The University of Toronto’s Next Lawyer: A Computer Program Named Ross

From left to right, Andrew Arruda, Akash Venkat, Pargles Dall’oglio, Jimoh Ovbiagele, and Shuai Wang used IBM’s supercomputer Watson to develop an artificially intelligent legal researcher called Ross.Kevin van paassen

Over the next few years, there might be a new junior partner, called Ross, working at a Bay Street law firm. He’ll be doing the legal research on big cases, and the main partners are going to really like him: he’s calm, works faster than any other lawyer on Earth, and has a steel trap mind. He even won a TV quiz a few years ago.

This new partner is however bad company during the cocktails of the law firm. This is because it is a computer program.

Ross is the brainchild of a group of University of Toronto students with access to Watson, the artificially intelligent computer system developed by International Business Machines Corp. who made the headlines with his victory in the TV quiz. Danger! in 2011. Instead of feeding Watson a regime of general knowledge, they trained his powers over a body of Ontario corporate law rulings and statutes.

“Basically what we’ve built is the best legal researcher available,” says Ross co-founder Andrew Arruda, 25, a University of Saskatchewan law graduate and intern at Toronto law firm Azevedo & Nelson. “He’s able to do what it would take lawyers hours to do in seconds.”

The idea of ​​using artificial intelligence to transform the practice of law has received a lot of attention in recent years. Some US legal startups and researchers have used computer analysis of past business databases to predict future business outcomes. And specialized, artificially intelligent software can now “learn” by combing millions of emails to find the right information before high-stakes litigation.

Since the success of Danger!, IBM harnessed Watson’s ability to sift through billions of pages of data in seconds for use in other areas. Medical app deals with mountains of medical research for physicians helping cancer patients, even offering recommended treatments. LifeLearn Inc., a company based in Guelph, Ontario, has developed a similar app for veterinarians. In one experiment, Watson was used as a robot business manager, listening to a mock board meeting and offering recommendations on what to do. Efforts to bring Watson and so-called “cognitive computing” into the legal world, while underway, are not yet so advanced.

But Ross, and other similar efforts led by IBM, can help change that. This year, IBM offered 10 top universities – the U of T is the only one outside the United States – to remotely access its Watson system, using cloud computing. The U of T held a contest, selecting Ross as the winner to face teams from the other nine schools in New York in January.

The stake is $ 100,000 in seed capital and continued access to Watson. The five student teams at the University of Toronto participated in different legal claims for Watson: one, called Divorcesay, was an online app to help you separate from your spouse. Ross won, not only on his use of technology, but also on his business plan.

Here’s how Ross’s creators say it works: You ask him a legal question, and he spits out an answer, citing a legal case, providing relevant readings, and a percentage of how sure Ross is sure he’s right. If a new case that might be relevant to your question enters the database, Ross knows it immediately and alerts you on your smartphone, perhaps when you head to court.

“When we run out of time, we just say it’s Siri for lawyers,” said Jimoh Ovbiagele, 21, a software engineer for Team Ross, referring to Apple’s iPhone talking concierge program. He adds that “Watson is much smarter than Siri.”

Mr Ovbiagele, who is also a chief engineer at a technology consulting firm and has worked on predictive text technology and self-driving cars before, says the goal is not to replace lawyers, but to help them. to work better. He likens the concept to “centaur” chess tournaments, where human players are allowed to view chess computers on their movements. These so called “centaurs” tend to beat both computers and humans acting alone.

Rick Power, IBM’s Watson Business Leader for Canada, said IBM’s plan involving universities was to start building an “ecosystem” of developers familiar with Watson and finding new ways to use the software. technology.

Watson, which is physically the size of three pizza boxes, is available through IBM’s cloud computing system without the need to be physically present. And next year, Power said, the program that spawned Ross is slated to expand to 100 universities: “We think Watson is truly the dawn of an era of cognitive computing.

Daniel Katz, associate professor of law at Michigan State University and recognized expert on the emerging use of artificial intelligence in law, recently co-authored an article for the American Bar Association website which calls Watson “the most important technology ever for law,” and predicts that within a few years, first-year law students might have a version of Watson at their desks.

New technologies are already eroding the number of entry-level legal jobs where basic work like legal research and document review is done, Professor Katz said in an interview. And while young lawyers could be at risk, Professor Katz said they are also more likely to adopt new gadgets than their gray-haired senior partners: “The next 25 years in many fields is about augmented work. one way or another by technology. . “

Gordon K. Morehouse