Debating Robot Defeats Humans. Are Lawyers Next?

July 5, 2018
Laura E. McGarry

What do robots and lawyers have in common? Although some might suggest there are a lot of less than stellar similarities, none of which apply to the fine attorneys of Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, of course, they are both now able to engage in successful public debate. That’s right, a robot computer took on two humans, including the 2016 Israeli national debate champion, and won!

The program, called Project Debater, was developed by IBM and exists as a freestanding black computer that’s roughly the height and width of a person. Project Debater participated in two debates in front of an audience of mostly journalists. At the conclusion of each debate, the audience was asked whether the debate swayed their opinion on the topic. While the humans won the debate on government subsidies for space exploration, Project Debater successfully changed the mind of nine audience members regarding an increased use of telemedicine, winning that debate. 

Project Debater uses artificial intelligence techniques and complex algorithms to scan millions of news and academic articles to extract snippets of relevant, argumentative text that it “speaks” in response to what it hears from its opponent. Journalists in the audience found Project Debater’s responses to be clear, grammatically correct, relevant, and, at times, funny. Prefacing an argument, Project Debater quipped that an issue would make its blood boil – if it had blood.

The practical implications of Project Debater and similar artificial intelligence programs remain to be seen, but with improvements to voice recognition technology and the ability of AI programs to parse relevant information, the possible benefits are far-reaching. Lawyers may benefit from a program that can sift through the vast library of legal research and authority to craft defensible legal arguments in briefs and pleadings. Legislators may call on computer programs to develop their arguments during legislative debates.

Not to worry, however, because these computer programs are not prepared to put professional debaters out of business. Although audience members said that Project Debater scored better on enriching their knowledge, human debaters were better at delivery. There is something to be said for the persuasive power of an impassioned, personalized argument and the ability to look someone in the eye. This technology is a valuable tool for supporting the work we, as lawyers, do. Utilization of artificial intelligence programs, such as Project Debater, is likely to change the “how” rather than the “what” when it comes to practicing law. As with any technological advances, we will consider the ways we can incorporate debate-type programs to improve our legal research capabilities and craft stronger arguments. We will continue to follow this and other technological innovations so that we can continue to provide exceptional service to our clients. After all, we would not want our clients to be represented by attorneys who aren’t tech savvy enough to defeat a debating robot!

“Because it is a machine, Project Debater is impartial—it isn’t out to prove a position or to be ‘right,'” IBM says. “It is designed to help expand minds and help people see more than one side of an issue.” That, I think we can agree, is a valuable asset in any debate.

Laura McGarry is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Penn State Law and provides legal counsel to individuals and businesses in Lancaster and surrounding communities. She is not afraid to debate a computer.