Can a Computer Do a Lawyer's Job?

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It's Man v. Machine on Jeopardy! this week as IBM super-robot Watson takes on former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. At The Atlantic, we're using Watson as an occasion to think about what smart robots mean for the American worker. This is Part Two of a three-part series on the exciting and sometimes scary capabilities of artificial intelligence. Read Part One -- Anything You Can Do, Robots Can Do Better.

The conventional wisdom used to be that becoming a knowledge worker represented the best path to a prosperous future. The advent of offshoring has increasingly called this proposition into question.

Today, offshoring is impacting knowledge workers -- that is, people with software jobs -- across the board. Someone with a software job could eventually be replaced by a computer similar to the one that currently sits on his or her desk.

Jobs in fields such as radiology, accounting, tax preparation, graphic design, and especially all types of information technology are already being shipped to India and to other countries. This trend will only grow, and where offshoring appears, automation is often likely to eventually follow.


The automation of software jobs is tied closely to the field of artificial intelligence. To gain some insight into how artificial intelligence works in the real world, let's consider computer chess. In 1989, Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion faced off against a special computer called Deep Thought. Deep Thought was designed at Carnegie Mellon University and IBM. Kasparov easily defeated the machine in a two game match.

In 1996, Kasparov faced a new computer developed by IBM called Deep Blue. Again Kasparov defeated the computer. In 1997, IBM came back with an improved version of Deep Blue that finally defeated Kasparov in a six game match. This represented the first time that a machine had defeated the top human chess player.

Since then, computer chess has continued to progress. In 2006, the new world chess champion, Vladimir Kramnik, lost a match against a German software program called Deep Fritz. While IBM's Deep Blue was a completely custom computer about the size of a refrigerator, Deep Fritz is a program that runs on a computer using two standard Intel processors. It seems highly likely that, in the near future, a program like Deep Fritz, running on virtually any cheap laptop computer, will be able to defeat the best chess players in the world.

Could a computer formulate a strategy for an important legal case?

When we think of what it takes for a human being to be a world chess champion, most of us would probably agree that it takes a certain degree of creativity--at least within the confines of a highly defined set of rules. Yet, creativity is a trait that we are very reluctant to ascribe to a machine--even if that machine can beat a human at chess. This tendency to be somewhat underwhelmed by the accomplishments of machines, may have something to do with the fact that the working of the human brain remains a mystery.

Who can say what is going on in a human chess master's head when he or she plays a match? We simply don't know. And therefore it becomes to us something mysterious and especially creative. In the case of the computer, however, we know exactly what is happening. The computer is simply calculating through millions of different possible moves and then picking the best one. It is using a brute force algorithm. The computer's advantage arises not from the fact that it is genuinely smart, but because it is almost unimaginably fast. It's natural for us to give this brute force accomplishment a lower status than the creativity and precise thinking exhibited by an exceptional human being. But the question for us here is: will that protect us from brute force algorithms that can do our jobs?


If you agree that the game of chess requires creativity within a set of defined rules, then could not something similar be said about the field of law? Currently there are jobs in the United States for many thousands of lawyers who rarely, if ever, go into a courtroom. These attorneys are employed in the areas of legal research and contracts. They work at law firms and spend much of their time in the library or accessing legal databases through their computers. They research case law, and write briefs which summarize relevant court cases and legal strategies from the past. They review contracts and look for loopholes. They suggest possible strategies and legal arguments for new cases that come to their firms.

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