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Monday, December 9, 2019

The Next Sci-fi Plot?

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I have a habit of sitting in class, and connecting the laws I learn to weave a story, a fantastic legal thriller. Perry Mason and John Grisham have fed in too much imagination. I remember sitting in the Contracts class in my second semester in law school listening to the lecture. Our subject of discussion that day was s. 10 of the Indian Contract Act which talks about the validity of a contract or an agreement. Our professor casually threw at us a statement- what if in the future intelligent computers make contracts? Will the same validity criteria hold good then, too?

Of all that he said that day, my mind took fancy to this single statement. A simple, amusing thought: fast forward into the future and see through the lens, to observe two computers placed royally in a five-star meeting hall negotiating and entering into a contract for their respective parties. Good plot for a sci-fi novel, with a villain and a few twists and turns?

Jargon like AI, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, and over-exaggerated threats of an army of computers taking control and wreaking havoc on humans, are all very popular. But how many of us actually know what they mean? I did not, though I was well aware of all the jargon in use. To further explore and understand if this is even possible, I did a small introductory course on AI.

AI can be broken into two parts Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) and Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). While there has been tons of progress in ANI, with all the self-driving cars, speech recognition, visual inspection devices, spam filtering applications, etc., there has been next to no progress in AGI.

So, here’s an imperfect rule I learnt during my most basic quest to understand these terms: anything, any job that we do under a second of thought, is automated or will soon be automated. So, where there is a series of tasks one after another which takes an hour to complete, where each task only requires a second of our thought, it can be automated to be efficient in time, resources and produce an almost-error free result. For example, in speech recognition, though translation of a 15 minute podcast may take us sometime, every word we hear takes us less than a fraction of a second to be understood and written. So, it has been successfully automated considering other factors such as language, accent, etc.

Now, connecting these aspects to law, we need to ponder on two important things.

- What can technology do and what can’t it do in the legal field?
- What proportion of the lawyer’s roles does it take over?

Most clerical jobs such as calculation of stamp duties, searching of case laws, etc. has already been automated and there are a numerous menial tasks through the day of a lawyer that can be further automated.

But can two computers make a contract? The general clauses that exist in a format in every deed of a particular type may be automated, but the negotiation of clauses cannot be done under a second of human thought. Also, there are several unknown extraneous situations that come up between the two parties. And, since there is no progress in AGI, it may be next to impossible for computers to gauge such aspects as of now or in the near future.

But, in a hypothetical situation, if the computers were able to make contracts in representation of their human parties, what would be the criteria of a valid contract? Seems like a question that I’ve thought real less about, as I set around understanding if that is even possible. I can at least say that I do know what the terms mean and their most basic logic. But some good food for thought, isn’t it?

Endnote: I think it would be an interesting sci-fi plot. Should I unleash the imaginative writer in me and give the world its next bestseller?

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