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Chief Justice Roberts weighs in on AI and the law

Technology for Lawyers

Published: January 19, 2024

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has thrown his opinion about the effect of AI on the law into the ring, and he’s pretty neutral about the whole thing.
"As 2023 draws to a close with breathless predictions about the future of Artificial Intelligence, some may wonder whether judges are about to become obsolete," Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his annual year-end report. "I am sure we are not — but equally confident that technological changes will continue to transform our work."
Chief Justice Roberts’ traditional, and rather cogent, year-end essay recognized both the helpful and unhelpful current manifestations of legal AI.
On the good side, he noted the basic function of chatbots-connected-to-large-language-models as basically a high-level and very rapid form of internet search, allowing people who can’t afford a lawyer almost instantaneous access to court rules and contacts, forms, and fundamental legal ideas.
These answers come, not in the form of links, but in iterative responses written on about an eighth-grade level.
“These tools have the welcome potential to smooth out any mismatch between available resources and urgent needs in our court system,” he wrote.
On the other hand, of course, are the things I write about—the breakdowns in the legal process that happen when lawyers try to force ChatGPT to be a lawyer itself. Like when lawyers submit nonexistent cases to a judge based on an AI hallucination.
Even Chief Justice Roberts knows this is “always a bad idea.”
The chief acknowledged that robots can’t replace the major players in the legal system. “Machines cannot fully replace key actors in court,” he wrote. “Judges, for example, measure the sincerity of a defendant’s allocution at sentencing. Nuance matters: Much can turn on a shaking hand, a quivering voice, a change of inflection, a bead of sweat, a moment’s hesitation, a fleeting break in eye contact. And most people still trust humans more than machines to perceive and draw the right inferences from these clues.”
There’s that—human contact. But there is also the fact that machines currently cannot “think like a lawyer.” (The last sentence is my thinking.)
Anyway, he thinks humans will be around for at least awhile. “I predict,” he wrote, “that human judges will be around for a while. But with equal confidence I predict that judicial work — particularly at the trial level — will be significantly affected by AI.”
Well OK. The chief has spoken. Those are words. We’ll see.