Watson, the computer battling it out with humans on the game show Jeopardy, is causing some nervous twitches among those of us casting a wary eye at the rise of machines.

For those not paying attention, Watson is considered one of the biggest advances in computer science since the field of study began some sixty years ago. It annihilated top Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter by more than $50,000, leveraging impressive artificial intelligence advancements in order to do so.

Those not familiar with computer science may not realize the true implications here.


For example, the other day, I heard a South Florida morning DJ say “of course Watson won. It’s a computer,” which resulted in me rolling my eyes so dramatically I nearly wrecked my car.

We’re not talking about a finite problem set like chess or mathematics. We’re talking about understanding a question, parsing natural language with irregular grammar, grasping context from clues, and coming up with an accurate answer.

Now, let’s discuss the Singularity.

An idea fostered by writer, engineer, and inventor Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity will occur when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence, and when that happens, hold on tight. Machines will be able to then create even more intelligent machines and leave humanity in the dust. We have no way of predicting what will happen once that occurs and we are no longer the most intelligent creatures on earth.

If this sounds like complete science fiction, keep in mind that some of the leading computer minds of our time buy into this, including Larry Page and Bill Gates.  A whole community of believers educates themselves at Singularity University, sponsored by Google and Nokia among others.

But, alas, do not get ready to become a pet for a computer overlord just yet. Though Kurzweil predicts that by 2045 a single machine will surpass the brainpower of all human brains combined, the Singularity may come later – or never at all. In any case, hopefully your law firm will be thriving by then, though you might want to think about how your waiting room should be reconfigured to accomodate sentient robots.

Getting back down to Earth, for a second, the tech involved in creating Watson could have some benefit for a law firms in the near term. Consider how the natural language processing, data mining, and relevance ranking employed by the new Jeopardy champ could be used in discovery. Or in tracking down case precedents. I shudder at the thought of even more e-discovery vendors at LegalTech but with killer AI, that’s a trend you just might see.

The National Law Journal recently hosted an essay by IBMer Robert Weber titled Why Watson Matters to Lawyers.  Weber argues:

Imagine a new kind of legal research system that can gather much of the information you need to do your job — a digital associate, if you will. With the technology underlying Watson, called Deep QA, you could have a vast, self-contained database loaded with all of the internal and external information related to your daily tasks, whether you’re preparing for litigation, protecting intellectual property, writing contracts or negotiating an acquisition. Pose a question and, in milliseconds, Deep QA can analyze hundreds of millions of pages of content and mine them for facts and conclusions — in about the time it takes to answer a question on a quiz show.

Certainly, the tech we’re seeing coming from Watson could benefit legal research immensely. The question is, how will all of that help you when robot judges enter the picture?