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Leiden Law Cast #7: Law and computers with Professor Jaap van den Herik

Leiden Law Cast is a podcast made by Leiden Law School, Leiden University, for everyone who wants to learn more about current legal issues.

Irem Çakir (L) en Hamza Duprée

Today we are joined by Professor Jaap van den Herik. A special guest, because how did a chess-playing mathematician end up in the world of law? Jaap talks about the role of information science in law. What are the opportunities and the pitfalls of artificial intelligence (AI) in our profession. And as wise words, Jaap has an urgent message for our listeners!

Jaap van den Herik, Professor emeritus Law and Computer Science, is a special guest for a podcast on law: what is a mathematician doing in the field of law?

To explain this, Jaap starts by sketching his student days. In 1966, he exchanged Rotterdam for our capital city to study mathematics. It was the perfect study for him: solving puzzles during the day under the supervision of his lecturers, and time to play chess for hours in the evening. He was so fond of the latter that he even put his studies on hold for a year to really pursue his passion, subsequently becoming student champion!

After his time in Amsterdam, Jaap continued his career at TU Delft where he wrote his PhD thesis on, among other things, the question whether computers could play chess, and whether they could beat humans. His co-supervisor Professor Adriaan de Groot challenged him up to the defence of his doctorate that intuition cannot be programmed, and even had a newspaper column published where he accused Jaap of having a blind spot. These friendly ‘encounters’ developed to become catchwords in Jaap's later works, such as ‘intuition can be programmed’ and ‘challenging the blind spot’.

After completing his PhD, the combination of law and information science started playing an increasingly large role in Jaap’s life. Besides his appointment to a university position in this field, he established a number of societies and associations that aimed to promote legal knowledge systems. The icing on the cake was organising the Leiden Legal Technology programme – a tip for all interested persons. Jaap stresses the importance of more originality and creativity among the often somewhat ‘stuffy’ lawyers. After briefly considering the recent benefits affair in the Netherlands, Jaap emphasises the importance of a multidisciplinary approach instead of an interdisciplinary one: an interdisciplinary approach often falls between two stools, while a multidisciplinary approach has several bases.

After this general discussion, we turn to computers and the justice system. Jaap rightly points out the differences that exist between cultures, and that these differences are often based on assumptions. Differences in cultures, and therefore also in law, can be made explicit. These differences in cultures, and therefore in law, do not only differ between countries. Jaap points to the differences in law that already exist between, for instance, Schiphol Airport and Groningen, if only because more pockets are picked in the former. These kinds of differences are all dimensions that the courts have to take into account. A computer would therefore also have to deal with these differences if it were to dispense justice. There are countless dimensions to criminality, for example, and making them explicit would make (judicial) intuition programmable for a computer.

Jaap notes that despite the growing role of Artificial Intelligence in our society, our attitude towards AI in law remains ambiguous at best. So he says: ban it if it doesn't fit our society, no hard feelings. But let's not hide behind opaque reasoning.

AI does not only have legal applications: in a way, we are already using it. The days when junior staff would sit endlessly sifting through archives to dig up information are over. Instead, a good search engine is the weapon of choice for investigating lawyers. Jaap also brings an inherent problem to our attention: not all legal information is meant for all eyes. How can a system properly distinguish between privileged and confidential information? This is a tricky problem for law firms that have their data managed by AI, if only because of lawyer-client confidentiality.

With regard to AI in general, our guest predicts that self-aware computers are still a long way off. Before that enormous step can be taken, the complex step of computers having a conscious must first be taken.

Finally, Jaap closes with some wise words for our listeners. He mainly addresses the law faculty and urges it to be more open to global developments. Although Jaap has repeatedly advocated the role of technology in law, his words seemed to fall on deaf ears. He felt that perhaps his grey hair played a role in how his comments were received: unjustified according to Jaap. Judge him on his skills and energy, not his age.

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