Law, finance sectors divided over impact of AI

A recent study suggested that technology has already led to about 31,000 job cuts in the legal sector, and a further 39 per cent of jobs were at "high risk" of being made redundant by machines in the next two decades.
A recent study suggested that technology has already led to about 31,000 job cuts in the legal sector, and a further 39 per cent of jobs were at "high risk" of being made redundant by machines in the next two decades.PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: REUTERS

Some see it as tool that takes over mundane tasks; others see it as cause of future job loss

Artificial intelligence (AI) is shaking up the law and accounting sector, as companies embrace the use of increasingly smart machines to perform mundane tasks that have traditionally been the preserve of junior employees.

Many international legal and accounting firms have developed programs that can sift through regulatory registers, read and understand natural language and use these to categorise documents for better, faster and cheaper delivery of certain services.

Some see this as the next target for technological disruption, similar to what Uber did to the taxi industry, which may come at a cost of human jobs. But others have argued that there is a lot to gain from embracing the new approach in terms of saving time and money.

"AI is an indispensable tool for coping with the ever-growing amounts of data which lawyers have to handle in running complex matters," Mr Edward Chan, banking partner at London-based Linklaters law firm, told The Financial Times.

His firm has developed a software that can check thousands of client names for banks using regulatory registers in Britain and Europe overnight. "Previously, it would have taken a trained junior lawyer an average of 12 minutes to search a single customer name," he said.

European venture-capital firm Invoke Capital recently made a multimillion-dollar investment in Luminance, which is developing AI to automate the legal drudgery involved in corporate mergers and acquisitions, reported Bloomberg, which noted that the robot lawyer is just one of many aiming to replace overworked associate attorneys.

A recent Deloitte study suggested that technology has already contributed to a reduction of about 31,000 jobs in the legal sector, including roles such as legal secretaries, and a further 39 per cent of jobs were at "high risk" of being made redundant by machines in the next two decades.

Mr Moshe Vardi, a computer science professor at Rice University in Texas, was quoted as saying by the Financial Times: "We are approaching the time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task.

"Society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?"

But there are other voices that see AI as a beneficial tool to make their jobs easier. The United States Association of Chartered Certified Accountants noted that over the next two years, automation will alleviate many cumbersome processes, such as bookkeeping and transaction coding, enabling accountants to focus on advisory services and other higher-value work.

Mr Fabian Horton, founder and principal lawyer of Australian virtual law firm ConnectLaw, told a summit earlier this month that lawyers are looking to fill the time saved by AI: "What we see is, even though the technology is coming through, it's actually not giving us less to do, it's giving us different things to do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Law, finance sectors divided over impact of AI'. Print Edition | Subscribe