Saturday 8 December 2012

Peter Thiel on Singularity and legal technology

Betabeat (just one of many tech blogs I follow regularly) had yesterday a interesting post on Peter Thiel’s (Stanford Law graduate, PayPal co-founder &c &c) presentation at the Legal Technology and Informatics course held at Stanford law for the first time this past autumn. Blake Winters has kindly written and published an essay on the presentation, on which these brief comments are based.

Personally I think all this talk about the Singularity is mostly just a distraction (and of course fodder for dystopic science fiction). Actually functioning general-purpose artificial intelligence is not simply just a matter of bytes and CPU cycles or even fully replicating the neural network of a human brain at some instant (because so much of human intelligence depends on neurogenesis and the formation and pruning of connections, processes which only a couple of decades ago were still thought to end by adulthood), and anyway it is so far in the horizon that it is impossible to use as a target. There is still a lot of work to be done in trying to make sense about the actual functioning of human cognition. (The discussion about free will and whether Libet’s experiments show that it doesn’t exist is a good example.) Even if the Singularity does arrive at some point, the interaction of humans and computers at that time will not be something we can easily imagine. (Just compare whatever you are using to read this with a completely character-based interface (your only choice thirty years ago). And I still fondly remember the sound of a good mechanical teleprinter...)

To date, AI has been most successful when trying to solve very difficult but still quite concrete problems with computational methods. My rule of thumb is that when AI starts being useful, it stops being called AI. (Hence I also prefer to talk about (intelligent) legal technology rather than legal AI.) There are many branches of computer science and other computational sciences which started out basic AI research, with language technology as just one good example.

But more importantly, as for the shorter timeframe, I totally agree with Thiel. Computers are much better than people at some tasks and legal technology has great potential for radically transforming the marketplace for legal services (for the better) in the near future. The work we do at Onomatics will hopefully a good example from the more technologically advanced end of the scale, but our domain (trademark law) is just a very small corner of the entire legal system.

All this just reminds me that I should finally get around to writing two blog posts I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, one titled “Why do computers make better lawyers than people” and the other – of course – “Why do people make better lawyers than computers”. Real Soon Now!

Further reading:

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