Artificial intelligence is elusive stuff. For the past 30 years, we have generally defined AI as one step up the smartness scale from the most difficult task capable of being performed by computers. Every time a computer reaches a new level – diagnosing disease, beating a grand champion at chess or winning the TV game show Jeopardy! – we define the accomplishment as ‘not really intelligence’ and set a tougher test.

In her timely and up-to-date survey of AI in law, Joanna Goodman (the Gazette’s regular technology columnist) sweeps away the semantics. AI is defined as a machine that is capable of learning and communicating in natural language.

This is important, because by this standard, AI is here now. And going to work in law firms. In the second half of 2016, hardly a week went by without some firm, academic or start-up announcing an innovation. Anyone inclined to dismiss this entirely as hype should read Robots in Law. In 150-odd pages we get a clear round-up of what is happening plus (perhaps more interestingly) some predictions from the best human brains in the business about what it all means.


Author: Joanna Goodman

£75.46, ARK Group

At the other end of the scale, the book would be useful to wave at anyone spouting off about robots rendering the entire legal profession obsolete in five or 10 years. Goodman’s prediction is that AI will not replace lawyers, or change the basic premise of what lawyers do, but create shifts in the value chain, ‘and therefore change the legal business model in terms of legal services procurement, billing – and margins’.

In the process, it will open up new career opportunities – legal engineer, anyone? – but pose immense cultural challenges.

At the moment, it is true, AI has generally been deployed as a rules-based system, working towards a defined outcome. A purist might not define that as particularly ‘intelligent’ – but neither is much quotidian legal work. And just this month, AI triumphed in its severest test yet – beating human champion poker players in a £1.2m game of no-limits Texas hold ’em. Perhaps in law humans will continue to exercise a monopoly in out-guessing opponents and knowing when to under- or over-bid based on incomplete information – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor