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Abdi Aidid and Benjamin Alarie: AI is about to fundamentally transform our legal system—for the better

Commentary

As part of a paid partnership, this month The Hub will feature excerpts from this year’s five shortlisted books for the Donner Prize, awarded to the best public policy book in Canada. Our podcast Hub Dialogues will also feature interviews with the authors. The winning title will be awarded $60,000 by The Donner Canadian Foundation on May 8th.

The following is an excerpt from The Legal Singularity: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Law Radically Better, by Abdi Aidid and Benjamin Alarie (University of Toronto Press, 2023).

We are on the path to the legal singularity. Advances in technology, especially the improvement and widespread proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI), are driving us relentlessly down this path. By legal singularity, we mean a stable and complete legal order, capable of addressing and resolving practically all types of legal uncertainty in real time and on demand. Over the coming decades, the emergence of this legal singularity will fundamentally transform our existing legal systems and, with them, our societies.

The stakes are high. Navigating the path to the legal singularity safely is necessary for humanity to flourish during the rest of the twenty-first century and beyond. For society to evolve and leverage these new technologies effectively, we will need to develop an ever deeper and more responsive legal infrastructure.

The good news is that the very technologies that are upending our existing practices will also enable us to construct the deeper and more responsive legal infrastructure that is sorely needed. The stability and resilience of the legal singularity will require more adaptability in our legal systems than they exhibit today. Fortunately, if we can get things right, the technology for a profoundly beneficial legal singularity will be in place just as we need it most.

This book is the first step towards articulating a vision of a legal singularity and motivating a discussion about its pathways and consequences. The legal singularity is the idea that law will reach functional completeness, in the sense that practically any legal question will have an instantaneous and just resolution. In the legal singularity, the law will be knowable with a high degree of certainty—perhaps not perfect certainty, but practical certainty—for much of human activity.

The legal singularity will evolve and be able to absorb and accommodate changes to our social, economic, and technological contexts. If it is successful, it will not be dogmatic. Indeed, the nature of the legal singularity will be to provide quiet confidence that justice will prevail. Disputes will be resolved justly and in the best interests of society. Powerful actors will be held accountable to a greater extent than they are even in today’s most advanced legal systems. Weaker parties will have their positions bolstered.

The legal singularity will require deliberation, experimentation, wisdom, knowledge, and the cumulative efforts of governments, academia, and industry over the coming years. There will be problems. There will be dead ends. There will be experimentation, failures, and more experimentation. Ultimately, there will be significant progress. The good news is that many efforts are being undertaken even as we write. With this book, we aspire to echo and amplify those who seek to leverage technology as a means of improving law. To this, we add our own vision of how technology, ambitious problem-solving, and responsible stewardship will guide law towards the legal singularity.

Our goals with this book are threefold. The first is to firmly root the legal singularity in the popular imagination as an idea that we collectively must address to ensure that the world’s legal systems undergo changes that are in alignment with humanity’s interests as artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to improve. If managed deftly, these technological developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning can and will lead to astounding improvements in social justice and distributive justice, and will contribute to widespread human flourishing. This is, of course, an optimistic and ambitious vision. Others have pointed out less rosy possible scenarios; our view is that those scenarios are avoidable if efforts are undertaken now to help to navigate towards positive outcomes.

Our second aim is to press the point that technology-based changes to our legal systems are not simply a possibility to be discussed on a theoretical level by the intellectually curious. It is tempting for many in the legal profession to want to assume that we could simply press “pause” on technological progress and the concomitant evolution of our legal systems until a sufficiently widespread level of practical confidence and psychological comfort is reached. Many would prefer to defer serious consideration of the uncomfortable topics that are explored in this book until they are first convinced that (1) the status quo is unsustainable; (2) the kinds of changes that are being driven by technological advances have been thoroughly tested and designed with normative and conceptual coherence; and (3) an implementation plan has been devised to accommodate these changes in a manner that will be minimally disruptive to the existing legal order. These instincts are understandable. Unfortunately, the context in which law functions and operates is changing too quickly. 

Our third and final aim with this book is to join the emerging international movement in academia, government, the judiciary, and civil society, and among actors in the legal system more generally, to secure the safest, wisest, and most effective path to the legal singularity. The forces driving us towards legal singularity are persistent and powerful: there is no “off” switch to the internet; computing power looks to continue its exponential growth. 

The shape of an eventual legal singularity can undoubtedly be influenced for the better by careful monitoring, concerted action, and thoughtfulness (or, for the worse, by the abuse of technology to oppress or suppress populations). It is in our collective interest to work to forge and secure the best-possible path to legal singularity.

The Weekly Wrap: The Liberals are wounded and the sharks are circling

Commentary

In The Weekly Wrap Sean Speer, our editor-at-large, analyses for Hub subscribers the big stories shaping politics, policy, and the economy in the week that was.

The post-budget bump that never was

If The Hub community wants to understand the overall reaction to last week’s federal budget, it doesn’t need to rely just on polling—which, by the way, is universally negative. 

Another means to understand both the underwhelming budget and the government’s deeper political challenges is the uncharacteristically strident response from many industry associations, stakeholder groups, and policy experts. 

Let me step back for a minute. There’s generally a tendency in Ottawa for these adjacent policy organizations and voices to constrain their criticism of the government because their long-term interests depend in large part on a constructive two-way relationship. This is particularly true for industries or non-profit groups that disproportionately rely on government funding or regulatory policies for their ultimate success. 

It means that whatever its short-term policies, it’s rarely worthwhile for individuals or interest groups to burn bridges with a government. There are exceptions of course. Sometimes governments enact policies that are so injurious to a company, industry, or stakeholder group that they cannot turn the other cheek. The Harper government’s income trusts decision is one example. The Trudeau government’s emissions cap on the oil and gas sector is another. But these extraordinary cases aren’t the norm. 

What’s interesting, however, about the post-budget reaction from various groups, including the investment community concerning the capital gains tax hike (discussed in more detail below) or the disability community concerning the disappointing Canada Disability Benefit, is that they’ve been prepared to go much further in their criticism than is typically the case. 

One explanation is that these policy decisions are indeed so contrary to the interests of these groups that they had no choice but to respond vociferously. Dr. Michael Prince for instance seems to have resigned from the government’s Disability Advisory Panel as a genuine matter of principle because the Canada Disability Benefit failed to live up to the community’s expectations. 

But another—and I think better—explanation is that the highly negative reaction to the budget in most cases isn’t merely about the budget and its measures themselves. It reflects a gradual aversion to the Trudeau government and its policies that’s built up over time but hadn’t yet found expression. The growing likelihood of the government’s defeat in the next election has finally given license to these groups and voices to express themselves. Put differently: the political cost of calling out an irredeemable government has fundamentally changed. 

From this point of view, the strident reaction to particular parts of the budget, which may seem somewhat disproportionate, is actually a cumulative aversion to the Trudeau government and its policies. As these political incentives have shifted, what we’re actually hearing is long-standing grievances about the government’s policy approach that individuals and interest groups are no longer self-conscious about communicating. In fact, the Trudeau government’s poor political standing has been liberating for them. 

To the extent that this theory is right, it suggests that the people and groups who sit adjacent to federal politics have decided that the Trudeau government is effectively done. That might ultimately prove more revealing than the polling over the past week.  

What happens when the wedge issues no longer work?

Last week’s Weekly Wrap described the federal budget’s hike on capital gains taxes as an act of “class warfare.” The prime minister’s post-budget comments about the so-called “ultra-wealthy” were representative of the government’s efforts to use the tax change as a political wedge. 

I admit that I assumed it would probably work. Although I’ve previously cited evidence that Canadians are more motivated by concerns about a level playing field than equal outcomes, there’s also reason to believe, based on polling, that they’re prepared to support higher taxes on investors and high-income earners. 

The past week or so, therefore, has been heartening. The negative reaction from doctors, entrepreneurs, small businessowners, and a lot of policy voices has been rather overwhelming, and polling tells us that Canadians writ large are similarly skeptical. 

This is a big deal. In today’s more populist political environment, it was reasonable for the government to assume that class warfare politics would work. Yet it hasn’t.

It prompts the question: why not? I think there are three explanations. 

First, such a major policy change this late into a government’s time in office risks appearing inherently cynical. If this was such a source of fundamental unfairness, why did it take nearly nine years to fix? The prime minister’s self-evidently ardent interest in provoking a fight with the Conservatives and parts of the business community over it hasn’t helped answer this question. Instead, it’s contributed to a sense that the government is now desperate and prepared to manufacture political controversies to try to reverse its declining political standing. 

Second, Canadians are increasingly aware of the magnitude of the economic challenges facing the country—namely, economic stagnation, low business investment, and poor productivity—and instinctively understand that a tax on capital will worsen rather than improve them. You don’t solve a national economic emergency or overcome a “lost decade” by penalizing capital.  

Third, a lot of Canadians aspire to own assets so even if they’re not affected by the tax hike in the short term, they hope to be over the long term. One poll for instance found that a majority of respondents anticipated that they’d be affected at some point. They ultimately envision becoming part of the “ownership class” and are averse to government policies that stand in their way. 

The world of public policy and political ideas typically involves small victories. Although big wins—like the free-market revolution of the early 1980s—can happen, they’re usually rare. The underwhelming reaction to the capital gains tax hike is a small victory. But what makes it so heartening is that it portends a broader, possibly bigger, intellectual victory in which Canadians reject the recent rise of big government and its seeming hostility to individual achievement and success.  

Calgary’s downtown core is in the riding of Calgary-Centre, pictured in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.
Alberta’s energetic exceptionalism is alive and well

Rudyard Griffiths and I spent most of the week traveling across western Canada to meet with current and prospective Hub community members. We spent two nights in Calgary, including a great dinner with roughly 75 business and civic leaders, and I’m now writing the Weekly Wrap from Vancouver. 

It’s always nice to come out to this part of the country. The landscape is beautiful and the people are kind and interesting.  

What was most striking about our trip though is the renewed energy and dynamism in Calgary. The city went through a difficult half-decade or so, but it’s come out the other side with the same entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined it. 

Although regional differences can be somewhat overstated, there is something to Calgary exceptionalism, or what Jason Kenney and now Danielle Smith refer to as “the Alberta Advantage.”

There’s a powerful self-selection bias of the people who grow up or move there. It causes the city to feel a bit more egalitarian and industrious than other parts of the country. Its private sector is just a bit more risk-taking and competitive. Its political economy tilts a little more in the direction of free markets and away from government preferences. 

In sum: it stands in some contrast with the more oligopolistic and state-preferenced market structure that one finds in central Canada—an economic model that we’ve previously criticized  as “Laurentian capitalism.” 

It will be good to get home to see our families and sleep in our beds. But it’s been a great trip. And a key reason is that it’s not only been nice to get a first-hand view of Calgary’s resurgence but also to be reassured that its exceptionalism remains intact.