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Law for the Singularity.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | February 20, 2011

No. 583

So, Obama made Steve Jobs get up from his sick bed and come to dinner with a group of CEOs of companies like Facebook, Google — you get the gist.  And what was the point?

Change was the point.  The world of technology is changing so rapidly now that by the time we the ordinary mortals figure out where we are the world has already rocketed far beyond.  The only way to get a rough idea of exactly where we might be (and more importantly, where we are going) at any given moment is to be in touch with those on that “cutting edge.”  Thus, the dinner.

It has long been a cherished political article of faith that leaders had a choice between maintaining the status quo, which was static, and “change”. Obama himself preached a version that gospel. But, of course, it isn’t true and we all know it.  The engines of change are now moving so rapidly without being directed by Presidents or legislatures that the fact is manifest to all.

Perhaps you watched Jeopardy! this past week, where Watson, an IBM Supercomputer that had been programmed to play that game, easily beat the two greatest human champions.  In order to make this achievement possible, Watson had to be able to master the nuances contained in natural speech, including clever word-play and double-entendre, the meat and potatoes of Jeopardy! answers and categories. In order to ask the right Jeopardy! question, a contestant must figure out the relationship between the category and the answer. Watson passed the test, aced it, in fact. So what’s next?

What’s next, indeed.  The developers of Watson see him as quickly becoming an expert’s expert in fields such as medical science.  It only requires a little imagination to foresee the day when artificial intelligence will surpass every benchmark set by the human brain and keep going. When will this epochal event occur?

Believe it or not, some of us may live to see that day.  Its called the Singularity, perhaps the greatest event in human history since the invention of human speech. And some of those who have spent a career studying this phenomenon, such as Ray Kurzweil, say that the Singularity is likely to occur on or about AD 2045.

Meanwhile, how is the law keeping up with all this change?  Not very well.  The law moves slowly, even at a glacial pace.  How quickly issues resolve depends to a great extent on what facts show up in what court.  It may take a century before clear answers emerge to even the most obvious questions.  And in the case of the Singularity, we don’t have even a half-century before the world is turned on its head. Meanwhile, the ever-expanding body of law has already become so unwieldy and complex that no human can pack it all into a single cerebral cortex.

The solution is before our eyes this week.  IBM should begin development of a brother to Watson that specializes in the law.  Perhaps we’ll call him Marshall, after the Chief Justice who was instrumental in molding the course of American Law.  Marshall would be programed with the facts and holdings of every case ever decided in American law and then with a complex series of algorithms designed to apply principles of law with great skill.  However, as facts changed and trends developed, the holdings would change.  Eventually, Marshall would decide cases.  Lawyers would submit briefs and Marshall would consider the arguments carefully, weighing precedent — all precedent — before creating an unbiased, completely logical and totally up-to-the-nanosecond decision.  Marshall could even delay decisions until other cases had been briefed and argued, so that a group of cases presenting similar questions could be decided together.

Fairly soon, of course, the members of the bar would be acquiring computers capable of communicating better with Marshall, perhaps predicting the relative probability of each outcome and thus settling cases before submission.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I will be 98 in 2045 and dealing with Marshall and other legal supercomputers will probably be somebody else’s problem.  I say probably, because Kurzweil says that the genetic problems that cause us to get old, sick and die are well on their way to resolution and by 2045 death will be a matter of choice.

Excuse me if I express a bit of knowing skepticism on that point.  The law cannot ultimately defeat progress. But it can delay it for decades in litigation.  Long enough, anyway, to assure that the prospect of earthly immortality eludes this generation of lawyers.  In other words, ours may be the generation of lawyers to commit suicide in court.


CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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