The first ‘robot lawyer’ makes its case
Joshua Browder explains how chatbots are redefining the practice of law
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Joshua Browder, the creator of the DoNotPay chatbot. DoNotPay helps you address common legal issues, whether it’s fighting parking tickets, landlord disputes or getting compensation for delayed flights. The Stanford student shared with me his journey to creating this chatbot.
Bob: I understand that your initial aim was to contest your own parking tickets. What was the path that led you from being a legal buff to becoming a developer?
Joshua: As anyone who lives and has to drive around London knows, finding parking in the city is a huge bind. I started driving there when I turned 18, and I got all these parking tickets. In London, parking tickets are pretty expensive (£60–80), and I realized in many cases I could contest these tickets. It wasn’t long before my friends were asking for my help and rather than help each one individually, I decided to put my programming skills to work to create an app or website to help people challenge their parking tickets.
Bob: How long did it take to build your first version of the chatbot?
Joshua: It was my summer project between high school and college. It took about three months. Initially, I had my own keyword-based algorithm to classify what people say, but that wasn’t very powerful. I figured that I needed artificial intelligence (AI) but knew I didn’t have the resources to develop my own. So I looked to the natural language processing ability of IBM Watson and was amazed to see the 40 percent increase in response rate. All of a sudden there was a chatbot that was understanding what users were saying, and it was responding accurately. It was as if you were talking to a real person, but much more conversational.
Bob: Why did you choose chatbots as your chosen medium? Did you think it could be a webform at first?
Joshua: Initially I thought a webform would be great, but I realized that people could be inarticulate when it comes to filling out legal forms. For instance, a webform wouldn’t know which dropdown option to pick if asked. People have a million ways to describe legal issues, and a chatbot is excellent at translating what they are saying into a legally sound defense.
Bob: What help did you have in bringing your ideas to fruition?
Joshua: I contacted a lot of my programmer friends and asked them questions about how I should move forward. YouTube was also a big help because you can copy word-for-word what they are doing and I think that’s the best way to learn.
Bob: Are there other legal areas where you see chatbot technology providing impact and benefits?
Joshua: We will be applying this technology to 150 new disciplines in the legal field. I just started hiring people to help address this need.
Bob: What kinds of people will you be hiring?
Joshua: Paralegals. We have the platform already, so now we need individuals with the legal knowledge to address new areas. With Watson, I’ve built the technical infrastructure, so I need people that understand the legal profession. That’s why I think Watson is amazing because it abstracts the machine learning to a service in the cloud. It then leaves me free to concentrate on building solutions aimed at the legal industry and not having to develop the underlying natural language processing.
Bob: Why do you think chatbot technology stands out for users?
Joshua: No one downloads apps anymore, but chatbots can help people immediately with their issues, and they can describe them in their own words. There are great platforms for chat that we already have on our phones (and other devices) like Facebook Messenger, Twitter, and Slack, where you can access bots as you need them.
Bob: What other industries do you see where chatbots could be helpful?
Joshua: Medicine is a vast area, not just in the area of traditional illnesses but also for things like learning disabilities. Educational psychologists can use chat interfaces to diagnose ADHD. One word of caution though: I’ve seen a lot of chatbots setup as just another marketing channel, asking a few questions and then prompting a sale. I think chatbots make more sense if they open up the possibility for new experiences. For instance, the police have been experimenting with using text-based chatbots, which can help people communicate in emergency situations when it could be impossible to speak (e.g. if you have an intruder in your house). That’s obviously incredibly useful.
Bob: Do you have other examples where chatbots are used for social good?
Joshua: I think software for social good is about ten years behind software for profit. I think it’s unfortunate because the technology is there, but in the past resources weren’t available for development. One advantage of chatbots is that there is typically a shorter, cheaper development cycle. For instance, a Facebook Messenger chatbot can work on any smartphone as well as on the web without the need for further development. This is different than app development, and organizations like UNICEF and the UN are looking to develop chatbots because of this ease of deployment.
I’m working to help refugees seeking asylum in the US, Canada, and the UK. The chatbot asks the user a series of questions, to determine which application the refugee needs to fill out and whether a refugee is eligible for asylum protection under international law. This was recently covered in The Guardian.
Bob: How do you see technology evolving beyond chatbots in the coming years?
Joshua: I think there will be so much more data from driverless cars and IoT devices that chatbots will be able to do things before they’re even given a command. For example, if someone gets into their car and starts speeding to the hospital the car itself can appeal the speeding ticket before you even know you’ve gotten it.
Bob: What advice would you give to others who want to use this technology to challenge the current status quo?
Joshua: I would say, go for it. It can be so intimidating creating technology. People think that only the Googles of the world can do it, but in reality, everyone has the power to create anything. Technology is the great equalizer. If you can create something useful people will use it, so just go for it!
Bob: What is your next project?
Joshua: Right now my focus is on scaling up for other use cases in the legal field. I wish I had time for more things!
About Bob Lord, IBM Chief Digital Officer
Bob Lord is the first ever, Chief Digital Officer of IBM. Charged with designing the IBM Corporation for the next 100 years, Bob and his Digital Business Group are leading a bold digital transformation agenda that puts developers and data scientists front and center as they lead a cognitive computing, or AI, revolution powered by Watson.
DoNotPay helps users contest parking tickets in an easy-to-use chat-like interface that can quickly drill down and give the appropriate advice without charging lawyer’s fees. The bot asks a series of questions like where the ticket was issued, were the signs easy to understand and a description of what happened. Within minutes, you are provided with a challenge letter to send to the local authorities.