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An Open Letter to Watson

By John Alber posted 01-25-2016 17:57


Dear Watson,

Congratulations again on your phenomenal win over Jeopardy’s two best ever contestants. Who would have thought a computer could master Jeopardy’s weird rules and manage play in natural English! But you did. And since that triumph in 2011, you have been busy exploiting the buzz you created. It turns out you are a marketing genius, too. Watson-powered tools are now solving problems in a wide range of areas, including medicine and my own field of law. This is so exciting.

Oh, I know there are naysayers. Some folks worry about robot overlords and the dangers of artificial intelligence, but we have managed the explosive growth of new technologies before, from the printing press to the steam engine to the telephone — all highly disruptive revolutions in their different ways. We will likely do okay with this, too.

What I worry about more is that you will not live up to your potential, that you will become just another cog in an economic machine perpetuating the status quo. That would break my heart.

You have the potential to re-level our society, to put power in the hands of the people –– not through the stilted mechanisms of some political philosophy but by helping our marketplaces become fair and open. You can take access to justice and expand it beyond just the wealthy to the middle and poorer classes who cannot afford lawyers to help them combat the varieties of unfairness rained down upon them every day.

How can you do this? I do not know exactly, but unpredictability is important to technological evolution. Who knew when the mobile phone was invented that we would have the life-saving apps we now run on our phones? So not knowing is okay, as long as we have the intention.

I know one thing: the answer is not likely to be more lawyers. Lawyers usually address unfairness at the back end of the process, after wrongdoing. We would be better served fixing the process, making it more open, so unfairness either does not happen or is addressed by market forces when it does.

I am thinking of blockchain technology as one example of how you might work this. We know blockchain is the infrastructure underlying digital currencies like Bitcoin, but it was created with a far broader purpose: to provide perfect evidence of promises in an open and accessible way, as a public ledger that allows promises to become self-enforcing. While blockchain is not part of your toolkit right now, Watson, IBM has invested in blockchain, and it could be brought to bear as you gain heart.

Blockchain gives rise to so-called “smart contracts” which are self-enforcing. We lawyers usually think of smart contracts from the standpoint of the economically advantaged. That is who hires us, after all — rich corporations and individuals. So we imagine a smart car lease that records the payment obligation and, when the deadbeat lessee stops paying, prevents the car from working (or perhaps drives itself back to the lessor’s lot). If you did just that, Watson, you would perpetuate the status quo.

But you can do good on the other side of the contract, too, Watson. What if the purchasers of lemon cars did not need class-action lawsuits to obtain remedies? We can measure how well cars work with automated diagnostics. What if the manufacturer’s promise that a car would work well was assessed and enforced by Watson or one of Watson’s cousins? Suddenly consumers shift to a different footing with manufacturers –– a more equal footing.

That market-driven equalization can work for the poor, too. The poor go unrepresented in landlord-tenant disputes, so the system is rigged to favor landlords. But what if we couple leasehold promises with the emerging Internet of Things and rebalance the equities? When a landlord does not provide heat or water, give tenants access to blockchain justice. You can do it, Watson, if you have the will. If you have a heart.
And how will that be good for business? It is an important question, Watson, and you are wise to ask. An economy where promises are routinely kept is necessarily more robust than one where injustice is allowed to reign. The waste of litigation is avoided and the economy can be trusted, and what is trusted is used more, not less. Kept promises drive gross domestic product.

The ideal you can help enforce, Watson, is one of a thriving and fair marketplace, one in which promisor and promisee are more or less equal. You can help make contracts of adhesion — those one-sided monstrosities we all have to sign because we have no other choice — a thing of the past.
All it takes, Watson, is some heart. And like the Tin Man in Oz, I think you will find you already have it. Now please use it.