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Artificial intelligence (AI) has generated extraordinary hype in recent years—and nearly as much apprehension. Today, AI and machine learning are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Driverless cars, smartphones and voice assistants that recognize complex commands and computers that see are just a few examples of the power of AI-powered devices.
This transformative technology has profound implications for virtually every field, and the legal sector is no exception. The topic of AI has become ubiquitous in legal circles, often discussed at conferences on legal technology and frequently cited in legal industry publications. Corporations are hopeful that deployment of AI solutions will help earn them a competitive advantage, and adoption is coming: More than 80 percent of attendees at the 2017 Association of Corporate Counsel annual meeting said they plan to use AI-powered solutions.
Whether it's blockchain and smart contracts or AI-derived functionality and insight, legal departments are seeking to harness new technologies to improve performance and work quality. Yet there are also very real concerns about the challenges posed by adoption, in areas such as privacy, security and reliability. And, of course, there's the existential question that follows AI nearly everywhere it goes: Will it work so well that human lawyers become obsolete?
Artificial intelligence can be simply defined as the development of computing systems capable of performing tasks that typically require human cognition. There are several different forms of AI, and these forms all work in slightly different fashion.
Machine learning is another, more precise term for the technology that allows computers to recognize patterns in massive data sets and then act on this analysis. Programs learn through repeated iterations and human feedback, allowing them to learn and improve with increasing accuracy. Neural networks, deep learning and clustering are all techniques that fall within the machine learning category.
Natural Language Processing is a form of AI that allows computers to break down written or spoken language into concepts and entities and to build relationships in order to analyze language like any other data type. This is the core technology behind popular smart speakers or voice assistants.
A third form of AI, Robotic Process Automation, provides computerized workflow and applications designed to replace mundane, repetitive or low value-added aspects of business processes. By deploying this technology, humans are freed to focus on other business tasks where their attention is more valuable.
By understanding the essentials of how these forms of AI operate, you can better grasp how these technologies can be deployed to augment the work of legal professionals.
Corporate counsel has no shortage of reasons to be intrigued by AI. They must often grapple with strict budget and staffing allocations—which means they must do more with less. In this context, AI is a natural solution, as it can lower workloads and help in-house counsel get home earlier without a corresponding spike in the departmental budget.
This greater efficiency is accomplished thanks to AI's ability to automate mundane and repetitive tasks, freeing up human legal experts to improve the end result to a greater degree than either a computer or a human could achieve alone. Additionally, AI plays a key role in helping legal departments improve the efficiency of their invoicing processes while also lowering costs. Millions of invoice line items submitted by law firms can be compared against outside counsel billing guidelines, for example. By applying machine learning across vast numbers of invoices, productivity rises, costs go down and outcomes improve.
Data handling and management are also perfectly suited for AI optimization. The business of law generates huge volumes of raw data, whether through transcripts, filings or communications between people. Handling this data requires massive amounts of repetitive labor. By combining machine learning with Natural Language Processing, legal departments can analyze large numbers of legal documents, uncovering important trends, patterns and associations.
E-discovery is another application of AI in the legal field, and the one of which most attorneys are likely aware. Predictive coding, which is powered by AI, allows for the efficient searching of documents for context, concepts and tone. It offers far more functionality than simple keyword searches.
These represent just a handful of the potential (or already practical) uses for AI. The technology is already being used for contract drafting and management, records retrieval, fraud detection, litigation analysis and prediction of results and many more applications. In the near-term future, AI may be used to manage blockchains and smart contracts with more efficiency than humans or conventional computers. Because AI operates with such efficiency and learns over time, it may reduce the heavy processing power load required to handle encrypted blockchain data.
No truly transformative technology comes without questions about the consequences of its application. Artificial intelligence, in particular, has been on the receiving end of much apprehension, given its power and its perceived potential to compete with or replace workers.
The truth is many of the considerations that are attached to AI are technical in nature. Humans, for example, are still nimbler in terms of altering responses to changing circumstances.
Additionally, AI is limited by the quality of the data. Simply plugging the technology into a wall won't make it work. Attorneys may also fear that automation could lead to gaps. Automation may be great for legal research, but attorneys will always be required to input search terms, change parameters or identify alternative search terms. Even if an AI-powered tool identifies relevant cases and predicts the opposing counsel's arguments, a lawyer must still verify that the research used to make these determinations was thorough and accurate. These are tools, rather than do-it-all solutions.
Transparency is another core issue, as you can't have trust in its absence. As AI-powered tools begin impacting the lives of people through their influence on the legal process, transparency regarding how the system works becomes imperative. It will be incumbent upon the technology industry to help describe how AI solutions work in a clear and straightforward manner.
Finally, legal considerations must also be weighed. One example is data security and privacy. In order for these systems to work, they need access to vast amounts of data and will also generate considerable amounts of data. Purchasers of AI solutions should understand how the product uses and protects its data.
This is especially important given how data privacy laws continue to evolve. Compliance with the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (which went into effect May 2018) and the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (which goes into effect January 1, 2020) are just two examples of how AI needs to be considered in the context of larger regulations and laws.
Overall, maintaining a thorough grasp of how these machines make their decisions and handle their data remains the best practice for using AI-powered solutions.
The short answer is no, fortunately. It's best to visualize AI as a tool; powerful, yes, but ultimately in service to us, an enhancement rather than a replacement. Although AI has matured and become vitally important, there is no substitute for the professional judgment, expertise and experience of lawyers.
The true value of AI is unlocked when the expertise of legal professionals is supported by the efficiency of targeted AI applications. Speaking at a recent Association of Corporate Counsel annual meeting, Martin Tully from Akerman LLP drew a vivid parallel between today's AI applications and J.A.R.V.I.S., the sophisticated AI used by Tony Stark in the "Iron Man" films and comics.
Rather than supplant Stark, J.A.R.V.I.S. helps him process information in order to make better decisions. In this way, Tully explained, modern AI is more like Stark's tool, and less like some nefarious Skynet, ready to replace humans.
Lawyers who fail to leverage the power of AI, however, may have to worry about being replaced by lawyers who can harness the benefits of these new capabilities.
In the coming years, we can expect AI to radically transform the legal industry, as the traditional law firm model is under constant pressure to find a better way to deliver legal services.
There's no real need for apprehension. When legal departments are well-informed and have a strong understanding of AI applications, they'll have the necessary perspective to unlock profound new value by combining the efficiency of targeted AI applications with the expertise of legal professionals.
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