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Machine Learning, Lawyers and Folding Towels

Written by Garth Watson
on April 06, 2017

There are some things that humans are better at. And then there are things that machines are better at.

Examples of things humans are better at (and may always be better at) include:

  • using common sense to solve new problems
  • feeling emotions and showing empathy
  • creativity
  • relationships
  • sales.

See here and here for more on this.

Apparently, robots are really bad at folding towels and even a top robot will be beaten at this task by a normal eight year old child.

And then, of course, there are things that machines are much better at:

  • Memory
  • Searching through large volumes of information and retrieving useful results
  • Increasingly, driving cars
  • Increasingly applying principles and facts to solve complex problems
  • And many more.

Machine learning is a technology that is a bit of a buzzword in tech circles today and it is something that will benefit many knowledge workers whose work relies on a combination of robotic tasks and tasks that are more nuanced in nature, more human in nature if you will.

Machine learning is the subfield of computer science that gives "computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed." It is powerful because when machines learn, they don't forget and their knowledge and application of it tends towards perfection.

This is really useful when it comes to the practice of law, especially as access to cloud-based super-computing becomes a reality. The rise of #legaltech is a thing and one can quickly start to envisage the possibilities that machine learning can bring to certain parts of the legal arena.

There are parts of every lawyer's job (in-house or firm-based) which fall into two categories. There are things that lawyers do that lawyers are best at while there are other things that software is better at. We have already covered the fact that most regulatory law is not complicated, its just obscure and badly organised.

So, when one looks at regulatory and compliance law, which is an excellent use case for machine learning, the reality is that smart ways of organising regulatory law, combined with machine learning technology enable the reduction of the tasks that are robotic in nature from the to-do lists of lawyers who embrace the technology.

Machine learning is an empowering technology which should liberate many lawyers from doing work that is robotic in nature. By that I mean, repetitive tasks that can be easily programmed or easily learnt by even rudimentary machine learning algorithms. This will allow lawyers to focus on what they are best at and be truly empowered to do so.

Here's to the machines!