In 1963, an American attorney named Reed Lawlor published a prescient article in the journal of the American Bar Association. “In a few years,” he wrote, “lawyers will rely more and more on computers to perform many tasks for them. They will not rely on computers simply to do their bookkeeping, filing or other clerical tasks. They will also use them in their research and in the analysis and prediction of judicial decisions. In the latter tasks, they will make use of modern logic and the mathematical theory of probability, at least indirectly.”
I cannot locate any contemporaneous accounts of how this insight was received in US legal circles, but it’s easy to imagine how it must have gone down in the Inns of Court over here when the news about computers eventually reached these shores. “The sadness about the bar nowadays,” wrote John Mortimer QC in 2002, “is that the Rumpoles are dying out, to be replaced… by greyish figures who think that the art of advocacy has been replaced by computer technology.”
Now spool forward to October 2016 and to Gower Street, a stone’s throw from Gray’s Inn, where a group of computer scientists is huddled in a laboratory in University College London. They are tending a machine they have built that can do natural language processing and machine learning and, in that sense, might be said to be an example of artificial intelligence (AI).
The machine has an insatiable appetite for English text and so the researchers have fed it all the documents relating to 584 cases decided by the European court of human rights (ECHR) on alleged infringements of articles 3, 6 and 8 of the European convention on human rights. Having ingested and analysed this mountain of text, the machine has been asked to predict the judgment that it thinks the court would have reached in each case. In the end, it reached the same conclusion as the judges of the court did in 79% of the cases.
Given the complexity of the cases involved, this…