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AI Approaches the Professionals

by Yvonne von Jena | November 23, 2017


Recently Maclean’s published an article on the expected impact of AI entitled, Is Canada ready for the radical change artificial intelligence (AI) will unleash? It’s an interesting question, and the answer is one with “Orwellian scenarios” with AI much “closer than most people realize”.

Just how close are we?

In a study published this spring, Yale and Oxford political scientists surveyed hundreds of AI researchers on their estimates of how long it would take before machines could outperform humans doing tasks ranging from writing student term papers to handling retail sales and even performing surgery. The answers, though guesstimates, are sobering:

  • Truck drivers: a dozen years dozen
  • Retail clerks: 15 years
  • Surgeons: 40 years

The authors even asked the respondents to guess how long it would take before AI technology outperformed AI scientists (about 80 years).

What’s helping AI move forward?

According to Maclean’s, Canadian policy makers and tech investors say the stakes are considerable. More and more corporate leaders and government officials have come to view AI as a wealth-creating sector to which they want to hitch their economic development wagons:

  • Federal government: Ottawa recently changed federal visa rules to encourage more graduate students and tech workers to locate here.
  • Provincial governments: The Ontario Liberals are one such provincial government investing in AI. It spent much of the year aggressively courting tech giants that are heavily invested in AI’s present and its future.
  • Government, corporate and academic partnerships: One such example is the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Both governments, a host of corporate giants and the University of Toronto earlier this year invested $250 million to fund Vector, which has a mandate to back emerging AI entrepreneurs, generate jobs for AI graduate students and put Canada on the map as a global player in this brave new world.

Who’s next?

Tech investor Mike Serbinis, CEO of League, which is an online health benefits firm, and a Vector board member, adds that AI algorithms are already improving fraud detection and credit risk evaluation for insurance companies and financial institutions. “That’s the meat and potatoes, the low-hanging fruit,” he says. The machine-learning revolution is now starting to surface in fields like the law.

And how will it change the legal profession?

First, consider how machine learning is being applied in the legal profession. Maclean’s provides the example of Blue Jay Legal, which is a start-up established last year by University of Toronto law and computer science professors that offers a service based on an AI system trained to read and interpret legal decisions in tax law. When a client is looking to challenge a Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) decision about a complicated tax treatment, the firm’s software will provide a report on the likelihood that an appeal to federal tax courts will succeed or fail.

In a related Maclean’s article Big law is having its Uber moment, it points to a study earlier this year by accounting giant Deloitte predicted that, in the U.K. alone, more than 100,000 lower-rung legal jobs could be replaced by automated systems over the next two decades. 

Yet others point to opportunities and benefits for lawyers and consumers. Benjamin Alarie, a law professor at the University of Toronto, does not foresee a wave of lawyer layoffs coming down the pipe, although he concedes law firms will have no choice but to adapt. The changes (and benefits) he predicts are as follows:

  • More transparency: Tools that incorporate machine learning will allow the legal system to run more smoothly and deliver more transparent results for clients. If both sides know how a case is likely to be decided, the thinking goes, there will be an even greater incentive for them to settle out of court, saving everyone time and money.
  • More efficiencies: That, in turn, promises to free up judges to hear more cases where the law is less clear, which is arguably a better use of their talents.  
  • Lower prices: AI could also dramatically reduce the price of basic legal services since it will no longer take lawyers and their underlings days to research legal questions.
  • More jobs: “It will be a net job creator,” predicts Mr. Alarie, adding that many Canadians currently cannot afford to hire legal representation. “But it’s certainly going to be a job changer.”

In addition, players like Facebook and Elon Musk are working on having computers enter and/ or pull information straight from our brains, as noted in our blog entitled The Neural Network.  For now, this is all very ‘sci fi’. As per Yoshua Bengio, a University of Montreal computer scientist that co-founded Element AI, the way computers and humans interact “will change significantly in the coming years. But it’s not a solved problem.” Yet.


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