I Robot, Esq.

Will we see robot lawyers in 30 years?


I stumbled on a video over Christmas about the futurist and marketing guru Faith Popcorn. She’s the one who coined the term “cocooning” (i.e. staying home to shop online or work online, rather than venturing outside to face the danger of the mall or the office.) She also coined “cashing out,” which roughly means selling the house you bought in Vancouver for four times what you paid for it and moving to Parksville for a simpler life.

There are many trends she has spotted, including “vigilante consumer” (mass protesting using the buying power of the marketplace to convince me I shouldn’t eat foie gras), “clanning” (a term which totally explains the NRA, Fox News and Donald Trump) and “down ageing” (if you’re a boomer, being nostalgic for the pursuits and products of your childhood).

The video I saw was prophetic. She was hired by Kodak in the late 80s to examine the “The Future of Film.” After examining the photography industry in detail, her report to Kodak said there was no future in film. The age of film had expired. The Kodak moment had passed. The future of photography will be digital. And she was immediately fired.

When I was called in 1986, had I predicted what legal practice would have been like in 2016, I would have bought more Vancouver real estate. But for the newly called lawyers of 2015, 1986 must seem like ancient history. Back then, lawyers dictated letters into “Dictaphones” and gave the tapes to “secretaries,” who typed the letter on a “typewriter.” Larger documents subject to change were sent to a centralized “word processing” department where many staff members typed away on archaic terminals that were connected to a machine the size of three refrigerators. There were no PCs on every lawyer’s desk. Legal research was done with things called “books.” There was no Internet. No email. No voicemail. Smartphones and 24/7 access wouldn’t be “normal” for another decade or more. Voice recognition software (which I use regularly and highly recommend) was something out of Star Trek.

Faith Popcorn’s new prediction? Robots. Humanoid robots will interact with us as companions, basic service providers and even, at some level, co-workers. Someone is already testing a “robot receptionist” in an office in France; one with very human features and a level of sophistication light years ahead of what you saw at the Country Bear Jamboree in Disneyland.

Aldebaran Robotics is selling “Pepper,” the world’s first personal robot with emotions for $2,500. Pepper apparently learns from human interaction and behaviour. It can act as a “professional greeter” in retail stores or as a receptionist (but hopefully its better than the interactive voice systems used by Apple, Aeroplan, or Visa on their 1-800 numbers).

If you look at the technological changes over the last 30 years and project forward 30 years, lawyers called in this decade may well be struggling with how to use (or not use) robots in practice in 2046. Will the robots of 2046 act like lawyers and meet clients, analyze statute and case law and come up with a legal answer in a nanosecond, like one of Deep Blue’s chess moves? Will they do all the “analysis” that lawyers do? Will they make solicitors obsolete by creating documents immediately after an initial client meeting and quickly vetting 1000 precedents at their disposal to produce the contract?

Somehow, I don’t think so. When not to use a lawyer is as important as when to use one, and I don’t see robots having the common sense to make that decision.

It’s been said before, but robots will only have real artificial intelligence when you tell them to go to work, but they go to the beach instead.

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