Osgoode AI conference looks at potential impact of artificial intelligence on Canada’s legal system

Artificial intelligence (AI) will harm, not help, Canada’s legal system unless the technology is carefully regulated and lawyers and law students receive proper training, panellists said at a recent conference at Osgoode Hall Law School.

“I’m not a fan of ethical AI – I’m in favour of legal AI,” Nye Thomas, executive director of the Osgoode-based Law Commission of Ontario (LCO) said during a discussion on “AI for the Future of Legal Practice” at the annual Bracing for Impact conference Nov. 9.  “There have to be legal parameters that govern AI,” he added.

The event – held for the first time in person since 2019 – was organized by IP Osgoode, part of Osgoode’s intellectual property and technology program. The panel discussion was moderated by Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Jonathon Penney and included Thomas, Osgoode Professor Pina D’Agostino, the founder and director of IP Osgoode and the IP Innovation Clinic, Professor Sari Graben, Associate Dean Research and Graduate Studies at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Toronto Metropolitan University, and Ryan Wong, an associate with the law firm Smart & Biggar.

The non-profit Law Commission of Ontario, which describes itself as Ontario’s leading law reform agency, is engaged in extensive research into AI and the law and is currently working on preparing Canada’s first human rights impact assessment of AI with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Internationally, Thomas said, AI is more pervasive in the legal world than many people realize, used in areas as diverse as bail sentencing, securities regulation and biometric facial recognition in policing. “It’s not all in Canada, but it’s coming,” he noted.

The design of such AI applications is typically opaque and can cause problems related to human rights, privacy and due process. Even so, Thomas said he’s optimistic AI will benefit the legal system and even improve access to justice “because there’s an extraordinary amount of work being done on the concept of trustworthy AI.”

The process of creating curriculum to prepare law students for the new AI landscape has been challenging, said D’Agostino and Graben. “The training of the generation to come to engage with this is critical, and yet we haven’t really thought about what shape that will take,” said Graben.

“AI and legal pedagogy keeps me up at night,” confided D’Agostino. “These are complex questions and we really need the technology expertise with the legal experts and the scientists all coming together.”

That was one of the key findings of a 2021 York University task force report on AI co-chaired by D’Agostino. That interdisciplinary approach should apply not only to research but to curriculum development, she said.

At Osgoode, she noted, one of the most successful student projects involving AI has been the creation of the Innovation Clinic Chatbot by students in the IP Innovation Clinic.

Wong, who was involved with the project as an Osgoode student, said it involved three main steps: building a question bank, sourcing answers through the Internet and testing the chatbot.

“The great thing about a chatbot is it will continue to grow,” he said. “The more data we put in, the more the chatbot will learn and develop.”

The full-day conference, which was co-sponsored by Israel’s Reichmann University and Microsoft, also included hour-long panels on AI for the future of urban development and the impact of AI on health care.

It also included a special ceremony officially launching the York University Centre for AI & Society, which included York University Vice-President, Research & Innovation Amir Asif, as well as D’Agostino and Professor James Elder of York’s Lassonde School of Engineering and the York University Faculty of Health. Both D’Agostino and Elder will serve as inaugural co-directors of the Centre for AI & Society.

A special lunchtime keynote address featured former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Marshall Rothstein and Lior Zemer, dean of the Harry Radzyner Law School at Reichman University. Their presentation on “ghetto copyright” looked at the failure of today’s legal apparatus to protect and advance the property rights of Jewish prisoners who directly documented the horrors of the Holocaust.

SPOT, an AI robot dog from Boston Dynamics, provided some lighter moments, meeting and greeting attendees during the intermissions and lunch break.