This AI Startup Generates Legal Papers Without Lawyers, and Suggests a Ruling
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Ignacio Raffa’s app, Prometea, can judge you in 10 seconds. “Hello,” he says into his phone. “Hello, Ignacio, what do you want to do?” the app replies.
“Create a ruling.”
“What’s the case file number?”
Seconds later, the artificial intelligence software has generated a draft ruling on a public housing case, one that carries the letterhead of the Buenos Aires district attorney’s office and all the proper fonts and jargon, with no lawyers or paralegals involved. In Argentina, DAs write the decisions and the cases’ presiding judges either reject them and write their own, or simply approve them. Prometea is being used for stuff like taxi license disputes, not murder trials, but it’s a significant automation of the city’s justice system. The Buenos Aires office says its 15 lawyers can now clear what used to be six months’ worth of cases in just six weeks.
Raffa, a local startup founder, and his colleagues created Prometea in partnership with the DA’s office. The agency says the app has helped redirect staffers away from legal scut work and toward more complex cases, and that proofreaders rarely find errors when reviewing the computer-generated files. The app has attracted interest from the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, among others. “It can help legal systems around the world,” says Asha Aravindakshan, a Sloan Fellow at MIT who saw a demo of the app this summer. “Everyone has a backlog.”
A year ago, Buenos Aires staffers filing a simple drunk-driving complaint had to fill in the same 39 details 111 times. Now they still have to provide basic ages, addresses, and vehicle numbers, but just once per document. Prometea (as in Prometheus) is also bilingual. Users searching the app for a case filed in Spanish can provide instructions in English, and the app will translate and search in Spanish.
Raffa trained the app using the DA office’s digital library of some 300,000 scanned court documents from 2016 and 2017, including 2,000 rulings. When a case file enters the DA’s system, Prometea matches it to the most relevant decisions in its database, enabling it to guess how the court will rule in relatively simple cases—teachers complaining that they weren’t compensated for classroom supplies they bought, for example. So far, judges have approved 33 of its 33 suggested rulings, and it’s being used in at least 84 other pending cases. “It’s not replacing humans,” says Ezequiel González, a professor at the University of Oxford who hosted a demo of the app in May. “It simply comes to the rescue of judges that are buried in massive dockets.”
The 29-year-old Raffa, raised in Argentina’s capital, started coding at his grandpa’s urging at age 14. After college, he worked for local offices of Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp. His previous AI startup made digital versions of popular Argentine card games with automated opponents, but two years ago, he says, he began to worry about what he was doing in the games business. “We were making people lazier,” he says. He soon co-founded ZTZ Tech Group to focus on business uses for AI.
After seeing a ZTZ program that generated reports on pricing data, Buenos Aires Deputy District Attorney Juan Corvalán contracted the company in the summer of 2017. Raffa wouldn’t disclose ZTZ’s revenues but says creating something like Prometea would cost $50,000 to $150,000, depending on complexity and revenue-sharing. It’s also in use at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, and it’s central to an information-sharing agreement the DA’s office signed in October with its counterpart in São Paulo. Raffa says he and his three co-workers hope to bring similar AI systems to the U.S. and Europe by next spring.
Even some supporters worry about the possibility of Prometea being misused, given AI software’s poor track record with predictive sentencing in the U.S. and elsewhere. “It raises all sorts of rule-of-law issues,” says González, the Oxford professor. “Is a machine deciding instead of a judge?” Raffa says he’s not interested in giving software the power to rule on a person’s fate. Lawyers and judges should still do their jobs, he says—he’s just offering them a shortcut.
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