Early-generation Artificial Intelligence is already in the legal space—Bill Gates’ vision for the Microsoft Personal Agent just takes it one step further.

LegalTech New York is the bellwether conference for the legal industry. One gets a great sense of “what’s to come” by walking the floor, checking out the new technologies and talking to the many industry leaders who attend the conference. If there was one overarching theme of the 2015 conference, it was analytics. The “CoffeeAnalytics” and “DietAnalytics” booths gave me pause, but what really caught my attention was the number of technology companies offering analytics based on “machine learning” and “cognitive learning” concepts. These are basic forms of computer-based intelligence (or early-generation Artificial Intelligence) already in the legal space. Which isn’t surprising, considering the fact that it will be 2020 in five short years, with 2025 now less than a decade away. It is only a matter of time before computer science advances the thinking machine.

Microsoft and Artificial Intelligence

Let’s start with what Bill Gates recently predicted about the future of computing. During a wide-ranging Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, when asked what personal computing will look like in 2045, Gates asserted that the next 30 years will be a time of rapid progress.

“Even in the next 10 years, problems like vision and speech understanding and translation [will improve to the point where they] will be very good. Mechanical robot tasks like picking fruit or moving a hospital patient will be solved.” Gates continued to explain that once computers/robots get to a level of capability where seeing and moving is easy for them, we will see them used extensively for other repeatable tasks.

Gates went on to highlight a Microsoft project known as the Personal Agent, which is being designed to help people manage their memory, attention and focus. Gates explained that the present notion of the user having to first find, then choose applications to solve their problems at the same time the application provider is telling you what is new or what you should do, “is just not the efficient model.” Gates’ vision is for the Microsoft Personal Agent to solve this problem, while working across all your devices and learning how best to serve you, as you live.

…learn how to best serve you as you live…

Any question now as to why Microsoft recently acquired Equivio? Microsoft will use the Equivio Predictive Analytics Support Vector Machine (SVM) technology (or future variant) to solve multiple classes of problems. The technology we use today for Predictive Coding may someday guide you to a coffee shop that suits your specific coffee bean preference, or it might recommend a nearby restaurant based on what the system has learned entices your palate.

Does Artificial Intelligence Pose a Threat to the Human Race?

In the same Reddit session, Gates was asked how much of an existential threat super intelligent machines pose to humans (cue up “The Matrix” or “Terminator” music now). This question has been at the forefront of several recent discussions among prominent futurists. For example, last month theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, told the Washington Post that Artificial Intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.”

Another comment on the potential demise of the human race emerged from the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics department’s Centennial Symposium in October. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk referred to AI as “summoning the demon.”

British inventor Clive Sinclair has said he thinks AI will doom mankind. “Once you start to make machines that are rivaling and surpassing humans with intelligence, it’s going to be very difficult for us to survive,” he told the BBC. “It’s just an inevitability.”

I’m not so sure. We’ve been here before…

Humanity and Technology: Balance is Key

Artificial Intelligence has been subject to much speculation, but think about how we’ve managed other powerful technologies, such as nuclear energy. Anti-nuclear doomsayers had said we would destroy the atmosphere, but now nuclear energy powers cities and mighty ships at sea. Yes, we have to be careful, but positioning the AI debate in terms of “humans vs. the machines” and “good vs. bad” misses the entire point. It’s not us versus them in a race for mastery of planet Earth. What’s more likely is humans will remain in charge and develop augmented capabilities as a result of technology. We do need to consider dystopian predictions of the future as we did for nuclear energy, but we humans are adept at finding ways to implement technology so it reaches its full potential while we maintain control. Balance is key.

Eric Horvitz, managing director of the Microsoft Research Redmond Lab, said the AI doomsday declarations about the threat to human life are overblown.

“There have been concerns about the long-term prospect that we lose control of certain kinds of intelligences,” Eric Horvitz said, according to the BBC. “I fundamentally don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that we will be very proactive in terms of how we field AI systems, and that in the end we’ll be able to get incredible benefits from machine intelligence in all realms of life, from science to education to economics to daily life.”

Perhaps the most interesting footnote was when Horvitz mentioned that “over a quarter of all attention and resources” at Microsoft Research are focused on AI. There is no doubt AI is coming soon to an app store near you…

Back to 2015: Artificial Intelligence in the Legal Industry

Predictive Analytics, based on machine learning concepts, is a basic form of Artificial Intelligence and is being adopted by the legal industry as quickly as a Judge departs to his chamber after pounding his gavel. When used during discovery by legal teams, the technology takes the humans’ decisions made on a subset of documents and applies those decisions to the remaining dataset. Technology companies, such as Microsoft, are advancing this type of Analytics, which will deliver better decision-making support in a fraction of the time (and costs) of a manual workflow.

Several machine learning systems are available today and more are sure to come. We know of emerging systems based on cognitive learning approaches that take this a step further. Is it possible IBM’s Watsonnot only offers medical diagnoses, but also applies its intellect to unravel and solve complex legal disputes? I don’t think IBM will be wheeling Watson into a courtroom anytime soon, but I do predict it will happen in our lifetime.

Computers are reliably consistent and Artificial Intelligence is indeed coming to the bar. It is no longer a matter of if, but how soon.Enhance your discovery workflows with Artificial Intelligence and be amazed with the results.