The Prius Effect: The Future of Legal Services May Be a Man-Machine Hybrid

Can machines out-think humans, today or maybe someday? And what impact could this eventuality have on professions such as the law? Will computers replace the lawyers and contract managers who currently create, negotiate, analyze and track contracts? Or does the complexity of these tasks require a mysterious human touch?

In a recent New York Times Sunday book review, Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, reviews “Smarter Than You Think”, a book by technology journalist Clive Thompson. If Thompson is right, the future may not favor man or machine. Rather, we’ll see a hybrid model emerge: the best of human and machine intelligence working together. Perhaps, we should call it the Prius Effect?

“Thompson’s point,” states Isaacson, “is that ‘artificial intelligence’ — defined as machines that can think on their own just like or better than humans — is not yet (and may never be) as powerful as ‘intelligence amplification,’ the symbiotic smarts that occur when human cognition is augmented by a close interaction with computers.”

One example Isaacson uses from the book is chess: “The year after his defeat by Deep Blue, Kasparov set out to see what would happen if he paired a machine and a human chess player in a collaboration. Like a centaur, the hybrid would have the strength of each of its components: the processing power of a large logic circuit and the intuition of a human brain’s wetware. The result: human-machine teams, even when they didn’t include the best grandmasters or most powerful computers, consistently beat teams composed solely of human grandmasters or superfast machines.”

It’s easy to see how this could play out in transactional legal services and contract management. A good lawyer is able to play with words to express subtle changes in meaning and thus solve delicate contract negotiations in ways machines won’t match any time soon. But lawyers are slow, and will never match the speed and consistency of an automated drafting wizard for routine and predictable transactions. In a hybrid model, the machine will pump out the best first draft, and the humans will work their word-smith magic on the complex deals that need it.

Contract analysis seems equally destined to be hybrid. Humans can read and understand documents and their meaning despite huge variations in how things might be expressed and despite the coffee stains and hand-scrawled notes that might grace the page. But human reading is slow. Machines, on the other hand, can grind through huge volumes of documents very quickly, and will do a decent job of basic analysis of the data that it can understand. But machines will make mistakes that humans won’t. In a hybrid model, the machine will help the people to work faster, and the people will ensure that the machines don’t make silly mistakes.

The hybrid model of legal services may not be as sensational as an uber-machine that wipes human lawyers off the face of the earth. But sometimes the future is a little dull. Like the Prius. A boring little car that’s a bit less smelly and a bit less noisy, and won’t leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere.

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