“But if computers can write journalism, why shouldn’t they be able to write briefs? “

September 11th, 2011

Larry Ribstein comments on a Times article about computers that can write articles:

The company’s (Narrative Science) software takes data, like that from sports statistics, company financial reports and housing starts and sales, and turns it into articles. * * *

The Big Ten Network, a joint venture of the Big Ten Conference and Fox Networks, began using the technology in the spring of 2010 for short recaps of baseball and softball games. * * *

The Narrative Science software can make inferences based on the historical data it collects and the sequence and outcomes of past games. To generate story “angles,” explains Mr. Hammond of Narrative Science, the software learns concepts for articles like “individual effort,” “team effort,” “come from behind,” “back and forth,” “season high,” “player’s streak” and “rankings for team.” Then the software decides what element is most important for that game, and it becomes the lead of the article, he said. The data also determines vocabulary selection. A lopsided score may well be termed a “rout” rather than a “win.” * * *

But wil computers replace humans?

The innovative work at Narrative Science raises the broader issue of whether such applications of artificial intelligence will mainly assist human workers or replace them. Technology is already undermining the economics of traditional journalism. Online advertising, while on the rise, has not offset the decline in print advertising. But will “robot journalists” replace flesh-and-blood journalists in newsrooms?


Larry opines:

Yesterday I wrote about computers predicting future court decisions.  I concluded, however, that lawyers will still have to create the law that is being predicted “by making arguments and human judgments.”

But if computers can write journalism, why shouldn’t they be able to write briefs?  Both types of writing have the sort of predictability that enables production by even primitive artificial intelligence.   You could even say this type of predictability is what makes for a “profession” that can be taught and learned in schools and through apprenticeship.  (Which suggests that computers won’t replace bloggers.)

So now defending lawyers from computers requires retreating further uphill to someplace computers can’t climb.  Computers can write briefs, but they can’t decide what issues need to be briefed or legal strategy.

Even so, as I concluded yesterday, “future lawyers will have to learn to work alongside computers.”  I speculate in my article, Practicing Theory, on the implications of this new world for legal education.  It certainly won’t involve training for the sort of “real life law practice” that present-day lawyers think is so important but that computers will soon render obsolete.

Larry notes that the types of partnerships that enabled this to happen in the journalism field likely won’t happen in the legal field.

The NYT story noted that Narrative Science resulted from a collaboration between the journalism and computer science schools at Northwestern. It would be nice if law schools explored similar collaborations.  Unfortunately, as I discuss in my article, they are saddled by regulation that doesn’t inhibit experimentation in other professions.

So while we may yet see productive partnerships between journalists and computer scientists, I wonder whether lawyers, stubbornly resisting the future, will simply find themselves on the cutting room floor (to borrow from another industry’s old technology).

Ahem. Get me a faculty position, and I’ll take it from there. At the moment, I have 15 interviews scheduled for the AALS.