Wednesday 29 September 2021 6:00 am

Robot lawyers aren’t the distant future - they’re real and will revolutionise trade

Alice Calder is a political commentator, associate contributor with Young Voices UK and a PhD candidate in economics at Sydney’s University of New South Wales.

Would you trust artificial intelligence to make your financial decisions? How about conducting legal services? In some areas it may already do so. As AI becomes more advanced and the world becomes more integrated, these technologies are reshaping the way we think of the global trade in services.

Last week, the new Secretary of State for International Trade Anne-Marie Trevelyan laid out an ambitious five-point plan for digital trade. She focused particularly on the UK’s primacy in services trade, where we are the world’s second largest exporter and one of the most innovative in the digital sphere – exporting most of our digital services.

The next phase of globalisation, one largely driven by artificial intelligence, is primed to impact the services industry in the same way manufacturing was revolutionised by automated systems. It will vastly increase trade between emerging and advanced economies. Financial and legal services are ploughing more and more money into these types of technology to break down the barriers we associate with face-to-face trade, creating a bridge between the skills and knowledge gaps.

Recent social media algorithm mess-ups and sci-fi fuelled speculation have marred artificial intelligences’ reputation. But there are two types of AI. we’re talking about, and we often conflate the two. The type of tech being used and trialled for trade is generally benign and what is known as narrow AI. It is created for a single task and utilises machine learning to better predict outcomes and react to them. This is in comparison to general AI which is yet to be fully-realised, it acts and thinks as humans do, and brings with it the full remit of existential quandaries.

Artificial intelligence has the ability to ease supply chain frictions, facilitate the development of new business models of trade and reduce the barriers to economic transactions. In terms of the physical manufacture and movement of goods it can be implemented to improve warehouse management, better predict supply and demand trends to reduce waste, and improve the accuracy of delivery and checking.  

For the UK, our advantage is in the services industry. It’s is already being used by lawyers to trawl documents, draft simple legal letters, and search for relevant legal precedents. With careful management and application it can allow legal firms to provide their services to more people and at a lower cost.

There is also the possibility to break down more obvious barriers such as language. When you think of automated translation, you probably remember the clunky sentences an online interpreter spat out for your high-school French homework. But this has vastly improved over the last decade. It’s not perfect – but it is enabling conversations which would not otherwise be possible.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan’s plan to improve UK digital trade is ambitious; it needs to be accompanied by commitments to embrace and improve the technologies needed to realise it. The last couple of decades have brought AI from sci-fi to tried and tested reality. For a market with huge dominance over services, artificial intelligence has immense promise, It needs to be taken seriously by policymakers.

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