Roman Bevzenko: 'How I Defeated the Robot Lawyer'

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The majority of my colleagues agree that the most spectacular event of the VIII Saint-Petersburg International Legal Forum was the one where the Russian telecommunication company Megafon presented its legal robot. Not only did the robot appear in front of the public, but also represented one of the disputing parties in a mock case.

Megafon had approached me beforehand with a proposal to confront the robot by representing the other party in dispute. I delightfully accepted the idea without any hesitation.

On the one hand, as I was told, it was the first time ever a human being opposed a robot in a mock dispute. The prospects of being a Neil Armstrong among lawyers certainly stimulated me to take part in the game.

On the other hand, frankly, I was slightly nervous about the result of the mock trial. The capabilities of a robot are more advanced than those of a human being. In comparison to robots, humans process and retain insignificant amount of information. Briefly, in such legal battles a human being is a priori in a less favourable position.

Nevertheless, I readily engaged in a fight. I have to admit that the colleagues from Megafon were completely sincere with me. We have agreed that I would not see the robot until the D-Day. The robot though was pretty familiar with me. In addition to various legal texts and judicial decisions, it was filled with numerous scholarly works, including my recent book called “A Land Plot with Structures on It: Introduction to the Russian Real Estate Law”.

A few words about how it works. The legal robot is a chat-bot which operates on the basis of neural network. In my understanding, it functions the following way: the neural network identifies key words in the downloaded information and analyses how frequently they are put together. The more collocations such words form, the more relative importance they have. Thus, while answering questions, the neural networks produce texts on the basis of such collocations. Tellingly, the neural network constantly learns to produce comprehensible texts, i.e. the more the robot engages in discussions and fills with information, the cleverer it becomes. Therefore, as time goes by, the answers of the robot are becoming more and more accurate.

Coming back to the mock dispute. It touched upon the following:

“The parties entered into the land lease agreement. They agreed that the leased land plot shall be used for commercial purposes of the lessee. The lessee is the trade company. A year later, the lessee started the construction of a shopping mall which corresponds to all indicia of a permanent structure. The lessee filed an application to the Land Registry with a request to register a legal title on the permanent structure. (Unlike the most Western European jurisdictions the Russian law of real estate treats a house as a separate and independent property (immoveable thing) rather than a part of the land plot) 

The title was duly registered within the registry. The lessor discovers the fact and files a claim against the lessee in order to declare the title null and void.”

After the coin toss, I was to represent the lessor (thank goodness for this, defending the lessee would be a lot more difficult!), the robot – the lessee. Thus, I had to defend the idea that in the case at hand the so-called “horizontal division” (the legal division of one object [the plot and constructions on it] into two objects) is impossible.

The idea is very simple: in order to effectuate the “horizontal division” under the Russian law, the applicant filing to the Land Registry shall either be the owner of the land or hold it on the special building right (the right of superficies; in Russia we call it “the building lease”). Otherwise, Paragraph 2 of Article 263 of the Russian Civil Code stating that, as a rule, every and all constructions on a land plot are owned by the owner of the plot is applicable.

At first, the robot was unpersuasive – its (or in a futuristic manner – her; the robot was speaking in a female voice) opening statement and answers to questions were far from accurate. Once the robot cited my book, which in fact endorsed my position, not her. Generally speaking, the chat-bot bombarded the audience with unintelligible quotes from legislation and judicial practice. A friend of mine, very wittily, noted that the robot resembled the judges from the civil law panel of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, who also enjoy using excessive quotations from the Russian legislation in their judgements.

During the rebuttal, however, unexpected twist happened – the robot finally demonstrated the art of legal reasoning! The robot analyzed my arguments (I said that the agreement that the parties concluded did not permit the horizontal division into two separate immoveable things (the plot and the building) in the favor of the lessee, because it was not specified as the building lease as a matter of conract) and rebutted it in the following manner. The robot introduced such an argument: the construction is a type of commercial activities; given that the lease contract allows the lessee to perform the commercial activities on the land plot, the contract should be interpreted as allowing construction!

(Prof. Sergey Sarbash, the justice judge of the former Supreme Arbitrazh (Commercial) Court of the Russian Federation, now Professor at the Russian Research Center of Private Law, who watched the battle, later told me that this moment really frightened him. The baby robot made its first step. No matter how tiny it was, it has serious implications for the future development of robots!)

There, I decided to throw a knockout punch. Article 431 of the Russian Civil Code states that the courts shall interpret a contract in accordance with the literal meaning of the words that were used by the parties. Therefore, the interpretation allowing construction on the plot without an express provision in the contract is totally impermissible.

After thorough deliberations, the judges declared me the winner of the battle. They had 10 evaluation criteria with 10 points per criterion. Totally, I gained 243 points and the robot – 178. To my mind, this is an excellent result, given that the robot had been trained for less than two months. Everyone seemed joyful. The representatives of Megafon were on the seventh heaven because the first performance of the robot went more than successfully. I felt glad too because, at least for now, I have saved lawyers from the extinction. The audience was also enthusiastic, as the show ran splendidly!

So, let me take this opportunity to congratulate everyone… on the beginning of the end of human monopoly in jurisprudence.

I am more than certain that in 50 years robots stuffed with all existing legal knowledge will replace 80-90% of the lawyers, who draft contracts, advise clients and prepare procedural documents in courts. There is no doubt that artificial intelligence is capable of resolving the vast majority of disputes. The lawyers tend to argue that robots would never master the notions of reasonableness and good faith. The IT-specialists, however, assured me that it was just a matter of big data. The neural network, which contains thousands of documents analyzing the concept of good faith, can easily determine whether a certain behavior is good faith or bad faith one.

The only thing that robots cannot do (as Associate Prof. of Lomonosov University Law School Andrey Shirvindt accurately noted) is inventing something new that is not based on a previously existing knowledge. For example, it is highly unlikely that a robot can develop the concepts of an abstract real contract or the new limited property right. Or establish a new criminal offence. This will be done by lawyers only (most likely, professors of law), who will supervise the legal chat-bots.

Until the first robot-professor appears…

The video is here, it is in Russian (maybe the subtitle translation function which is built in YouTube will be helpful), so everyone can catch the atmosphere of the event.

PS. Special thanks to Ksenia Koroteeva for her assistance 

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