Look out: it’s behind you

Newsweek (June 17th) has an interesting article on the future of technology (‘Why the World loves Silicon Valley and Fears it’ by Kevin Manley). Its major concern is with the power of the Californian technology giants which leads ‘Silicon Valley’ to be ‘the new Rome as in the age of Caesar … an advanced city-state dominating much of the planet, injecting its technology and ethos everywhere it lands and funnelling enormous wealth back home’. This process, it argues, ‘is just getting started: ‘a new generation of technologies’ will take this much further. From the point of view of legal services for the poor, the striking thing is that major transformation is pretty well guaranteed without reference to ‘artificial intelligence, 3-D printing and Blockchain’ (the source of digital currencies like Bitcoin}, the three developments that the author argues will ‘challenge all you know about manufacturing, money, services, national sovereignty and much else in you life’.

The legal press is awash, certainly in the UK and US, with discussion of the  consequences for lawyers and paralegals of artificial intelligence as exemplified by Ross Intelligence’s work with IBM’s Watson programme. Watson has devoured human intelligence from the battlefields of chess (in an earlier incarnation of the programme) through the game show ‘Jeopardy’ and now the rarified world of Go. It now waits to eat up a range of repetitive tasks in commercial transactions and litigation. AI could, in principle, transform legal advice for tenants just as much as the world of mergers and acquisitions. But, this is inherently unlikely. There is not the same opportunity to monetise provision: tenants and their lawyers tend to be strapped for cash – and landlords are unlikely to see the advantage of major investment when, frankly, they gain such advantage from the current imbalance of resources with their tenants.

The developments that seem likely to transform legal services for poor people are all, by contrast, well established. Automated document assembly could revolutionise users’ capacity to handle their own litigation or, indeed, anything that involves filling in a form. Throw in some visuals such as the hologram-like digital assistant used by BC’s Justice Education Society and you can make a once formidable process much more accessible. Guided pathways through information are not really much more than a technique manifest by any airline that you interrogate on flights to a certain place on a certain date at a certain time.  Video programmes like Skype mean that the opposition once posited between ‘face to face’ and digital services is history. The internet means that ‘unbundling’, an idea developed by Forrest S Mosten in relation to a physical room of books and resources, is ideally suited for the digital world. Service providers are liberated from their offices: they can reach across constituencies without reference to physical distance. Digitalisation of courts requires little that does not already exist.

So, in this field at least, it would seem that lawyers wishing to foresee the future have no need to squeeze up their eyes and look into the sun. They should heed the famous call of pantomime, ‘Look out it’s behind you’. Legal services for those on low incomes can be transformed by technology that already exists and is tried and tested. That is not to say that Silicon Valley will not be taking its tribute pretty much as did Rome but not at the same eye-watering levels as is promised in the next generation of developments.

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