Guest post: Law, chess and technology: lessons on the future

“I was the first knowledge worker whose job was threatened by a machine.” Garry Kasparov, former chess world champion

Macfarlanes’ legal technology and innovation manager, Oliver Jeffcott, reflects on the experiences of technology challenging human achievement in chess, and the lessons going forward for the legal sector.

As anyone following Tesla’s mission to deliver fully self-driving cars will know, it’s harder than expected to remove human input from complex tasks. Yet reports of computers taking human jobs are still frequent. This is particularly true in law, where articles are regularly published proclaiming that robots will be replacing fee earners. Whilst this may be unsettling for many in the legal profession, the truth is that progress errs towards evolution rather than revolution. The New York Times was writing about “Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software” in 2011, yet since then the number of solicitors on the roll in England and Wales has increased from 161,815 to 212,218. A more effective way to predict the future of law is by looking at the impact of technology on other areas.

The world of chess is an early example of human achievement being challenged by technology. After becoming the youngest world champion in 1985, aged 22, Garry Kasparov said “No computer will ever beat me”. Although he was to remain a dominant force in chess for the next two decades, these words would haunt him after he lost to IBM’s computer “Deep Blue” in 1997. Since then, the strongest algorithms have consistently beaten the world’s best chess players. In retrospect, chess was an obvious target for technology, given the rules-based environment and the importance of pattern recognition and computation; two skills where machines are particularly adept.

Despite the advantages a computer has over a human in chess, the advent of “Freestyle” chess in 1998 gave a twist to the story. These competitions allowed teams of humans, computers and “centaurs” (hybrid teams of humans and computers) to compete. This brought together a formidable field of talent, from teams of grandmasters to the most advanced chess supercomputers. A dominant force in these tournaments was a team of three amateur chess players, led by Anson Williams, controlling several computers. They prevailed through harnessing their computers’ superhuman pattern-recognition skills and blending this with their own creativity and tactical knowledge (a skill where computers are notably weaker). They also had an advantage over chess grandmasters who were resistant to deferring to machines regarding an optimal move.

The ability to spot patterns is not only valuable in chess; it is also one of the key ingredients that makes a seasoned lawyer more valuable. In the same way that Kasparov can “see a move, a combination, almost instantly,” an experienced lawyer will quickly determine whether a complex transaction will pass through a web of regulations. As data sets improve and technology matures, algorithms will advance which can outperform humans at predicting outcomes in some legal matters. Junior lawyers will greatly benefit from leveraging knowledge that would have traditionally required years of experience to attain. Through focusing on tactics, empathy and creativity they could, like the centaur chess teams, deliver better results than can be achieved through either experience or algorithm alone.

At present, there is undeniable value in having fee earners with deep expertise in a particular segment of a practice area. This may diminish if technology can give what would previously only come from specialist experience. In general terms, movement away from specialisation would be positive. Lord Sumption, in his speech “Family law at a distance,” recognised that specialisation “encourages a view of one’s subject which is too self-contained.” In contrast, a broader practice allows a better understanding of fundamental legal principles.

Kasparov now acknowledges that “Today the free chess app on your mobile phone is stronger than me.” He has also jokingly referred to himself as the first knowledge worker whose job was threatened by a machine. On that basis, chess may seem a strange example to illustrate that computers will not be replacing lawyers. However, teaching a computer to defeat humans at chess is far simpler than providing bespoke legal advice, yet it has proven to be a considerable challenge. Machines will not replace lawyers any time soon, although they may help them to achieve greatness.

Oliver is responsible for the day-to-day management of operations and projects for Macfarlanes lawtech practice.