How To Insult AI And Recognize Its Strength, All In One Breath

Will AI become the new public intellectual?

Noam Chomsky has reined for many years as one of the world’s top public intellectuals. This is an honor that Chomsky neither sought nor particularly values. But, it is an indication that at least some still value the power of broad thinking in an age of specialists.

What is a public intellectual? Opinions vary, of course, but I like Alice Gregory’s definition for its clean lines and nicely set jib:

A public intellectual is someone whose opinions help to set the moral and aesthetic standards of her time; she draws fault lines, explains the stakes of present-day conflicts, interrogates collective intuitions. But more specifically — and more strangely — a public intellectual is someone who articulates alliances between seemingly disparate cultural and political opinions.

For those who consider Chomsky too far left, there are right leaning individuals, including William Bennett, George Will, and Robert P. George. Science has made its contributions. Brian Greene and Steven Pinker make some lists, as does Lisa Randall (who grilled me about law during a plane ride from Boston to Chicago). On the lighter side, we have Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics team: Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt.

The information sea that threatens to drown us makes the role of pubic intellectual a challenging one. Marshall McLuhan famously once said “When you give people too much information, they resort to pattern recognition to structure the experience.” McLuhan was, of course, talking about what happens when people are overloaded with information. They stereotype instead of seeing great diversity.

Today, you might see McLuhan’s quote as an insult of artificial intelligence. AI is, after all, largely an exercise in pattern recognition and mimicry. It is a game for specialists. And in this game, the spoils go to the AI who recognizes patterns best (known in the trade as the highest “F-score”).

AI threatens everyone with its amazing ability to do one thing at a time and do it at a level no human can match. To become a public intellectual, AI will have to rise to a new level, far beyond what famous AI can give us (“Who is IBM’s Watson?”). We haven’t (yet) seen the rise of AI as a public intellectual. This intellectual AI will have to excel not in one domain, but many. It would help to have a bit of acerbic wit mixed in.

Such an AI would have to deal with the public skepticism of experts. Today, to be armed with facts puts you in a precarious position. Feelings rule over facts. What happens when we imbue silicon with feelings? Feelings (or feelings mimicry, for those who oppose AI anthropomorphising robots) raise deep questions for law and society.

An Infinite Regression: Law Schools and Public Intellectuals

Many outside the legal profession believe that lawyers, particularly academics, still qualify as public intellectuals. They have not kept touch with the profession. In the past 50 years, give or take, specialization has overtaken the us. There are, as always, exceptions (Martha Nussbaum), but the overwhelming majority of legal academics have retreated to live life in their silos.

As Alice Gregory explained, the public intellectual pulls together ideas from across many domains, compares and contrasts ideas, and presents what she finds in ways that inform the public. Again, acerbic wit is assumed. But lawyers lose this ability to see society as they go through the law school mill.

Law school specializes in what cognitive scientists call chunking. Law is broken into discrete packets. Each class covers its required packets and each law school delivers the same packets as other law schools (see Gillian Hadfield’s nice summary in Rules for a Flat World). The process builds technically proficient pre-specialists, not thinkers.

One recent study showed that scores on the LSAT have plummeted. This immediately ties to the idea that law students are less qualified, and that law schools will produce poorer quality lawyers. Assume for the moment that LSAT scores predict lawyer quality (a link never shown), what does this suggest for law schools?

Many law schools have responded by “teaching down.” They focus more on how to pass the bar exam and re-chunk the teaching of law into smaller and smaller bites. Law students are disappointed to learn law is far behind society, law school classes are uninteresting, and the connection between law school and life is tenuous. A self-reinforcing feedback loop forms pulling down undergraduate interest in the profession.

Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the firm that defines “white shoe,” acknowledged the downward spiral, at least implicitly, by surprising the legal industry with a recent move. The firm chose London’s Luminance to provide an AI tool for due diligence. Luminance is partly-owned (a small equity stake) by Slaughters and May, a long-time Cravath partner in M&A deals. Using an AI due diligence tool frees lawyers from some mundane tasks. It is a small step away from the technical specialist.

Oddly enough, law schools train lawyers to compete with AI. By focusing on chunks, training for the bar exam, and attempting to increase the technical competence of students, they teach students to do that which AI can do best: recognize patterns. At the same time, teaching students to do that which AI has trouble doing — the human things — decreases. Law schools are on a self-reinforcing path to eliminating lawyers.

Who Need Lawyers Who Are Public Intellectuals

The story here might be a non-story. Does the world need any public intellectuals who are lawyers? Maybe not. But the world needs lawyers who are not trained to compete with AI. They must know how to use AI (and how to use many other skills), but not to do what AI or individuals trained in those other skills can do better. They need the knowledge to leverage those tools and skills as part of a law practice.

The lawyers of the future need the skills that AI does not have. They need to use the training they could receive that sets them apart from those without the training and experience. The question isn’t whether others could get that training and experience, but who will get it and use it to benefit clients. Right now, we still need people trained and skilled in the art of law, and we call them lawyers.

AI should not be insulted and dismissed as merely a pattern recognition tool. It should be embraced as a tool that can free us from that which we aren’t good at and don’t want to do anyway. At the conclusion of the famous Jeopardy match with IBM’s Watson, Ken Jennings said, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” A more apt statement would have been, “we welcome our new computer partners.”


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About: Ken is a speaker and author on innovation, leadership, and on the future of people, process, and technology. On Medium, he is a “Top 50” author on innovation and leadership. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Facebook.