3 | Minority Report
We’ll probably never see a court-appointed robolawyer for a criminal case, but algorithms are changing how judges mete out punishments. In many states, judges use software called compas to help with setting bail and deciding whether to grant parole. The software uses information from a survey with more than 100 questions—covering things like a defendant’s gender, age, criminal history, and personal relationships—to predict whether he or she is a flight risk or likely to re-offend. The use of such software is troubling: Northpointe, the company that created compas, won’t make its algorithm public, which means defense attorneys can’t bring informed challenges against judges’ decisions. And a study by ProPublica found that compas appears to have a strong bias against black defendants.
Forecasting crime based on questionnaires could come to seem quaint. Criminologists are intrigued by the possibility of using genetics to predict criminal behavior, though even studying the subject presents ethical dilemmas. Meanwhile, brain scans are already being used in court to determine which violent criminals are likely to re-offend. We may be headed toward a future when our bodies alone can be used against us in the criminal-justice system—even before we fully understand the biases that could be hiding in these technologies.
4 | An Explosion of Lawsuits
Eventually, we may not need lawyers, judges, or even courtrooms to settle civil disputes. Ronald Collins, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, has outlined a system for landlord–tenant disagreements. Because in many instances the facts are uncontested—whether you paid your rent on time, whether your landlord fixed the thermostat—and the legal codes are well defined, a good number of cases can be filed, tried, and adjudicated by software. Using an app or a chatbot, each party would complete a questionnaire about the facts of the case and submit digital evidence.
“Rather than hiring a lawyer and having your case sit on a docket for five weeks, you can have an email of adjudication in five minutes,” Collins told me. He believes the execution of wills, contracts, and divorces could likely be automated without significantly changing the outcome in the majority of cases.
There is a possible downside to lowering barriers to legal services, however: a future in which litigious types can dash off a few lawsuits while standing in line for a latte. Paul Ford, a programmer and writer, explores this idea of “nanolaw” in a short science-fiction story published on his website—lawsuits become a daily annoyance, popping up on your phone to be litigated with a few swipes of the finger.
Or we might see a completely automated and ever-present legal system that runs on sensors and pre-agreed-upon contracts. A company called Clause is creating “intelligent contracts” that can detect when a set of prearranged conditions are met (or broken). Though Clause deals primarily with industrial clients, other companies could soon bring the technology to consumers. For example, if you agree with your landlord to keep the temperature in your house between 68 and 72 degrees and you crank the thermostat to 74, an intelligent contract might automatically deduct a penalty from your bank account.