Meta-currency: a step towards the Rheonomy By Eric Harris-Braun

July 1st, 2009 by cnolan

In her beautifully insightful book, The Nature of Economies, Jane Jacobs suggests that we must broaden our understanding of economics in the context of the flow processes of the natural world. Near the end of the book one of her characters asks the question, “What are economies for?” One of the other characters answers:

“… To enable us to partake, in our own fashion, in a great universal flow”

Another character answers with “Economies have a lot in common with language… like language, economic life permits us to develop cultures and multitudes of purposes… that’s its function which is most meaningful for us.”

What do we mean by economy when we say “the economy is strong/weak/growing/shrinking/healthy/in crisis.” We mean something social, an aggregate of many people interacting. But it’s not just individuals, it’s groups of people in the form of businesses, governments, unions, non-profits, etc. also interacting with each other and with individual people. We know, however, that we aren’t necessarily talking about the entire social organism for when the economy falters, other aspects of the social organism, i.e. its arts-culture may thrive. Or, the economy may flourish while we experience a marked drop in “civility” or an increase in other so called “social problems”. “Economy”, it seems, specifically refers to the body of the social organism — its “corporeal” aspect. This includes moving stuff around, building houses, growing food, transforming nature to its bodily needs, etc. Using this analogy, we might say that the mind of the social organism is everything else — its cultures, religions, arts, politics, and so on.

However, it would be a mistake to project this mind/body dualism onto our nascent understanding of the social organism, thereby forming a dis-integrative framework from the start. So it’s not just that the economy is disintegrating around us, it’s that the very word and concept of economy is disintegrative! Here, the two answers given by Jacob’s characters are so powerful. First, they help us shift our imaginations toward thinking from the point of view of the social organism; toward seeing that the “us” that partakes in the great universal flow, and the “us” that develops cultures and multitudes of purposes is not the individuals of the social organism, but rather the social organism itself. Second, they suggest a perspective from which to perceive the organism as a unity: as a participant in the “great universal flow.” Third, they suggest to how this participation is achieved: through language and expressive capacity.

Here are the two answers restated:

1) What we think of as economic life is actually the ability of the social organism as a whole to perceive and interact with the flows in which it is embedded.

2) This ability of the social organism depends on a coordinative expressive capacity

So what is this “coordinative expressive capacity?” We are very familiar with its current form: money. Without money and its context in currencies, most of what we call the economy would collapse. However, with money in its current form, the economy also seems to be collapsing! Money, as a medium of exchange, a unit of measure, and a store of value is the primary information system that coordinates the flows of goods and services through the economy. If it cannot also properly coordinate the participation of the social organism in the greater flows of nature in which it is embedded, then the organism will not survive. Currently humanity is failing to coordinate the basic flows of inputs (fresh water, food, etc) it needs and outputs it produces (CO2, waste, etc) in a way that will ensure its survival. But perhaps more importantly, seen from the perspective of coordinating flows, the social organism is failing miserably to allocate resources and human effort within itself in a way that yields a healthy harmonious entity. Money as an information carrying “life-blood” does not rise to the challenges posed by the social organism that humanity has become.

So where do we go from here? What is needed is the development of a new expressive capacity, what could be called a meta-currency language that allows the social organism to organically develop and express formal information systems tailored to enabling and interacting with all the different types of flows that comprise it. We can still call these information systems currencies because they are about shaping flows, or currents. However, these currencies will take on a huge variety of new forms tailored to the kind of value that they are helping to build. Note that this is not a call to “monetize” social well-being. Quite the opposite, it’s a call to understanding that money as currently practiced, inherently destroys many forms of social well being. But formal information systems can, in fact, build social well being, and we are actually quite familiar with them: reputation tokens, formal achievement markers like grades/credits & degrees, certification markers like USDA Organic, and many more. But as things stand, we haven’t recognized that all of these formal information systems are related families in a larger coherent pattern. We don’t see this, because we don’t yet have the necessary expressive infrastructure, the language, and grammars that unify the structure and forms these information systems take.

The word economy comes from the Greek roots oikos (home) and nomy (management) = home management. Since what we really need is flow management, we can use the Greek root for flow “rheo” to declare that when we gain this new expressive capacity of a meta-currency language, then perhaps we can start talking about the Rheonomy instead of the Economy.

Eric Harris-Braun is a co-founder of the meta-currency project which will provide a smart-edged network for distributed currency creation and deployment. He has been a core participant in the open money project, he sits on the board of the E. F. Schumacher Society, and lives in rural New York. Eric Harris-Braun believes we need new systems of wealth acknowledgement that account not only for tradable wealth, but also for wealth in realms that are only measurable and only acknowledgeable.

Demystifying the “Wealth of Nations” By Julius O. Akinyemi

June 23rd, 2009 by cnolan

A case for how Developing Nations (especially African Nations) can create and grow wealth, and be key players in Global Growth and Prosperity.

Economists from time immemorial have questioned and researched why some nations have been able to grow wealth and some have not. Transforming an underdeveloped economy to a developed economy requires long term strategic mapping as well as a huge amount of capital outlay. This project is aimed at providing practical solutions tailored to the local environment that leverages the convergence of existing technologies to register people and life events e.g. Birth, Death, Marriages, Assets (of all kinds – houses, lands, Goats, Cows, livestock etc), Owners trades/Profession, and through economic modeling, mobilize the currently dormant trillions of dollars in local assets in developing nations to generate capital in the local economy via Asset Securitization. We will provide through economic modeling, a global standardized index that financial institutions can use to better assess individual’s worth and improve the lending practices. This process will generate needed capital in developing nations. Additionally, this process of asset securitization will provide transparency and accountability for invested and loaned funds to the various nations by the World’s financial organizations e.g. IMF.

Recent GDP statistics published by the IMF – World Economic Outlook – notes that the United States alone generates 23.5% of the world’s GDP, while Africa and South America jointly produce about 10%. Clearly, this is not a function of the size of the population, as Africa and South America combined are far more populous than the USA and by the same comparison, the combined land resources of Africa and South America are far larger than the USA. It could be argued however, that Africa and South America’s larger areas of pristine, unpolluted land and atmosphere provide an invaluable, global asset, when compared to most of the industrialized world, who have larger areas of depleted ozone layers, and yet these spaces are under constant threat by individuals who see the exploitation of these resources as their only realistic economic options; or, more sadly, as the path of least resistance to vast personal wealth. The undervaluing of Developing World resources in fact shows a dramatic skewing of our global value system.

On a recent visit to South Africa, as I took off from Cape Town, I admired the beauty of the land from a bird’s eye view and I thought to myself that such property in my current resident city of Greenwich, Connecticut, USA would be worth far more than in South Africa. This lead to the question of why such a condition exists and what can be done to mend this disparity in value? In a literature review spanning key works such as “Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism” , to “The Mystery of Capital” to “The Birth of Plenty” , most of the current writing seems to throw up a common thread, which weaves together the assumptions that the tenets of prosperity are based on the following pillars: 1. Property rights, 2. Civil laws that protect property rights and empowered courts to adjudicate, 3. Capital Generation, 4. Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 5. Adequate Infrastructure.

A Proposed Roadmap to Prosperity:

In most developing economies, one or more of these pillars is missing. More prevalent is the establishment of property rights through diverse cultural systems, and the protection thereof with cultural norms and civil laws. A potential approach to these non-Western, yet complex and traditional valuation systems, which I have not seen in any of the prior research, is to leverage new technology to create a local and nationwide “eRegistry” of all assets (land, real property, farms, cows, goats and so on) that then can be converted into a globally understood and accepted common currency.

As with the development of the Internet, which did not come from a single technology but from the timely convergence of multiple streams of technological development, the convergence of new technologies has the potential to enable asset owners, regardless of location or type of asset, to partake in an artificial nervous systems that can begin to sense, capture, record, transmit and even value an asset in nanoseconds via the eRegistry.

By the same token the “eRegistry” could be used as an eGovernment Revenue Generation base, Census and Population Control Issues database, Disease control and Health and wellness resource etc. The “eRegistry,” when enabled with data mining capabilities and localized economic models that consider local economic nuances, can easily predict future pricing of assets, local market behaviors and, when intelligently used with proper governance processes, will build a second understanding and “layer” of that society for both individuals and the community at large by allowing for another, more global perspective of individual and communal wealth to emerge. With this model, a new Digital Global Common Currency will emerge that can enable global open capital sourcing. The eRegistry will enable us to build an Entrepreneurial Information Exchange Platform that could be analogous to a real-time global commerce commodities trading floor. The Information Exchange will also become an open platform for Virtual Doctors and Health Care Services, Local Commodities Trading, Media for Capital Generation, Quantitative tool for Micro credit lending efficiency, as well as products and services brokerage functions.

The assumption is that, by having people understand the value of their assets in a new way, which complements their traditional understandings, this can help them to leverage those assets in a more global setting, build the local economy and achieve a higher standard of living for the whole global community.

Once the eRegistry database is created and secured/certified by local government, the stage is set for building a local economic model that can translate each asset value to indexes that can be universally applied to lend money based on the owner(s)’ asset value anywhere in the country, and eventually worldwide. This National asset net worth could then be leveraged to create a Community Bank that is mandated to cater to small street vendor entrepreneurs in developing countries so they can be more productive and expand their businesses, thereby generating more wealth for entrepreneurs within respective countries. While the entrepreneurial spirit of street vendors is globally recognized, such tiny businesses need help from the national common purse that will elevate them from poverty and help them contribute to economic growth. With this asset registry and universal pricing in place in “eRegistry”, lenders can verify ownership, check for encumbrances if any, place liens if appropriate, and hence eliminate the risk of loss/fraud while at the same time generating capital that grows the economy. This eRegistry essentially acts as a “third medium” between a localized economy based on traditional systems, and a global economy based on Western systems.

Enabling Technologies: The most important technologies that we are converging to build the asset registry and modeling system are:

Cloud computing that connects government to citizens, business to business, business to consumers, versatile and inexpensive sensing; ubiquitous wireless networking; social networking, and real time data mining to extract useful information and insight about assets pricing – present and future. Finally, with the smart sensor capabilities, assets of all kinds can be easily registered through sensing and transmittal using simple cell phones and other handheld receiving devices powered by the new “Mobile Cloud Computing” capabilities.

Benefits: The potential benefits of this eRegistry are as follows:

• Creates a reliable data source for more accurate Census/Population control activities
• Creates a National and Global inventory and source of wealth
• Unlocks the Wealth of each Nation for a better global prosperity
• Creates an Index that will be portable and can be replicated at the national level as well as possibly globally to source capital for local Entrepreneurs
• Becomes a robust platform for other capital-generating financial systems .e.g. Micro-Credit financing, etc.
• Self-generates Capital to fuel the local economy
• Encourages and develops Entrepreneurial Spirit needed to grow an economy
• Minimizes and reduces poverty
• Improves the quality of life
• Assures more accurate citizen’s participation in the local government’s election process
• Creates new Industries for new jobs, e.g.,
o Asset appraisal and valuation
o Asset Insurance
o Risk Management
o Economic forecasters
o Asset Management – The ability to monetize the equity in assets that have been valued for future investments
• Promotes Cleaner Society
• Creates other products and services that result from the new ideas e.g. Water vending machines managed by current roadside vendors, organized Roadside Mechanics, etc.
• Improves Tax Revenue Generation for the nations. Tax revenue is needed to effectively run the government and provide civic society services including individual Rights protection which is currently unavailable in most remote locations. And when available, the property value is grossly understated for minimal taxation reasons.

Planned Implementation Approach:

The planned implementation approach includes:

• Collaboration between MIT Media Lab and Harvard Law School – Berkman Center
• Solicit for IMF/World Bank and UN organizations Sponsorship as well as Private Sectors.
• Engage the Local governments that are ready as Co-Sponsors with full on-the-ground participation from local staff.
• Develop an economic education platform e.g. “EconoForce” to educate the citizen in asset and capital management
• Engage local citizens as much as possible in the process to have a vested interest in the success of the renewed way of building wealth for their countries, given this is a “Citizen Centric” project.


Establish a joint center for “Demystifying the Wealth of Nations” that will focus on:
o Adequate knowledge transfer to make the new system sustainable.
o Continued cross pollination of knowledge and innovation between the
countries and the MIT/Harvard partnership for a better world.
o Continued Entrepreneurial spirit incubation.
o Continued Civil Society Economic Empowerment.

Schedule and Timeline:
The schedule and timeline of this initiative is as follows:
• Establish stakeholder group – 30 days
• Formalize launch and implementation plan – 60 days
• Select pilot countries – 90 days
• Begin implementation – 120 days

Cloud Law: When Technology Blurs Human Values By Ray Garcia

June 23rd, 2009 by cnolan

As technology augments and mediates our daily lives what does it mean to be human if functioning and surviving in a digital dependent society necessitates or mandates technology use? What are the human values that emerge from this melding of co-dependent activity? What new power structures emerge from increased dependency on Cloud technology when individuals have limited control over balance and distribution of processes? How do we assess the Human Experience under these new terms and how does this experience change the value systems that Cloud Laws are based on? What new human rights might emerge from the evolving inter-dependency between the personal technologies (embedded) with its interaction on the Cloud? These are questions at core of our legal systems that challenge the notions and foundations under which laws are based. We are reaching an age in the 21st Century where it may be not so easy to separate Humans from the technology they depend on when that technology my have its own agency.

Cloud Law will need to address the changes in how people interface with the Cloud Computing services. The emergence of smart phones and net books with Internet access via the Cellular network provides possible innovations where location and presence are factors in how people will interact on-line. These developments are only a few of the advances that may challenge what Cloud Law needs to address in the future. For example, privacy controls get escalated from misuse of personal information to physical vulnerabilities if the individual is easily tracked in real-time. What legal safeguards will be required to prevent threats that have serious consequences while providing for privacy rights that facilitate further innovation? Innovation is not without consequences of responsibility, in our short history of information technology one can easily see how uses and abuses have emerged that the inventors and designer never intended. For every advance its uses are many and the global reach and network effect generates a system dynamics with amazing benefits but equally threatening capabilities. Gaining a deeper understanding of the foundation and phenomenon to help anticipate what legal frameworks are needed for Cloud Law requires research and considerate thought that can be put into pragmatic action to reset the policies and systems on a course of great promise for the 21st century.

A review of trends and transformation in how people may interface and interact on the Cloud might help to illustrate the legal considerations that may accompany each innovation and the questions they raise.

End of Legal Stability – if the interfaces to the Cloud are embedded then the laws that are based on explicit interfaces between known or expected outcomes gets challenged in ways that are difficult to anticipate. Mobile devices become wearable computing, implanted medical devices are embedded in the objects we interact with, ambient intelligence within the spaces we exist in; this pervasive and ubiquitous mediated and augmenting technology blurs the experiences that people have and the judgments they apply to situations. How do new laws build on older frameworks and how will people understand the new legal framework and use them effectively?

Growth of dependency on technology and hyper- connectivity – communications is consuming our lives instead of freeing up time, the constant digital presence of mobile devices will extend to smart mobs acting as a collective. What can be demanded of device reliability and expectations of safety when the processes use services on the Cloud? When the Cloud gets attacked or an individual’s life is disrupted by Cloud failure or unexpected outcomes what laws will be needed to remedy or ascribe liability and responsibility. How to create the laws to address infrastructure breakdown and malfunctions. If laws are implicit and taken for granted as part of the usage of the Cloud, then how might that impact precedent and legal judgment? If the Cloud has autonomous processes how does that impact the legal framework?

Digital Footprint and Life Logging – as the Cloud gets used to capture, manage, share, and archive personal traces of information in databases controlled by corporations and governments this reflects a loss of control of one’s personal digital assets. Do we need laws to manage vast amounts of personal data and the ownership and analysis of the digital footprint? What are the implications for the law and how do these needs to evolve to address balance the rights of the individual, the public good, the corporations, and the government to services their public?

Growth of digital creative’s – Cloud computing facilitates the consumption, production, and publication of professional and personal works that remain as artifacts distributed by the entities the control the Cloud. The division of ownership and span of control has much to be desired in terms of legal protections for all modes of participation.
The above trends are only focused on the Information Technology aspects of innovation and omit the advances in Life Sciences. The new area of research in Computational Biology may bring together Biology and Information Technology in ways that will merge and blur the boundaries such that our conception of physical aspects of being human may change as well. As technology gets further infused into our daily lives such that human experience is indistinguishable from the mediating technology, when it becomes invisible and always present, how we think of human values is likely to change and the human rights that are at the foundation of a legal system may be challenged.

Sellen A., Rogers Y., Harper R. Rodden T., Reflecting Human Values in the Digital Age, Commun, ACM 52, 3 (March 2009).

Cloud Law- Can it be Engineered? By Ray Garcia

June 23rd, 2009 by cnolan

Cloud Law – What is it?

Cloud law may be defined as the application of ethical principles using verifiable semantics to achieve the formation and execution of fair and economical processes to govern technology mediated social communications where those processes may act on behalf of the participants on systems for which they may not own or have full control of. Cloud law extends Internet or Cyber Law beyond questions of Intellectual Property concerns, Privacy, Identity or Data Ownership, and includes the challenges to jurisdiction and sovereignty, legal precedents (common and civil laws) from the physical world that have no analog in the virtual space, legal interpretation of statues, access to evidence and chain of custody, forensics, implied digital contracts, fluidity of language and its ambiguity as used on the Net, and the very notion of why and how laws are formed and who they serve.

Lawyers on the Cloud

Given the integrated communications that the Cloud enables it may be necessary for lawyers to use the Cloud and craft the legal structures before establishing the laws that govern the use of the Cloud. This would be closers to how the Cloud is evolving, as a self-organizing distributed complex adaptive system. The Cloud is adopting technology quickly to gain capability in support of the massive network and computational scale it requires. The legal system has thus far lagged the developments of the Cloud and when engaged have resorted to applying existing laws to new circumstances which may not of been appropriate or effective. The Music Industry’s reluctant transformation, due to file sharing taking hold on the Cloud, is a well known example. This example may not have the worst consequences relative to what may occur once large segments of the population are easily tracked on the Cloud without representation or legal recourse. The US legislative and judicial systems may lack adequate experience with this rapid adoption of technology that is quickly pervading every segment of society and commerce. If the legal profession were the early adopters of Cloud Computing would the laws be crafted prior to the mass participation of its appeal and utility?

Accessibility of the Law for all

Lawyers have increasingly become dependent on technology and the Cloud. Graduating lawyers are required to know as much about legal research using Lexis/Nexus and WestLaw as they are to know about using a law library. Not using one of the commercially controlled sources for legal research can disadvantage a litigation case and subject it to negligence claims. Yet much of the information provided by the two major legal information providers are in the public domain but not readily available on the Cloud. Accessibility of the law for all that maintains it credibility and is economical may be one of the challenges for Cloud Law. If Google is attempting to make freely available all information and books regardless of quality, credibility, or authority, what implications does that have for the practice of law? Do citizens have the right to have free access to all the laws that govern them and the publically available cases that set the precedents for which the laws are judged? When will lawyers start a wikiLaw for lawyers by lawyers in support of Cloud Law? What new learning and research processes are required of Lawyer’s in support of crafting Cloud Law and how would these laws be tested and made valid in practice?

Computational Law

In the near future it may be feasible to automate legal reasoning using formal representations of the laws that apply to technology mediated communications on the Cloud. Such computational law processing would use advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning on semantic networks. This would be an evolution of what has previously been attempted with digital contracts using Internet Trading Exchanges. Cloud Law may need to address the legal gaps that remain while leveraging the advances in computation to seize the opportunity to automate legal compliance within the Cloud. A number of challenging research areas in computation need further development in Specification Languages, Ontology, Abstract State Machines, Petri Nets/Workflow Nets, Temporal Logic, Process and Event Algebra of Communicating Systems, Prepositional Logic and Inference. As these research areas emerge as capabilities on the Cloud, lawyers may need to become versed in computational law to craft the laws that function on the Cloud. In the future the laws may be embedded into the Cloud and act as constraints on the activities therefore become integral the systems dynamic.

Engineering Cloud Law

The notion that Cloud Law may require the embedding of encoded computational law subjects it to the challenges of expressing the law within software engineering process. Software has some distinct characteristics that make it unlike other engineering practices and may be more like attempting to apply the law against a structural and process legal system. Cloud Law embedded into the system may require the following engineering principles:

Predictable Outcomes – application of the law has no unintended negative consequences and can be modeled against the actors. The application of the law produces consistent outcomes given similar circumstances

Tolerance – applying the law even with varying interpretations produces outcomes within certain acceptable ranges or metrics.

Risk Management – enforcing the law must be easy, systems should not allow for easily breaking the law without clear intentions to do so. Once broken it should be immediately detected. Risk of breaking the law should not create large scale risk to people on the Cloud.

Separation of Concerns – laws should be applicable regardless of specifics of the Cloud technology implementation.

Reconciliation of Conflicts – laws should recognize all actors and motivations and capabilities or lack of and how these interact within constraints and forces to produce and consume Cloud artifacts.

Adaptation – Law needs to facilitate complex adaptive systems and have mechanisms for appropriate changes in response to obsolescence or the laws may also initiate or facilitate a change in the system dynamic.

Ease of Judgment – Law should be easy to negotiate and judge and by extension easy to learn and teach to all actors in the system. The laws should be easy to understand, implement, and enforce by those being governed. They should be desirous to adhere to by all and not following the laws should be readily apparent and easily corrected.

Formal verification of software is not a widely adopted practice and therefore software systems tend to be incomplete and error prone. Even when the system performs reliably often this is due to the fault tolerance and redundancies created to overcome the inherent lack of verification. Cloud Law would operate on large scale concurrent systems with autonomous processes that are highly distributed. What happens when systems predict and act on behalf of actors based on machine learning algorithms and make inference that cause it to behave inappropriately or illegally? Amazon’s recommendation engine has on occasion suggested offensive products relative to a search term where no human intervention was present nor could anyone anticipate such occurrence. When autonomous multi-agents are the norm what Cloud Laws and mechanisms will govern this? Given the lack of formal verification in both the software and the law and the inability to predetermine all possible behavior of a Cloud acting under its own agency how will the law be applied? This is not an act of nature but and act of an artificial system.

The development of Cloud Law may have constraints that are closely aligned with the limitations of software engineering and therefore these two professions will need to converge in joint research to overcome those obstacles. Lawyers will need to learn computational thinking and Software Engineers may need to understand the principles of jurisprudence. Until this happens it is likely that Cloud Law will remain a disembodied application of existing legal practices onto a medium that is evolving rapidly and not completely deterministic in its system dynamic. If Cloud Law is to be an enabling endeavors it will need to race ahead and charter the legal grounds to facilitate continuous innovation and novel uses of Cloud Computing by society and commerce. Equally if technology innovation wants to avoid being constraint by future regulation then research is needed to understand how Law and Computation can fuse into solutions that embody the policy into the systems.


Riehle, R., An engineering context of software engineering, Ph.D. Thesis 2008.

Denning, P., Riehle, R., Is Software engineering engineering?, Commun. ACM 52, 3 (March 2009), 24 – 28


Computational Law at Stanford Logic Group
AI and the Law…

Conference on Artificial Intelligence and the Law

Fostering Growth Through the Legal System by Robert Litan

June 23rd, 2009 by brutter

In 2008, the Kauffman Foundation launched its Law, Innovation, and Growth (LIG) initiative to encourage legal scholars, economists, and other social scientists to examine ways in which the legal system – viewed broadly, and not only in a traditional legal silos (contracts, torts, property, antitrust, and so on) – can be improved to better foster innovation and economic growth.

LIG will build on the enormous contributions of the Law and Economic (L&E) literature, while differing in certain important respects. With some exceptions, L&E has focused on the improvement of static efficiency, or the size of the economic pie at any given point in time. While this objective is certainly important, over the long run, the gains to society from faster growth will swamp any one-time improvement in static efficiency. Accordingly, LIG is explicitly about innovation and growth, and thus dynamic efficiency. In particular, what rules, procedures, norms, and institutions are most conducive to innovation and growth?

There is yet another difference between L&E and LIG. Whereas the former L&E “movement,” by definition, involved only the disciplines of law and economics, we are already seeing evidence that LIG will bring into its orbit other social and hard sciences, such as biology, psychology, computer science, sociology, and complexity. Economics, as a discipline, does not have a monopoly on the understanding of innovation and growth, which also are inherently social and organic processes. Might we therefore learn from a broader set of disciplines in fashioning laws and institutions to foster innovation and growth? We hope so.

Toward this end, the Kauffman Foundation is pleased to support the research and related activities of the Berkman Center. As described elsewhere on this website, the Center works at the cutting edge of the law and technology, and thus is ideally positioned to provide guidance to scholars and policy makers about how best to use the law and the legal process – as it exists now and as it evolves in new venues such as cyberspace – to advance both innovation and growth.

More on those robots

May 17th, 2009 by brutter

I’d like to offer a bit of an explanation of my chosen first title. The robots-vs.-lawyers moniker was a somewhat tongue in cheek reference to the intro given to my interview of Richard Susskind available on Radio Berkman.
Nevertheless, robot lawyers are making news.
South African law firm Buys Inc. plans to offer a trio of “robot lawyers” to answer client questions. Perhaps disappointingly, they’re not actually robots but actually an anthropomorphic addition to the GUI for a system to answer client questions, presumably greatly increasing firm efficiency and profitability. I tried to track this one down further, but only got as far as a very brief online article.. (In fairness, the definition of “robot” might vary in South Africa. What Americans call “traffic lights” are called “traffic robots” in South African English.)
Another South African company is marketing a product Jnana (from a Hindi word meaning “knowledge”). Doesn’t use the word “robot” but promises to help build “virtual lawyers.” From what I understand, this program can help companies build their own systems for compliance and other legal needs. A company you know of might be using Jnana for its own internal issues, even though you or I can’t access the system with our own questions.
An American company is also marketing something it calls “Robot Lawyer,” although this appears to be software meant to increase the productivity of real lawyers.
The robot terminology is, unfortunately, a distraction. Like the term “artificial intelligence” it is wrapped in pop-culture images of R2D2 and Dr. Who that obscure the real thing. The important fact is that computer programs are performing jobs previously thought to require a level of sophistication available only from humans.
As Richard Susskind points out, lawyers still have a job to do designing all these systems. Until these software systems can become self-replicating, some lawyers will still have jobs building these things.

Not all is lost, lawyers
Lawyers in the United States can at least temporarily feel much more secure in their jobs than their colleagues elsewhere. Note the proliferation of non-U.S. innovation in the technology of law field.
Lawyers in the United States have been quite good at guarding their turf. This history runs at least as far back as Quicken Family Lawyer’s experience in Texas and Norman Dacey’s “How to Avoid Probate.” and surely much earlier.
More recently, in 2007, an online “bankruptcy engine” was held to be engaged in the unlicensed practice of law . It seems inevitable that the system involved would have raised concern sooner or later; on a line reserved for the preparer’s signature, the software printed “not applicable.” On another line designated for disclosing any fee paid for the preparation, the system wrote, “Realizing that this document is signed under penalty of perjury, I declare that I prepared my own bankruptcy by myself using a computer and that I was not assisted by an attorney, paralegal or bankruptcy preparer…” No mention was made of the fee paid for the service.
Presumably the debtor would have had no problem if he had hired a law firm that used a similar program internally and had a human sign off on the filings.
The debtor in the case above paid $219 for six months of access to the “Zilnet Bankruptcy Engine.” It’s tempting to laugh at such not-quite-ready-for-prime time efforts, but when one considers that the cost could be eaten up in the first hour of work with a lawyer, is it such a bad thing for a web-based “bankruptcy engine” to be so cheaply available? In many cases might this be better than no lawyer at all?
What about insurance? Wouldn’t a subscription based software service coupled with insurance be just as good as a much more expensive lawyer? Imagine if the system cost twice as much, but was “backed by (insert reputable insurance company here) to insure you up to (choose level of coverage for corresponding premium) dollars for any loss caused by the system’s error.”
Then the lawyers could still make money on the back end, sorting out litigation brought by dissatisfied customers. Sooner or later someone would get it right, and the cost of insuring the error-free system would trend toward zero.
The pattern could repeat itself through other areas of law. Those who still need fancy “human” services could of course still get them from old-fashioned non-robot lawyers.

– Brock Rutter

Brock Rutter is trained as a lawyer and is a research assistant to Prof. Oliver
Goodenough at the Berkman Center.  His interests include technology driven law practice,  coming changes to the legal profession, and evolving corporate and transactional law in the digital age.  In other endeavors, he is currently programming A2J interview modules to assist pro se litigants in Vermont.

Some scenes from the robots-vs.-lawyers future

May 13th, 2009 by brutter

We recently welcomed Richard Susskind and others at the Berkman Center. Susskind joined us for a discussion in the morning about technical requirements for software needed for our Vermont digital corporations project. Susskind is known for his description of a near-future of law where the legal services industry is radically changed by the completion of many legal tasks by computers. (Actually that’s only perhaps half the picture. The rest involves the divvying up of legal tasks among various providers to those who can most efficiently complete them).

Here are some examples of this trend toward automation.

My Latin isn’t too hot, but I think that means something to the effect of “the way of the future.” This company, based in Beijing, claims to be “distilling the power of a world-class law firm into software available to anyone in the world.” So far they are just in startup phase and looking to hire engineers, software developers, business analysts and “legal analysts.” Interestingly, the word “lawyer” doesn’t figure into their hiring priorities, and none of the three principals listed mentions experience as a lawyer.

From the world of pro-bono comes A2J. The program was designed by a team at Chicago Kent School of Law and is meant to provide a user-facing interview experience. A2J was built for unrepresented (pro-se) litigants, so it is usually programmed with short, plain-language questions written at a modest reading level.
The answers to the questions become XML-tagged variables that can then be plugged into HotDocs. Once harvested, these XML snippets could have other uses as well, such as e-filing (once courts are ready). To make it easy to program, interviews are designed as flow charts of possible questions. The end user (client) never has to see these charts the designers use.
See:…. You can walk through one of the interviews near the bottom of the page. The PDF executive summary of the program is also helpful.
(Disclosure: I am currently employed by the state of Vermont to build a series of A2J interviews for family law matters.)

One Click Organisations:
This British non-profit is designed to minimize the amount of time social entrepreneurs need to spend doing legal housekeeping. One Click Organisations offers a service whereby users will be asked a series of questions and then the group’s software will recommend the best institutional form for the group and also develop a constitution. The current version only supports unincorporated organizations, but later versions will include options for share corporations or partnerships.
In addition to setting up a decision-making structure, One Click Organisations will also establish a central internet location with registers of members and decisions made by the group. E-mail and text messages will be sent to active members notifying them of new members, proposals, decisions, or other developments.

– Brock Rutter

Brock Rutter is trained as a lawyer and is a research assistant to Prof. Oliver
Goodenough at the Berkman Center.  His interests include technology driven law practice,  coming changes to the legal profession, and evolving corporate and transactional law in the digital age.  In other endeavors, he is currently programming A2J interview modules to assist pro se litigants in Vermont.

Digital Firms for the Net

April 20th, 2009 by SY

Law Lab co-director John Clippinger discusses digital firms and Vermont’s digital corporate transactions law on Bank of America’s Future Banking Blog:

A prediction for the near future: One of the great disruptions of Web 3.0 technologies will be to unleash unprecedented powers of collective action. Information asymmetries between enterprises and their customers, between governments and their citizens, and between the credentialed and the uncredentialed will be dramatically realigned. Not just asymmetries in access to information, but asymmetries in coordinative capacities, and the ability to capture and direct personal and group agency. We first got a sense of this with the onset of “smart mobs,” “swarms,” “asymmetric warfare,” the “wisdom of the crowds,” the miracle of wikipedia, and the promise of peer production. It is simply amazing what supposedly dumb “mobs” and “non experts” can achieve given the ability to self-organize. My bet is it will not be long before “they” will want some form of legal organization to express themselves, and direct their collective agency to reap the rewards of their newfound powers.

Read John’s whole post at

Richard Susskind: “The end of lawyers?”

April 16th, 2009 by SY

The Law Lab Speaker Series is underway. To date, we have hosted Ashifi Gogo and Gillian K Hadfield. Up next:

April 22
The End of Lawyers? The End of Law Schools?
Professor Richard Susskind
author of The End of Lawyers? and IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England

Event and RSVP details can be found at We hope to see you there.