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AI-powered "robot" lawyer won't argue in court after jail threats

Spotlight on AI's ChatGPT at tech show
Spotlight on artificial intelligence's ChatGPT at CES 2023 tech show 07:26

A "robot" lawyer powered by artificial intelligence was set to be the first of its kind to help a defendant fight a traffic ticket in court next month. But the experiment has been scrapped after "State Bar prosecutors" threatened the man behind the company that created the chatbot with prison time. 

Joshua Browder, CEO of DoNotPay, on Wednesday tweeted that his company "is postponing our court case and sticking to consumer rights."

Browder also said he will not be sending the company's robot lawyer to court. The AI creation — which runs on a smartphone, listens to court arguments and formulates responses for the defendant — was designed to tell the defendant what to say in real time, through headphones. 

But according to Browder, the prospect for bringing the first robot lawyer into the court room wasn't worth the risk of spending six months in jail.

Backlash from lawyers against Browder's proposed stunt suggests that those in the legal profession have concerns over AI-powered chatbots usurping their jobs. 

The AI lawyer was set to take its first case on February 22, Browder had announced on Twitter.

"On February 22nd at 1.30PM, history will be made. For the first time ever, a robot will represent someone in a US courtroom. DoNotPay A.I will whisper in someone's ear exactly what to say. We will release the results and share more after it happens. Wish us luck!" he tweeted. 

He did not disclose the name of the client or the court.

DoNotPay has already used AI-generated form letters and chatbots to help people secure refunds for in-flight Wifi that didn't work, as well as to lower bills and dispute parking tickets, according to Browder. All told, the company has relied on these AI templates to win more than 2 million customer service disputes and court cases on behalf of individuals against institutions and organizations, he added.

It has raised $27.7 million from tech-focused venture capital firms, including Andreessen Horowitz and Crew Capital.

"In the past year, AI tech has really developed and allowed us to go back and forth in real time with corporations and governments," he told CBS MoneyWatch of recent advances. "We spoke live [with companies and customer service reps] to lower bills with companies; and what we're doing next month is try to use the tech in a courtroom for the first time."

DoNotPay had said that it would have covered any fines if the robot were to lose the case. 

Legal in some, but not most courtrooms 

Some courts allow defendants to wear hearing aids, some versions of which are Bluetooth-enabled. That's how Browder determined that DoNotPay's technology could legally be used in this case. 

However, the tech that runs DoNotPay isn't legal in most courtrooms. Some states require that all parties consent to be recorded, which rules out the possibility of a robot lawyer entering many courtrooms. Of the 300 cases DoNotPay considered for a trial of its robot lawyer, only two were feasible, Browder said. 

"It's within the letter of the law, but I don't think anyone could ever imagine this would happen," Browder said. "It's not in the spirit of law, but we're trying to push things forward and a lot of people can't afford legal help. If these cases are successful, it will encourage more courts to change their rules."

Lawyers "would not support this"

The ultimate goal of a "robot" lawyer, according to Browder, is to democratize legal representation by making it free for those who can't afford it, in some cases eliminating the need for pricey attorneys.

"What we are trying to do is automate consumer rights," Browder said. "New technologies typically fall into the hands of big companies first, and our goal is put it in hands of the people first."

But given that the technology is illegal in many courtrooms, he doesn't expect to be able to commercialize the product any time soon. When he initially announced that DoNotPay's robot lawyer would appear in court, lawyers threatened him and told him he'd be sent to jail, he told CBS MoneyWatch.

"There are a lot of lawyers and bar associations that would not support this," Browder said. 

Putting ChatGPT through law school

Browder wants to arm individuals with the same tools that large corporations can typically access, but are out of reach for those without deep resources. 

AI-powered chatbot ChatGPT has exploded in popularity recently for its ability to spit out coherent essays on wide-ranging topics in under one minute. The technology has drawn interest from investors, with Microsoft on Monday announcing a multibillion dollar investment in parent company OpenAI. 

But Browder highlighted its shortcomings and in some cases, lack of sophistication. 

"ChatGPT is very good at holding conversations, but it's terrible at knowing the law. We've had to retrain these AIs to know the law," Browder said. "AI is a high school student, and we're sending it to law school." 

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