But only in the last few years has it featured as a regular news story. As intelligent machines have become mainstream, all kinds of media outlets serve up stories - some of them post-truth - about how robots will replace humans across a wide range of sectors: thanks to their superior speed and intelligence many current jobs will become obsolete.
It will happen fast - within the next generation, according to those seeking to grab our attention, leaving humans to find alternative employment, if they can. According to market research company Forrester, as soon as 2021, robots will eliminate 6% of all US jobs, while the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts a loss of 7 million jobs within four years.
Look further ahead and some predict that up to half of all current jobs will disappear by 2050, possibly sooner. This dystopian vision is notably striking in the legal sector, where AI systems are anticipated to become the masters of document drafting, leaving many young lawyers without a future. The science fiction writer Douglas Adams surmised that bad news travels faster than the speed of light, but one can’t argue that it sells. Multiple commentators have fallen over themselves to suggest AI would mercilessly cut lawyer numbers.
We’ve been here before, of course. Legal futurologist Richard Susskind has been predicting this for a generation or more, even if his original algorithmic rule-based programming approach, formulated in the 1980s, was long ago dismissed by many of the leading players in the AI community.
Today’s commentators are right in saying that the real winners in this Brave New AI World will be a new breed of legal technologists. In particular, the tech companies, such as IBM with its celebrated Watson, a question answering (QA) computing system which has become the most famous supercomputer in the world. In 2011, it won $1m first prize in the US game show Jeopardy, while its predecessor IBM system, Deep Blue, defeated world Chess champion Garry Kasparov, and more recently, a comparable system, Google AI, beat Lee Sedol, one of the world’s leading GO players. Inroads are now being made in the world of poker, where machine learning programs find it harder to draw inferences from historical data because human players obfuscate their bidding patterns.
In the world of business, law firms are starting to utilise multiple AI applications, including Watson, to enhance their legal search functions; allowing lawyers to deliver much faster and more comprehensive analysis of contracts and precedents. The beneficial applications of AI combine a spread of different technologies. Machine learning, underpinned by neural networks and powered by clusters of parallel computers gives us the ability to analyse vast datasets for patterns. Today’s AI is ever more capable in performing multiple complex, repetitive tasks analysing information much faster than humans ever could.
Whilst AI is set to become an important supplement to important existing technologies such as PCs and mobile phones,- AI in all its manifestations will remain a tool. It will not replace lawyers. Instead it will liberate them to spend more time on other work, which is less laborious and more creative or client focussed.
So what is the evidence as to how big law firms are embracing and using AI? The top five -magic circle - law firms, provide a good starting point. Linklaters was the first of their number to sign a deal with an AI service provider, UK-based RAVN. Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have entered separate partnerships with Canadian AI software provider, Kira Systems. Meanwhile, Slaughter and May is working with Luminance Technologies to test AI technology which will streamline the due diligence process. Finally, Allen & Overy has created a service to assist banks cope with complex regulations: MarginMatrix. This automates document drafting with the drafting time reduced from three hours to three minutes.
It might be reasonable to expect that such technological advances might provoke a reduction in lawyer headcount. But at the magic circle, this has not happened. Set against the background of these AI developments, the number of lawyers that they employ has either remained the same or increased slightly.
The best predictor of future size – the number of trainees that they take on each year - has, compared with five years ago, increased. The reality is that while they are busy exploring and implementing AI systems into their offering to clients, big commercial law firms are not cutting their headcount. If anything, the reverse is true: overall training contract numbers in the UK increased by 9% in 2016 from 5,000 to 5,450, according to the latest research.
So forget the scare stories. New machine learning techniques will present many exciting possibilities. Tomorrow’s lawyers will increasingly make use of AI as a diagnostic tool to make their output more efficient and more accurate. However fast and flexible AI becomes, it will remain a tool, not capable of delivering creative, independent judgment, utilising the distinctively human characteristics of wisdom and empathy. Wisdom is an extrapolative, non-deterministic and non-probabilistic process that cannot be achieved using our current approaches to AI.
Lawyers should however be excited and inspired by what the current generation of AI research can achieve. It will certainly save time and minimise laborious tasks. As they become increasingly invaluable over the the next twenty years, AI systems will help lawyers to perform their job in many different ways. But AI will only ever be a useful tool: it will remain our servant rather than becoming our master.