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AI and Computational Law

(Stanford University - Jaclyn Chen)


- The Future of Law and Computational Technologies

Law and computation are often thought of as being two distinct fields. Increasingly, that is not the case. The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) introduces opportunities to improve legal processes and facilitate social progress. At the same time, AI presents an original set of inherent risks and potential harms. 

From a Law and Computational Technologies perspective, these circumstances can be broadly separated into two categories. First, we can consider the ethics, regulations, and laws that apply to technology. Second, we can consider the use of technology to improve the delivery of legal services, justice systems, and the law itself. Each category presents an unprecedented opportunity to use significant technological advancements to preserve and expand the rule of law. 

Computational Law (aka Complaw) is the branch of legal informatics concerned with the mechanization of legal reasoning. The primary focus of work in the field is the development and deployment of computer systems capable of assessing, facilitating, or enforcing compliance with specific sets of regulations. 

Computational Law is a growing interdisciplinary field that stands at the border of Law and Computer Science. Research in this field has shown benefits for businesses in automating the legal relationships and streamlining the legal interactions between parties.


- The Applications of Complaw

Intuit’s Turbotax is a good example of an application of this sort. Millions use it each year to prepare their tax returns. Based on values supplied by its user, it automatically computes the user’s tax obligations and fills in the appropriate tax forms. Extensions provide users with support in financial planning. 

Similar applications are possible in other areas of the Law – in dealing with privacy and security matters, in intellectual property rights management, in assessing compliance of plans with building codes (affected by local, county, state, and federal safety requirements), in electronic commerce (e.g. import/export restrictions on technology, drugs, and so forth), in labor law (e.g. occupational safety regulations and health care benefits, notably cases where state regulations interact with federal provisions), and so forth. 

The deployment of AI raises many interesting questions about the application of existing law and regulation. AI also presents an opportunity to improve our existing approaches to fundamental principles of justice, including the ways that we approach fairness, accountability, and transparency. 

Computational technologies offer the distinctive capability to embed law, regulations, respect for human rights, and democratic principles directly into processes, products, systems, and platforms by design and default. 

Equipped with this knowledge, our mission ought to be to use law and regulation to guide the development, deployment, and maintenance of AI toward improving society, without unnecessarily impeding innovation.


- The Limitations of Complaw

There are also applications that do not involve governmental laws. The regulations can just as well be the terms of contracts (e.g. delivery schedules, insurance covenants, real estate transactions, financial agreements). They can be the policies of corporations (e.g. constraints on travel, expenditure reporting, pricing rules). They can even be the rules of games (embodied in computer game playing systems). 

While Complaw enables multiple applications of computers to the Law, it is important to bear in mind that not all computer systems that pertain to the Law are Complaw applications. As examples, consider document management systems such as those provided by Westlaw, LexisNexis, and others. 

These systems provide significant value to their users in retrieving legal documents. Some even provide semantic “tags” to improve search in dramatic ways. However, they do not themselves process the content of those documents in semantically meaningful ways. As a result, human specialists are needed to utilize that content. 

What distinguishes Complaw systems from other instances of legal technology is their ability to apply regulations to real or hypothetical cases without additional input from human legal experts. Complaw systems provide answers, not just documents; and they do so in an autonomous fashion. 


- Complaw: The Revolution of Legal-Service Delivery

Technology has also demonstrated the potential to revolutionize legal-services delivery, thus improving access to law and legal services for everyone.  The idea of Computational law is not new. It dates back at least to the 1970s. In the years since then, scholars and technologists have developed the theory and technology necessary to build rudimentary but useful Complaw systems. 

At the same time, we have seen related technological developments in other areas, e.g. the widespread use of computers, the growth of the Internet, the proliferation of mobile devices, and the emergence of autonomous physical systems (such as self-driving cars and robots). 

The upshot of these developments is that Computational Law has the potential to bring about dramatic changes to our legal system. It can improve the services provided by lawyers. It can help lawmakers and regulators craft better rules and regulations. More broadly, it can bring legal tools to everyone in society, not just legal professionals, thereby increasing compliance and enhancing access to justice. 

In the United States, estimates are that more than 80% of the impoverished, and more than 50% of the middle class, lack access to legal services, according to findings from the Legal Services Corporation and cited in Access to Information, Technology, and Justice: A Critical Intersection. 

Even the legal needs of businesses can go unmet. Computational technologies hold great promise to automate the delivery of various legal services for this wide spectrum of recipients. For basic legal needs, access to legal services might come in the form of smartphones or other devices that are capable of providing users with an inventory of their legal rights and obligations, as well as providing insights and solutions to common legal problems. 

Better yet, AI and pattern matching technologies can help catalyze the development of proactive approaches to identify potential legal problems and prevent them from arising, or at least mitigate their risk.


- Complaw Won't Replace Human Legal Professionals

Complaw is not going to eliminate the need for human legal professionals in the foreseeable future. However, there are many areas where Complaw systems can do as well as or even better than humans. Moreover, the widespread use of Complaw can save legal professionals from routine activity and allow them to concentrate in areas where their unique, human skills can provide the greatest benefit.

As legal technologies advance, savvy lawyers will use them to augment their services. Innovative lawyers will embrace emerging technologies as a way to replace low value, repetitive tasks with increased efficiency, reduced costs, and greater value for their clients. 

By doing so, lawyers can also aim to play increasingly important roles as part of interdisciplinary teams that focus on solving some of society’s most “wicked problems.” One obvious area in which lawyers can begin to demonstrate this value is through updating laws, regulations, and governance frameworks for new technologies and our rapidly emerging digital society. 

Today’s sophisticated legal-services clients demand demonstrable efficiency, quality, and better outcomes. An increasing number of lawyers work strategically with allied professionals to improve processes, better manage projects, embrace data-driven methods, and leverage technology to improve legal services and systems. 

Basic technologies and AI are slowly making their way into the legal industry, from legal aid organizations and courts to large law firms, corporate legal departments, and governments. Recognizing the failure of the existing legal market to produce adequate access to legal services, jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom have loosened legal-services and lawyer regulation. 

Likewise, several U.S. states, including California, Utah, and Arizona, have undertaken regulatory reform efforts. 


Embracing Disruption

We risk squandering abundant opportunities to improve society with computational technologies if we fail to proactively create frameworks to embed ethics, regulation, and law into our processes by design and default. 

Law, regulation, and ethical principles must be front and center at every stage, from problem definition, design, data collection, and data cleaning, to training, deploying, monitoring, and maintaining products, platforms, and systems. 

In a fast-moving, digital world, law must exist closer to the action. Does a world in which “code is law” require law written in code? We shortchange our future when we fail to envision the possibilities. We must establish audacious goals and commit to overcoming the obstacles to achieve them. 

To move forward, technologists and lawyers must radically expand current notions of interdisciplinary collaboration. Lawyers must learn about technology, and technologists must learn about the law. They must work together to develop a shared vocabulary. 

Multidisciplinary teams with a shared commitment to law, regulation, and ethics can begin to proactively address today’s AI challenges, and advance our collaborative problem-solving capabilities to address tomorrow’s increasingly complex problems. Lawyers and technologists must work together to create a better future for everyone.

Technology has supercharged the ability of lawyers to conduct lightning-fast legal research; engage in e-discovery; bend time and space by communicating with clients, colleagues, and adversaries scattered throughout the world; and draft hundreds if not thousands of documents with a few key strokes. 

But just as technology has made lawyering easier, it has also made it easier to provide services that look a lot like lawyering. And the provision of legal services is becoming commodified: carried out by lawyers and nonlawyers alike in a way that is far less expensive than the traditional, “bespoke” model of lawyering.  The legal profession is in the midst of a disruption: a monumental, transformative shift in shape and focus that will change the practice of law forever. 



[More to come ...]



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