The Yale Law Journal’s Betsy Cooper wrote an essay examining our favorite Jeopardy! champion (and new medical diagnoser) robot Watson, but from a new angle: Could Watson help judges make legal decisions?
The essay notes that Watson could be of particular use to a certain type of judge or legal scholar: the new textualists. She writes: “New textualists believe in reducing the discretion of judges in analyzing statutes. Thus, they advocate for relatively formulaic and systematic interpretative rules. How better to limit the risk of normative judgments creeping into statutory interpretation than by allowing a computer to do the work?”
Says Cooper, “there are three important elements of new textualism: its reliance on ordinary meaning (the premise), its emphasis on context (the process), and its rejection of normative biases (the reasoning).” From that vantage point, Watson wouldn’t be so much a judge (much as we’d love to see a massive black judge’s robe draped over Watson’s storage array) as an assistant or clerk, using its power to decide, for example, what the most “ordinary” use of a word is. Humans have to rely on instinct and experience, but Watson can systematically measure that sort of thing, narrowing down the possible meanings of words to eliminate uncertainty.
Watson also has the advantage of not being able to insert his own emotions or opinions into his decisions, by virtue of the fact that, well, he doesn’t have any. Cooper does conclude that, due to his occasional errors (we’d hate to sentence criminals to serve time in Toronto) and the more basic fact that perhaps there should be a human element to judging, Watson is not an ideal candidate to actually make the bench. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be tremendously useful in legal decisions.