Why law might soon be outsourced to computers

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By Matthew Breen on

We’re at a stage where Amazon Echo is a witness in a murder trial

We’ve entered a new phase of technological advancement. We’ve got self-driving cars on the way, intuitive artificial intelligence (AI) being fine-tuned by the tech giants, and the first space flights being sold to billionaires.

In times where the Amazon Echo can act as a witness in a murder trial, it is becoming clear just how dynamic and flexible the legal system needs to be to adapt to such developments.

Even three years into my legal studies, I can’t help but to picture dusty textbooks, quills and inkwells at the mention of the term ‘law’. It always appeared to me that the expansive legal infrastructure seemed to be guided by a minority of elderly white men, lacking the expertise and objectivity required to assess the issues we face today (seriously, who could possibly think the Investigatory Powers Act was a good idea?).

But with such a rapid movement towards a digital society, it’s time for the law to follow. Jurisdiction is going to become increasingly harder to determine when there’s no borders. Instead of focusing time and money on resolving trivial disputes, the legal system needs to embrace a solution to automate such human-intensive tasks. That solution? Smart contracts.

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To understand exactly how a smart contract works, it is best to look at its precursor, Bitcoin. For those of you that have lived under a rock for the past decade, Bitcoin was the first (and most famous) iteration of a digital monetary system known as a cryptocurrency.

A cryptocurrency differs from a traditional (or fiat) currency in that it has no one person issuing it, and is instead created through complex mathematical processes.

Every transaction that occurs across the network can be seen by any user (which assures its security), as each one possesses an updated copy of the list of transactions as they occur. So if I were to attempt to pay two people with the same Bitcoin, it simply would not work, as everyone could already see that the coin had been paid to someone else first. This idea of a ‘public ledger’ (also known as the blockchain) whose security is maintained by a network of people makes it tamper-proof. To defraud the network, one would need to be in possession of the majority of computers running ledgers around the world, which is logistically infeasible.

Since Bitcoin, numerous other cryptocurrencies have emerged, each differing slightly from the other. One notable ‘second-generation’ cryptocurrency is Ethereum, developed in 2013 by Vitalik Buterin. Building on Bitcoin’s blockchain concept, Ethereum provides its users with the ability to program smart contracts in its virtual machine (the EVM, or Ethereum Virtual Machine).

Smart contracts are agreements which are described as ‘self-executing’. Let’s say I want to place a bet on the outcome of an Ultimate Frisbee game with you using such an agreement. We would script a contract that takes both of our funds into escrow, before determining the outcome of the game (from say, a website). It would then pay these funds out to the winner of the bet.

This is a very simple example, but the EVM is capable of much more complex programmes. Building on this, the possibilities to apply sophisticated smart contracts in the legal field are endless. I could script a contract that, upon my death, would redistribute my assets to people of my choosing. Business partners could integrate clauses that would dissolve the company should they come into play.

Of course, there are limits to what a computer can determine, and undoubtedly in certain scenarios a mediator will be necessary (although an arbitrator can be included in the contract). That said, widespread use of smart contracts for simple contracts would remove the need for a third-party to verify, uphold or assess the agreement, all thanks to the magic of automation.

We must remember that this sort of technology is still in its infancy, and will require some improvements before it can wipe out lawyers entirely. With the introduction of more powerful AI, however, the smart contract can only grow in efficiency. Combine such technological advances with the likes of Lawbot X, and it looks like a future where the law is outsourced to computers is a lot closer than one might think.

Matthew Breen is a final year law student at the University of Dundee, aiming to pursue a career exploring the relationship between the law and the digital realm.

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