11:20:23 pm on
Sunday 14 Jul 2024

David Simmonds

I wanted to start this column with a few gravitational wave jokes. Yet, I’m afraid the whole subject is way above my pay grade. I don’t suppose you want to hear stories about how Al Einstein and I used to hang around the poolrooms, of Zurich together, as teenagers, trying to impress the girls with big expressions like ‘general theory of relativity.’ We’ll thus settle for a lawyer joke or two.

I used to practise law.

Until about 15 years ago, I used to practise as a lawyer, yes, I did and I never got it right. When I started out, typewriters, telephones and telexes were the main media. Then along came memory typewriters and faxes, then computers, e-mails, internets and intranets.

A lawyer fell behind if she or he didn’t reduce repetitive legal documents, precedents, to computer forms, from which you could quickly take client instructions and produce customized documents, such as wills. During the last fifteen years, outsourcing document creation to cheaper hands and by even more pervasive technology added to efficiency. All the while, I have imagined all of this to be generally a good thing, in that it would allow me, if I were still doing law, to concentrate on what required the most thought and judgment.

Now, I’ve read of AlphaGo and I’m not so sure. AlphaGo says to me that just over the hill, in the future, everything I did as a lawyer a machine will do; you say, “Tell me more, because so far it sounds like a good thing.”

AlphaGo is a Google ‘DeepMind’ project that aims to go a step further than the computer programs that have mastered chess and “Jeopardy.” It aims to crack Go, the ancient, but still popular, Chinese board game that presents a vast array of possible moves, ten times as many as in chess, turn after turn; there are zillions of possible moves. AlphaGo is an ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) computer designed to play Go by inputting an existing search technique and also by replicating human neural networks.

Can AlphaGo replace lawyers?

AlphaGo was trained intensively by its creators, such as Rocky Balboa, I guess, being shown some 30 million expert moves, but not the whole range of possibilities. It learned the game by playing against itself. When they trotted it out into the ring, a few weeks ago, it skunked Fan Hui, the European Go champion, putting it about 10 years ahead of its development schedule.

There’s a title bout lined up for 9 March 2016. It’s against the world Go champion, Lee Sedol. The AlphaGo creators are already downplaying expectations for their protégé. Call me sentimental, but I’m rooting for Mr. Sedol.

Regardless of which party wins, the writing is on the wall or, rather, in the computer. If a computer can teach itself Go to a championship level, maybe, no, make that surely, it can learn what I previously perceived as the residual high skill job of ascertaining client wishes, making recommendations and getting instructions. Where does that leave the lawyer; asking clients if they want cream and sugar in their coffee? No, I guess all you need is someone to clean and replenish the coffee maker; a robot should be able to do that. The few lawyers that are left will be stuck in some back room feeding information into machines. Go ahead and cue up your jokes about lawyers with suits and briefcases riding boxcars.

What if the soon to be out of work lawyer, rather petulantly, refuses to co-operate with the AI machine? Stephen Hawking, admittedly, not a lawyer, but a bright fellow nonetheless, had a take on this recently. He said, "A super intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.” In other words, I guess, lawyers had better learn to sleep with one eye open. Sorry, I mean, with the other eye open.

Perhaps, AlphaGo can devise its own hipster kids.

Then, again, perhaps there is a brighter side. After all, if a machine is intelligent enough to figure out how to replace a lawyer, it’s not that much of a further step to figure out that it’s all a waste of machine time and might as well be done by a human in the first place. The AI machine would sooner create and play endless new variations on the latest song and dance routine by Beyoncé or perhaps reproduce and program its own AI hipster kids; anything but churn out wills for Mr and Mrs Blenkinsop.

This should give rise to a whole crop of new lawyer jokes. Here’s an example. “What’s a lawyer? It’s an AI machine without intelligence or personality.


Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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