Can AI be a fair judge in court? Estonia thinks so.
GOVERNMENT USUALLY ISN’T the place to look for innovation in IT or new technologies like artificial intelligence. But Ott Velsberg might change your mind. As Estonia’s chief data officer, the 28-year-old graduate student is overseeing the tiny Baltic nation’s push to insert artificial intelligence and machine learning into services provided to its 1.3 million citizens.
“We want the government to be as lean as possible,” says the wiry, bespectacled Velsberg, an Estonian who is writing his PhD thesis at Sweden’s Umeå University on using the Internet of Things and sensor data in government services. Estonia’s government hired Velsberg last August to run a new project to introduce AI into various ministries to streamline services offered to residents.
Deploying AI is crucial, he says. “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.” About 22 percent of Estonians work for the government; that’s about average for European countries, but higher than the 18 percent rate in the US.
Siim Sikkut, Estonia’s chief information officer, began piloting several AI-based projects at agencies in 2017, before hiring Velsberg last year. Velsberg says Estonia has deployed AI or machine learning in 13 places where an algorithm has replaced government workers.
For example, inspectors no longer check on farmers who receive government subsidies to cut their hay fields each summer. Satellite images taken by the European Space Agency each week from May to October are fed into a deep-learning algorithm originally developed by the Tartu Observatory. The images are overlaid onto a map of fields where farmers receive the hay-cutting subsidies to prevent them from turning forests over time.
The algorithm assesses each pixel in the images, determining if the patch of the field has been cut or not. Cattle grazing or partial cutting can throw off the image processing; in those cases, an inspector still drives out to check. Two weeks before the mowing deadline, the automated system notifies farmers via text or email that includes a link to the satellite image of their field. The system saved €665,000 ($755,000) in its first year because inspectors made fewer site visits and focused on other enforcement actions, according to Velsberg.
In another application, resumes of laid-off workers are fed into a machine learning system that matches their skills with employers. About 72 percent of workers who gain a new job through the system are still on the job after six months, up from 58 percent before the computer-matching system was deployed. In a third case, children born in Estonia are automatically enrolled in local schools at birth, so parents don’t have to sign up on waiting lists or call school administrators. That’s because hospital records are automatically shared with local schools. The system doesn’t truly require AI, but it shows how automated services are expanding.
In the most ambitious project to date, the Estonian Ministry of Justice has asked Velsberg and his team to design a “robot judge” that could adjudicate small claims disputes of less than €7,000 (about $8,000). Officials hope the system can clear a backlog of cases for judges and court clerks.
The project is in its early phases and will likely start later this year with a pilot focusing on contract disputes. In concept, the two parties will upload documents and other relevant information, and the AI will issue a decision that can be appealed to a human judge. Many details are still to be worked out. Velsberg says the system might have to be adjusted after feedback from lawyers and judges.
Estonia’s effort isn’t the first to mix AI and the law, though it may be the first to give an algorithm decision-making authority. In the US, algorithms help recommend criminal sentences in some states. The UK-based DoNotPay AI-driven chatbot overturned 160,000 parking tickets in London and New York a few years ago. A Tallinn-based law firm, Eesti Oigusbüroo, provides free legal aid through a chatbot and generates simple legal documents to send to collection agencies. It plans to expand its “Hugo-AI” legal aid service matching clients and lawyers to Warsaw and Los Angeles by the end of the year, said CEO Artur Fjodorov.
The idea of a robot judge might work in Estonia partly because its 1.3 million residents already use a national ID card and are used to an online menu of services such as e-voting and digital tax filing.