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Artificial justice: Estonia is building a robot judge to settle backlogged cases

Estonia has come up with a solution to its backlog of small claims disputes that is as novel as it is disturbing: They’re building a robot judge to decide on pending cases.

As outrageous as it sounds, officials from the country’s Ministry of Justice have asked Chief Data Officer Ott Velsberg to design an artificial intelligence (AI) system that will be capable of adjudicating small claims cases that involve less than $8000. The idea is to free up human judges to rule on bigger and more complex cases.

This system will analyze the legal documents and other information pertaining to the case and then make its ruling based on algorithms and training. The ruling will be legally binding, but the parties involved will have the opportunity to appeal to an actual human judge if they are unhappy with the outcome.

A date has yet to be announced for the introduction of this alarming plan. Velsberg has stated that the system may need adjustments after getting feedback from lawyers and judges.

Estonia paving the way with digitization and technology

Although it has just 1.4 million citizens, Estonia is on the forefront of technology and digitization. Estonia was one of the first countries in the world to declare internet access a human right in 2001. The post-Soviet state is already using a national ID card system, digital tax filing, and electronic voting. A remarkable 99 percent of its government services are available to people online 24/7, and 59 new AI applications will be launched within the public sector by the end of next year. These will include offerings like a satellite litter detection program that will send cleanup crews automated messages.

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They’re already using satellites to monitor logging activities, farming projects, and detect ice in the Baltic Sea. For example, instead of sending inspectors to check on farmers who are getting government subsidies to cut hay fields every summer, they feed satellite images every week into a deep-learning algorithm to monitor the situation.

In another initiative, kids are automatically enrolled into local schools at birth, so their parents don’t need to go to enroll them in person. They’re also using AI algorithms to scan the resumes of workers who have been laid off to help find them jobs. These initiatives are said to be saving the government more than $1.6 million per year and shipping companies $3.3 million annually.

The Economics Ministry is also reportedly considering granting a legal status to AI and robots that would make them “robot agents” that are somewhere between a separate legal personality and an object that is someone’s personal property. This, they say, could help to determine responsibility when vehicles and machinery controlled by AI are involved in accidents. What could possibly go wrong?

Speaking to Wired, Velsberg said: “We want the government to be as lean as possible. Some people worry that if we lower the number of civil employees, the quality of service will suffer. But the AI agent will help us.”

Currently, around 22 percent of Estonians hold government jobs.

There are plenty of ways that using a robot as a judge can lead to disaster, and you don’t even need to be an AI skeptic to see the potential for problems here. The project may not even save them that much time or money in the long run, as many people who are on the losing end of a ruling could well exercise their right to have an appeal before a real judge anyway.

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