Could technology make solicitors redundant in the future?

In a 2012 talk futurist Thomas Frey prophesised that by 2030 over 2 billion jobs will disappear worldwide due to the rise in computer and robot technology. Between 2011 and 2012 there was a 40% increase in the number of robots being used with 1.2 million of them in use globally by 2013. They are also gaining on humans in the intelligence stakes at a fast rate, with a computer called Eugene Goostman passing the Turing test for the first time this year by fooling a group of humans that it was one too and IBM’s Watson computer taking on human contestants in a game of Jeopardy! on US TV. In a previous article for infolaw I examined how autonomous cars could impact road traffic accident cases in the future. In this article I’ll look at how technological advances could affect our profession in other ways.

We have been used to robots working in factory production lines and doing menial work for a while now, but the vision Frey has envisages half of all the world’s jobs being lost. You may be surprised by the jobs that are under threat by the machine workers not least because it includes solicitors and paralegals. The epicentre of these developments is Silicon Valley in the US, but we in the UK will be sure to follow suit with there being attractive cost savings and efficiencies incentives to do so.

The technologies employed in superseding humans are called ‘e-discovery’ systems which use a type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning. This involves setting the parameters in which the computer is to operate; which words and topics are of interest and train it to filter, or compile data which is of interest. The impetus for the development of these technologies in recent years has come from the case of the Enron scandal. Not only were e-discovery systems used to analyse the hundreds of thousands of documents, but the release of the case’s email database, the Enron Corpus to technicians and researchers gave them a large real-life test dataset with which to hone the technologies. This massive data set allowed for researchers to get a better understanding of how language is used and people interact through social networks allowing for the identification of themes and meaning in correspondence and groups using them.

E-discovery systems work in one of two ways; ‘linguistically’, or ‘sociologically’. The linguistic approach used in tools such as Blackstone Discovery and Autonomy searches for a defined group of words and phrases in a body of text and are able to understand subtle nuances in language and word associations. The Blackstone Discovery system is much more economical than using humans and was able to analyse 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. Another linguistic e-discovery system taking a different approach is Clearwell which analyses concepts rather than specific keywords and has been used to analyse 570,000 documents within two days, identifying 3,070 that were relevant to a case. For a human to complete the same task would have taken hundreds of man hours at great cost.

The sociological approach used by systems such as Cataphora doesn’t use keywords, instead they analyse the activities and interactions of people across email, instant messengers and telephone calls to recreate a chain of events. It can detect suspicious changes in the style and sentiment of email communications that signify illegal or fraudulent activities, especially in white collar crime cases, such as Enron. It allows for legal teams to identify the decision makers in an organisation and those involved in any dubious activity. Again, cost saving is the key advantage in using this system over humans.

For family and divorce solicitors a digital equivalent is available from a service called Wevorce which offers a divorce process mediated by algorithm. This system has ‘learnt’ 18 behaviour patterns in divorcing couples and can even advise on what stage in the grieving process one side is. The advantages that Wevorce proclaim over using a human are that couples can minimise any contact, never need to go to court, avoid adversarial proceeding, work on their divorce from any location at any time, can pick and choose which features to use as well a saving on costs, all without having someone go through your personal affairs.

With autonomous vehicles set to become common on roads there is at least some chance of technological advances creating work for solicitors. With driverless cars there wouldn’t technically be a ‘driver’ in charge of the vehicle, so road traffic accident solicitors could see a wave of product liability cases against the manufacturers of vehicles involved in accidents.

Solicitors and lawyers are not the only professions which could be threatened by the rise of robotic intelligence, as many sectors could see them taking over from humans in a number of roles. The army, or more specifically the US Army and its research and development arm Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have led the way in the creation of robot technology for years. Its development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and bomb disposal robots could reduce deaths and injuries to military personnel, but could also threaten the jobs of pilots and army engineers.

The provision of health services is an area which could be taken over by mechanical helpers in the future. The University of California, San Francisco Medical Centre has been using a robotised pharmacy for over a year which has dispensed 350,000 medications without error. Robots such as the MIT produced RIO have been carrying out knee surgery since 2006 and they will be able to undertake more complex procedures in years to come. Bedside care could also be a thing of the past for human nurses with face-to-face interaction droids such as GuiaBot able to perform reception, attendant and night watch duties. However, the rise of medical robots will no doubt be accompanied by many medical negligence claims as the technology is perfected.

Teaching is also a profession which could be threatened in the future by robotic competition. There are already a host of plagiarism checking services that are in use by schools and universities that perform the task much faster  than humans and which will only improve with time. The educational uses for apps is also something that will no doubt allow for teacher-less learning in the future as could the Japanese Saya teacher android which was first produced in 1993.

Jobs for which you would think that there had to be a genuine human input such as journalists and writers could also be under threat. Software such as Narrative Science creates machine generated stories without the need for human input and are already in use in the US for sport coverage. Another US company ICON Group International have published 700,000 machine generated books on topics from poetry to business which can be created from scratch in an hour and are now working on producing algorithms to write novels.

As one US in-house lawyer who has used e-discovery technology extensively has said, ‘people get bored, people get headaches, computers don’t. He also, ominously found by comparing computer and human accuracy in document reading that the humans were only 60% accurate. However, this technology will also allow firms to serve more clients and drive down prices of cases, which should increase access to justice, and no matter how sophisticated technology becomes there will be no substitute for face to face human interaction.

This article was written by personal injury compensation specialist solicitor Caroline Sergeant from Paul Rooney Solicitors.