by Erik Adams
In April several news sources reported that the law firm of Baker Hostetler had hired a legal robot called ROSS. This artificial intelligence system, built on IBM’s famous Watson system, automates legal tasks like research and the preparation of legal memorandums in the narrow domain of bankruptcy law. Since then, other big law firms have joined the rush. ROSS Intelligence markets its product as a kind of artificial intelligent assistant: ask it questions in plain language, and legal research is presented. It sounds a lot like Siri, except instead of asking for baseball scores one can ask for relevant case law.Two recent articles reminded me of ROSS. The first is Nancy Talley’s article “Imagining the Use of Intelligent Agents and Artificial Intelligence in Academic Libraries” in the Summer 2016 issue of Law Library Journal. The other was David Perla’s controversial opinion piece “A Challenge For The Gatekeepers,” which appeared on the web site Above the Law last August.
Tally’s article looks briefly at the current state of artificial intelligence and wonders how intelligent agents could be used for reference, information literacy instruction, and circulation services in an academic law library. She points out that “…a small percentage of reference questions actually require librarian assistance.” One imagines that simpler reference questions could be handled by a sufficiently well informed program that knows where the reporters can be found or how to find law review articles online, while more complex work would be handled by a librarian. Tally imagines a collaboration between librarian and intelligent agent, where the agent searches obvious online sources to answer a patron’s question (a government web site, Westlaw and Lexis), while the librarian reserves for themselves the more educational role, should those methods fail. Overall, it is a nice picture, and one that reserves a vital role for librarians: agents are OK for some stuff, but there will still be a need for a human touch.
David Perla’s editorial has a very different message for librarians. It bluntly states that librarians need to “be one of those who embraces [change], champions it, and reaps the rewards from it … [because] those who don’t are going to get left in the past.” A lot has already been written about his comments (I particularly like Jean O’Grady’s and Greg Lambert’s responses.). Ignoring the more controversial aspects of Perla’s column, he raises an important point: if librarians are going to position themselves as the caretakers of legal information and keep their role as educators, they have to involve themselves in the tools that are being marketed and keep on top of new technologies.
Perla’s comments, Tally’s article, and products like ROSS form a compelling trio: artificial intelligence is being marketed to law libraries now. And librarians need to start thinking about how artificial intelligence can be integrated into their processes. If librarians don’t start making these plans now and injecting themselves into the decision making process, those decisions will happen without librarian input.