When are the computers going to take over?

Sunday , November 05, 2017 - 4:00 AM1 comment

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

One of the first law offices I worked in used carbon paper to make copies of the letters the secretary typed. The higher-tech portion of the office had a dot-matrix printer, complete with a box of perforated paper, making the same sound as a ratchet wrench when it printed.

In law school, we were taught research using something called West Key Numbers. These key numbers were a complex index of everything legal, and each published case started out with little keys with captions explaining relevant points in the case. Now, Google Scholar gives access to more information in a matter of minutes than I could have accessed in a whole day going up and down stairs and in out of book-lined aisles in the law school library.

In 30 years, the practice of law has been permanently and fundamentally altered by technology. Access to court records and judicial decisions is so immediate, anyone who cares to follow a case, high-profile or not, has access to the actual documents within minutes of them being filed. With one click, perusal of the 31-page indictment filed last week against Paul Manafort and Richard Gates is available. The cry of "fake news" and "media bias" rings hollow when the actual events in the court system are accessible to anyone with a PC or phone. (Money laundering, conspiracy against the United States, lying and acting as unregistered agents for a foreign country, in case you haven't had the time to read the indictment.)

But who has time to do that? I walked through the grocery store yesterday and watched everyone stumbling down the fluorescent aisles, held up by squeaky carts, gazing at the abundance that is the modern supermarket. Where is there time to contemplate the horrors of a world in which cars and trucks have become terrorist tools and bullets end lives at concerts?

Machines were supposed to make our lives easier, but it seems all they've done is speed up everything. Yes, carbon paper takes a lot more time than a word processor with spell check, but everyone was forced to work at the slower pace. Our human capabilities are limited by our ability to give our attention, senses, and most critically, our time, even if technology has the capacity to increase our productivity.

So when are the computers just going to take over? Let’s start with family game night. Chess’s top player succumbed to the computer 20 years ago, but the more complex game of Go was supposed to hold out until the mid-2020s. Go is a board game that has 10 to the 172nd power possible moves — significantly more than 10 to the 80th power — which, if you didn't know, comprises all the atoms in the known universe. Those two numbers are ridiculously high, and without mathematics, they would be wholly incomprehensible. The computer first defeated the human Go champion in March 2016, 10 years ahead of schedule.

In October, the developers of a computer program called AlphaGo Zero published a paper about the artificial intelligence program designed to learn Go from scratch. The new program ended up using about a 10th of the computer power of the program that originally defeated the world champion a little over a year ago. In 40 short days, AlphaGo Zero taught itself from scratch to play the game of Go better than any human player, and better than any previously developed computer program created by human beings.

The implications of this development are important for complex systems that run by set rules, like electrical grids, travel, traffic, and manufacturing. Imagine an artificial intelligence that could improve traffic by an order of magnitude over what we currently accomplish through our human and more traditional computational efforts. The scientists are thinking that within a decade, this type of artificial intelligence will be helping solve problems in science and medicine.

The law operates in many ways like a board game, with distinctive rules and traditions. Any practicing attorney will tell you the law is an imperfect game that draws arbitrary boundaries that don’t always lead to the most efficient and just system. The day when computers will an even more integral role in the design and operation of our justice system feels like just a mouse click away.

It's both exciting and a little scary.

Scientists are providing us with awesome technological powers. It will be our responsibility to implement them into our laws in a way that protects the most fundamental concepts of a just and fair society.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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