispute resolution model to function within the established Court process rather than as a stand alone alternative to the Court process.

A consideration of the deployment of technology within the Court process first requires a recognition of the way in which technology can reflect or replace current processes. The Online Court proposals that have been put forward suggest significant process change but represent high level strategy. What I consider is a slightly more practical overview of some of the ways in which technology may be deployed. In addition there are issues surrounding the handling of digital evidence which will require consideration.