The latest news from the world of technology suggests that advances in computation may disrupt the legal profession sooner and more broadly than I had thought. Students at the University of Toronto recently designed a new legal search tool, winning a competition for the best use of IBM’s newest computational resource, Watson. Specially designed and programmed, Watson challenged the best Jeopardy players in the world in 2011 – and won. IBM, however, was not aiming at world Jeopardy domination but at making money by invading other more lucrative domains. And it has already spun off a division to exploit Watson’s technology in fields as varied as medical diagnostics and aerospace engineering.
Wisely, IBM has also begun university competitions to interest students in designing new uses for Watson. The result from Canada is Ross, an application expressly designed for legal research. Computerized legal research is itself nothing new, having begun over forty years ago. Today, Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw are better known than any single law firm. But Ross has two advantages over the kind of computerized legal search most of us have known.