First there was Jeopardy-winning Watson -- now there's ROSS

Five years after a room-sized computer dubbed Watson crushed Jeopardy's flesh-and-blood champions, IBM's pioneering machine has moved on from its splashy quiz-show career and entered the legal profession.

Powered by Watson, a voice-recognition application called ROSS is just getting its feet wet at BakerHostetler, the first law firm to commercially license the artificial intelligence software to help deal with bankruptcy issues.

After a lengthy testing period involving multiple law firms, ROSS is expected to be in wider commercial use in coming weeks, and will eventually be expanded to perform research in other legal areas, said Andrew Arruda, CEO and a co-founder at tech startup ROSS Intelligence.

The idea behind ROSS, which the company touts on its website as a "super intelligent attorney," is to give lawyers another resource for legal research while lowering a firm's costs.

"The problem point we're solving is lawyers spend 30 percent of their time doing legal research," said Arruda, who is also a licensed attorney. "And 80 percent of Americans who need a need a lawyer can't afford one. By building our system, we allow lawyers to do more with less."

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Andrew Arruda, founder and CEO of ROSS Intelligence, pictured here with co-founders Jimoh Ovbiagele, the company's chief technology officer (center), and Pargles Dall'Oglio (right), says the company's technology lets " lawyers to do more with less."

ROSS Intelligence

ROSS' voice-recognition app combines Natural Language Processing (NLP) with so-called cognitive technology. That lets lawyers ask it questions using ordinary speech, with ROSS digging through realms of case histories and other data to provide answers. As an AI tool, ROSS also learns from such interactions, adding to its storehouse of legal knowledge.

"ROSS is a very powerful tool that allows lawyers to focus on the legal complexities and not have to be concerned with being a search syntax expert," said Bob Craig, chief information officer at BakerHostetler, by email. "It is still very early in the product cycle, but our experience in the pilot showed how quickly the platform learns. And the capabilities improved dramatically as new versions were released, all in the span of only nine months."

Craig dismissed talk of machines completely replacing attorneys, calling "the obsession with 'robots replacing lawyers' ridiculous and beside the point." Rather, it's about using transformative technologies to better serve clients.

"Like any industry, we have to thrive in a free-market economy that compels change," he said. "That pace of change is accelerating, and we choose to embrace it."

The tech behind Watson is also being used in other fields. Scientists are using a system called Watson Discovery Advisor to look for patterns in reams of data and speed discoveries.

Craig said it's too soon to say how much time or money law firms and their clients can save as a result of employing ROSS, but adds that is not the company's immediate focus.

"This is an investment in our future and our learning from this relationship with ROSS will, we believe, give us value that we can't yet comprehend."