This man’s bot wants to replace your lawyer

Earlier this year, Facebook introduced bots to its popular Messenger service. Microsoft has done similar. One of the technology narratives doing the rounds is that these AI helpers are the future.

The trouble is that the mainstream uses for bots so far have been things that we, uh, don’t really need bots for. Ordering pizza, for example, is something that doesn’t really need AI to do, and it’s hard to imagine anyone finding the experience more rewarding than just using Domino’s or Pizza Hut’s respective websites.

“The trouble is that the mainstream uses for bots so far have been things that we, uh, don’t really need bots for”

In fact, the best possible spokesperson for the potential of bots doesn’t work for a giant tech brand, or a pizza chain. Joshua Browder has had a bit more attention than most 20-year-old undergraduates receive. His legal bot DoNotPay has been used to contest more than 160,000 parking tickets, saving millions of pounds for citizens, none of whom have even had to Google a solicitor. “It started out as a side project at the end of school, and I could never have imagined that a year later, it would have appealed 160,000 tickets,” he explains.

Browder tells me that two years ago he was inundated with tickets, and “had to become a ‘local parking guru’” to fight them. “I started DoNotPay as a simple consumer-rights website to help people generate appeal letters and get advice for their tickets,” he explains. “Eventually, I decided to expand to creating a chatbot, which could help not only with tickets, but also flight-delay compensation and PPI claims.”donotpay_parking_ticket_bot_interview

Thinking about it, it’s not hard to see why DoNotPay has captured the public imagination in a way that other chatbots can’t. Pizza bots are all well and good, but ultimately it’s just a novelty that doesn’t offer consumers any benefits, or as Browder puts it, “with ordering flowers, it is much easier just to fill out a quick form”.

There’s no saving to be had for the potential inconvenience of talking to a fake human, while DoNotPay offers savings of thousands of pounds by providing legal advice that would normally be pricey in itself. No doubt, if given the option to consult a living, breathing barrister on a free retainer, people would pick the human, but unsurprisingly there aren’t many solicitors willing to offer their services for nothing.

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Browser himself has another thought on why other chatbots have struggled to capture the public imagination. “A lot of bots are created by social media teams who would traditionally run Facebook and Twitter pages. In contrast, I think the best chatbots are done by programmers who go beyond simple ‘input/output’ functionality,” he says.

“What’s to stop someone from developing a copycat bot that’s really dubious? One that advises you on how to avoid paying tax or worse”

While most bots offer services that are considerably more mundane, then, DoNotPay takes on reasonably powerful public institutions. Is he worried that they’ll turn DoNotPay’s legal weapons against him? He’s had no direct threats, he says, but some have made arguments that the bot breaches regulations – claims that Browder himself disputes.

The national government has been extremely supportive. Several government officials, such as Lord Wei in the UK, or FCC commissioner Ajit Pai in the US, have been incredibly supportive in their tweets. The technology advisor to the UK chief justice, Richard Susskind, even wrote an editorial praising DoNotPay,” explains Browder, so it’s fair to say he isn’t too worried.joshua_browder_donotpay

More amusingly, although he has had no direct contact, Browder tells me that the councils troubled by DoNotPay seem to have been testing the site themselves. “In the UK, almost every single council has signed up for the site with their @gov.uk addresses. On the back-end, I can see that they are thoroughly testing it out!”

“In the UK, almost every single council has signed up for the site with their @gov.uk addresses”

In fact, the lion’s share of the correspondence Browder gets is fanmail or questions about the bot. “I try to respond to as much as possible, and if my bot can’t help a user with his or her specific case, I will get on the phone or message them personally to discuss what they can do,” he explains. “It is hard to keep up with ‘thank you notes’, requests for new features and stories about unfair tickets.”

So the bot is still in development then? Absolutely. “The work is never done. Parking tickets are a multi-billion-dollar industry globally, and I feel like DoNotPay has just scratched the surface.”

There is an interesting question at the heart of DoNotPay, though: some might feel that helping people dodge parking tickets is depriving local government of invaluable funds that could cause the local community problems further down the line. This is a fairly light shade of grey in the greater scheme of things, but what’s to stop someone from developing a copycat bot that’s really dubious? One that advises you on how to avoid paying tax or worse?

“I can foresee this as a huge problem, especially as people have suggested bots like that to me,” Browder says. For him, the responsibility to prevent these from becoming too widespread sits with the platform-holders. “Ultimately, I think it’s the responsibility of the bot platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, to prevent any ethically dubious bots from reaching the public.”

That may seem like wishful thinking, but it does have precedent, as Browder explains: “When Apple released their review guidelines for iPhone apps, they banned any app that helps detect police DUI checkpoints, even though such apps are legal. I think similar leadership from the bot platforms is needed to avoid malicious bots.”

“Browder is putting his experience into something positively saintly: a bot that will assist Syrian asylum seekers to claim refugee status in the UK”

For now, though, Browder is putting his experience into something positively saintly: a bot that will assist Syrian asylum seekers to claim refugee status in the UK. “The bot, using IBM’s Watson’s speech-recognition technology, will be able to understand and answer questions in Arabic, but produce documents in English,” explains Browder.

That, however, is just a summer project. For most of us, a summer project wouldn’t have the potential to help thousands of people, but with Browder’s pedigree to date, you wouldn’t bet against him.

Images: David Jones and Joshua Browder

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