The third law of prediction from the late great Arthur C. Clarke, is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

If Sir Arthur were writing today I think he may have replaced ‘magic’ with ‘artificial intelligence’.

AI has become our modern sorcery.  It’s both our savior and our bogey-man. It will most likely show us how to be better human beings right before it destroys our worthless pathetic lives, because it’s a vindictive demon unleashed by godless computer scientists.

We define AI, like magic, as anything we don’t completely understand.

Is Google artificially intelligent? If not, why not?  You ask it questions, or just type in a few words, and it goes out and returns information from all over the world related to the question you asked or the words you entered.

“Well,” you say, “it’s a just complex algorithm running on really powerful servers, that takes into account the words I searched for and their prevalence on certain web pages, and then it returns those pages in order of decreasing popularity.  That’s not really intelligent.”

Most of us do not consider Google ‘artificially intelligent’ because we understand it.  Or more accurately, because we have a general heuristic to explain how it does what it does.

Watson winning Jeopardy?  OMG, it’s AI!  Oh, well actually, the computer was fed the clues in an electronic text format while the other contestants read/listened to them. Then it searched it’s massive data banks for relevant answers and gave a response. Kind of like the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on Google’s home page, if it provided answers in the form of a question. (What are ‘Pictures of Pamela Anderson?’) Incredible, amazing, but if you’re like me somehow less impressive when you know it wasn’t listening or optically reading the questions. Why? It doesn’t really diminish the accomplishment, but it also feels somehow less “intelligent”. I think the problem is that, like the Wizard of Oz, we’re a little less impressed once we glimpse the man behind the curtain.

As an alternative to Clarke’s law, let me submit: “the more you understand how a technology works, the less likely you are to think it is magic/AI.”

So when Altman Weil asked this question about AI, it’s no wonder they got the responses they did.

  • In 2011, a MAGIC computing system called Watson defeated two former Jeopardy! game show champions, demonstrating the power of MAGIC. Since then, Watson’s performance has improved by 2.4 BA-JILLION percent and the IBM MAGIC Group is reportedly working with a number of legal organizations on a variety of MAGICAL applications for the profession. Can you envision a law-focused MAGIC ‘Watson’ replacing any of the following timekeepers in your firm in the next 5 to 10 years?  

OK.  So, I may have changed a few of the words in the original question, but I guarantee that’s much closer to the way most respondents actually read the question.
Here’s the thing, the question is flawed on many levels, but primarily because none of the answers are correct.  It’s just as wrong to believe that any of these jobs will be specifically replaced by computers as it is to believe that they will never be replaced by computers. 
The correct answer is: AI will enhance, change, and restructure what it means to work in a law firm.  It will change the nature of the work that lawyers and staff do.  It may reduce the workload so that fewer individuals are needed, or it may make it possible for more individuals to do that much more work, but it is quite unlikely that people working in law firms in 5 or 10 years will be doing exactly what they do now.
Is that the same as being replaced by AI?  Is there no need for car mechanics, now that cars are all computerized?  Is Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center firing their doctors now that they’ve rolled out a version of Watson to do cancer diagnosis? Does IBM have plans to use their super-intelligence to phase out the engineers that built their super-intelligence?
It’s time to cut the hysteria surrounding artificial intelligence in law.  It’s not the all knowing super-intelligence that you think it is, but it is here now in many applications and platforms.  It’s not going away and it’s only going to get better over time. The only way that AI is going to replace your job is if you choose to think of it as magic that cannot possibly be understood, and consequently, you remain ignorant of it’s current capabilities and limitations.  
The best way to defend your job from the machines is to learn how they work and how to use them to do your job better.  And that is true whether you’re a paralegal, first year associate, partner, secretary, or technologist.
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Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is an executive at a small, but well-known legal technology company. Prior to his jump to the vendor side, he served for 3 years as Legal Technology Innovation Architect at Norton Rose Fulbright, running Technology Innovation projects around the world. His sense of humor and remarkable tolerance for verbal and psychological abuse has gotten him through more than 15 years in Legal Technology. In 2015, McClead was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, he was a Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, an “IT Guy”, a Fashion Merchandiser and Theater Composer.

  • Great article Ryan. Fear mongering is not a great way to bridge the digital divide. Fundamentally, legal technology has always been about enhancing and not necessarily consuming legal jobs. Displacement is the byproduct of failed business models.