Meet the British whiz kid who fights for justice with a robo-lawyer sidekick

Joshua Browder | DoNotPay chatbot inventor
Joshua Browder/Facebook
Joshua Browder/Facebook

There’s a line in Shakespeare’s Henry VI in which one character offers his take on how to improve life for everyone in England. “The first thing we do,” he says, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” Jump forward 400 years and 21-year-old British computer whiz kid Joshua Browder doesn’t want to kill all the lawyers — but his robot lawyer may just help delete them.

A few years ago, then-18 year old Browder created an A.I. chatbot called DoNotPay, designed to help anyone who needed it to appeal parking tickets for free. In his own words, it was a “side project just to impress a few friends.” But it became something more than that. After receiving a series of parking tickets himself, Browder was shocked by the lack of available free resources to help him. Even worse, he discovered an underclass of lawyer who would help complete the necessary forms, but wanted half the cost of the ticket in order to do so. Shortly thereafter, a new project was born.

“I’m just doing this from my dorm room.”

His hacked-together robot lawyer works by guiding users through a series of questions, like whether or not parking signs were clearly visible when they parked, as part of the appeals process. When DoNotPay launched online, it went viral almost immediately. Within a short space of time, it had helped successfully appeal $4 million worth of tickets. Today, Browder pegs that figure at around $12 million.

“I’m just doing this from my dorm room,” Browder, now a computer science major at Stanford University, told Digital Trends. “It’s not like it’s something that’s got a big corporation behind it. I just love coding, and I’ve coded something I’m lucky enough is now being used by hundreds of thousands of people.”

Know your rights

The problem, he says, is that most people have no idea about their rights. That’s a big issue because most of us turn out to be very compliant: we’ll complain about a parking ticket to our friends or partner, but we’ll ultimately pay it because… well, surely the people issuing the fines know what they’re doing!

Since launching DoNotPay, Browder has expanded the service, working with a small team of volunteer lawyers to do so. The DoNotPay chatbot can now help people get access to government housing, dispute an airline charge, resolve problems with landlords, and hundreds of other use-cases. Recently, Browder launched an update that helps people in the U.S. get the absolute cheapest airfare. To do this, it continually searches for lower-priced tickets, even after you’ve made a purchase, and then finds a legal loophole to help you cancel the old one and rebook at the lower price. The difference in cost gets refunded straight to your bank account.

“It’s really exciting to give access to justice for people,” he continued. “In the U.S., and I think a similar statistic is true in the U.K., over 80 percent of those who need lawyers can’t actually afford it. By making this service free I can help people to access the justice that they need.”

An update helps people in the U.S. get the absolute cheapest airfare.

Browder comes from a dauntingly high-achieving family. His father, Bill Browder, is an American-born British financier, previously CEO and co-founder of the largest foreign portfolio investment firm in Russia, before being banned from the country for allegedly exposing corruption. His grandfather, Felix Browder, was an American mathematician known for his work in nonlinear functional analysis, who at one time served as president of the American Mathematical Society.

However, it’s his great grandfather that Browder cites as perhaps his biggest source of inspiration. Earl Russell Browder was an American political activist who was leader of the Communist Party USA during the 1930s and first half of the 1940s. “In the 1940s, he actually ran for President of the United States on the communist ticket,” Browder said. “He was like the Bernie Sanders of his day. There were big problems with exploitation and worker rights. He used to do these huge campaigns to help people fight for their rights, mailing out thousands of letters to people.”

Using modern technology, Browder says that he believes it’s possible to scale “those same great principles to help make the world a slightly better place.”

The ‘Mark Zuckerberg house’

Which brings us to DoNotPay, circa 2018. After going it alone for a few years, Browder has now accepted some venture funding. Last summer, he moved out to Silicon Valley for a couple months and rented the “Mark Zuckerberg house,” a five-bedroom home in Palo Alto, depicted in the movie The Social Network as the nerdy frat house that served as Facebook’s first unofficial HQ.

Is there any conflict between the noble mission of helping people achieve justice, and a desire to latch onto the legend of a fraternity-style home that once saw a young Mark Zuckerberg ride a zipline into the swimming pool?

“Silicon Valley is getting worse and worse in the eyes of the public. However, there’s one thing that I think is really good, and that should be transferred to the rest of the world, and that’s that lots of people who start [businesses] don’t do it just to make money,” Browder said. “I can’t read Mark Zuckerberg’s mind, but don’t believe that he started Facebook to make money. He did it because it’s a cool product that helped lots of people.”

“I’m not against lawyers in general — just the ones who exploit people.”

Does he worry about the effect that DoNotPay might have on lawyers? After all, while lawyers aren’t always painted as the world’s most sympathetic bunch, they’re just as much at risk of automation as the rest of us. In the book Failing Law Schools, law professor Brian Tamanha points to U.S. government statistics suggesting that, through 2018, there will only be 25,000 new openings available for young lawyers — despite the fact that law schools will produce around 45,000 graduates during that same timeframe.

This might one day turn out to be the “good old days.” It is quite possible that one day law firms will hand many jobs over to A.I. systems, and retain only a few high-earning human lawyers at the top of the pile.

“I’m not against lawyers in general; just the ones who exploit people by charging huge amounts of money for copying and pasting documents,” Browder said. “I don’t think my software will be arguing in the high court any time soon, but one day my dream is to give everyone representing themselves in court a personal robot lawyer that can advise them on what to say to help them with their issues. In the long run, hopefully everything a consumer would ever need a lawyer for can be made free for them. That’ll be true access to justice.”

The automation of law

Not everyone is convinced that A.I. robots such as this will necessarily disrupt the legal profession in a profound way. In a Quartz article, the legal journalist and scholar Ephrat Livni disputes the description of DoNotPay as a “robot lawyer,” pointing out the complexity of what a real lawyer does. Livni isn’t wrong. Applying the law to a case isn’t just about knowing how to call up the right rule at the right time.

free robotic lawyer appealed 3 million parking tickets ticket robot

The judicial process, for instance, is less about mechanical objectivity than it is about a high level of intersubjective agreement. Lawyers have to be creative in their arguments. It’s also hard to imagine large companies ever laying off their slickly suited legal team in favor of recruiting the A.I. law firm of Siri, Watson, & Alexa (or whatever such a firm might be called.)

But if advances in legal A.I.s continue to develop at the rate of other artificial intelligence applications, our understanding of what is “standardized” and “bespoke” legal advice will almost certainly shift. In 2004, serious academics thought A.I. would never be able to drive a car. A few years ago, the board game Go was considered a no-no for machine intelligence. Both of those are now demonstrably incorrect. What job that currently requires a human lawyer is the equivalent of either of those?

Even if DoNotPay only continues to carry out lower level legal work, though, Browder is convinced that his service is making a difference.

“I get about 100 emails a day,” he said. “People sometimes assume that because I create these technologies, I can personally help them with random legal issues. That can be exciting when it gives me new ideas for products. But on the other hand I’ve heard some really sad stories. Just in terms of parking tickets, I’ve heard from people who are homeless, who live in their car, and just keep getting new tickets every day. I’ve also heard from people whose banks made one minor mistake on their credit report, which ruins their life. This makes me realize how terrible the world can be — and how important it is to try and do something to help.”

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