Skip to main content

Guest of the LII Warns Audience at Cornell of the Upcoming Robot Invasion (not really)

1458.jpgWe recently coordinated a very successful speaking engagement at Cornell Law School by long-time LII supporter Ed Walters.  Ed is the CEO of Fastcase, which describes itself as “the leading next-generation legal research service that puts a comprehensive national law library and smarter and more powerful searching, sorting, and visualization tools at your fingertips.”  Fastcase, among other things, pioneered citation analysis, data visualization, mobile apps, and eBooks for legal research.

But Ed wasn’t at Cornell Law to talk about Fastcase.  In his “free” time, Ed is a pioneer in the study of what he calls “robot law.”  He’s teaching the subject this semester as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The LII invited him to come speak at Cornell because, like the LII itself, this topic implicates expertise in computer science, information science, and law.  In fact, LII Director Tom Bruce was sure to invite his colleagues from IS/CS and their students, and they showed up in large numbers.

“Robotics embodies the physical transformation of the Industrial Revolution with the cultural upheaval of the Internet Revolution, and it has the potential to be bigger and faster than either,” Ed told the gathered audience.  “The challenge of the next 20 years will be to make sure our law and society are ready for self-driving cars, surgical robots, pervasive surveillance, and drone warfare.”

The lecture started with this same historical perspective–placing the increased use of robots in a continuum beginning with the Industrial Revolution and continuing through the advent of the internet into today.  Ed challenged the audience–as he challenges his students at Georgetown–not only to think of the vast applications for autonomous, sentient or quasi-sentient machines in all walks of life, but also to consider the legal and ethical ramifications of how society incorporates, regulates, and even punishes these machines.

Ed’s message was largely upbeat.  He believes that, like first machines and then computers, robots will increase human productivity without utterly replacing the human labor force.  But he was quick to emphasize the potential consequences if courts, legislatures, and society as a whole fail to make law that adequately addresses and accommodates the difference between human intelligence and the “emerging” intelligence we see in computers like IBM’s famous jeopardy-playing computer Watson.   A key component of his message was that these decisions cannot be delayed until some distant future:  “This isn’t science fiction; it’s science present.”

Feedback from around campus was entirely positive.  Eduardo Penalver, the Alan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School told us afterward that Ed “is thinking at — and working at — the cutting edge of law and technology.  We were fortunate to have him bring his insights to Cornell Law School.”

We were pleased to bring Ed to Cornell, and equally pleased to bring an audience of engineers, computer scientists, and lawyers alike to hear his thought-provoking talk.

You’re changing lives. Lots of them. year, you made it possible for us to help nearly 27 million people from over 200 countries find and understand the law.  But that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Many members of that enormous-but-anonymous audience — including a lot of you — use our materials to help people who have never looked at the LII website and probably never will.  And it is out there, on the ground with the helpers that we help, that your contributions are changing lives.

Elsewhere in this newsletter, you can read about Deb Fisher, who uses the LII in her work with Tax-Aide, a program of the AARP Foundation.  Tax-Aide helps 2.6 million low- and middle-income Americans, most of them elderly, file their income taxes every year. Deb is one of ten people who develop training materials for Tax-Aide volunteers.

There are many more stories like Deb’s. A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day “in the numbers”, looking at what we know about how our site is used.  Here are a few of the people and organizations that are helped when you donate to the LII:

That’s only a part of it. And even so, it’s not the 3-bullet-point, telegraphic list that a clever professional would use in a newsletter like this.  The scope and diversity are important and impressive.  When you give to the LII, the impact is transmitted through those who use the site to help others.  Your contributions, directly and indirectly, help millions.

Those big numbers — the 27 million in our audience, or the 2.6 million who are helped by Tax-Aide volunteers like Deb — are impressive as hell,  but they lose detail.  They’re like an aerial photograph of a crowd.  We can see that there are a lot of people, and that they tend to cluster around particular needs and issues.  Every once in a while, with the help of some of you who are closer to the ground, we can see an individual face or two.  In Deb Fisher’s experience, it’s a face that is glowing with gratitude.

It’s a remarkable act of faith on your part.  You put contributions in our hands, trusting that we’ll build something people can use to help themselves or help others in ways that neither you nor we will ever know in detail.  We try to return that trust by using your money wisely.  We describe that process in more detail elsewhere, and I would invite you to look into the details and mail me personally with any questions or comments you might have.

There are other, more dramatic stories to tell and perhaps I’ll do that in some future newsletter. But I personally prefer the story of a few people like you making a hundred little things possible that have meaning for real people — millions of them, all over the world.

Thank you.

Deb Fisher, LII Donor and Volunteer AARP Tax-Aide

Displaying Deb & Warren.jpgDeb Fisher spends a lot of time in the LII’s U.S. Code Title 26 – also known as the Internal Revenue Code. That’s because she’s a retired civil engineer who volunteers for the AARP’s Tax-Aide program.  Tax-Aide provides tax preparation for low-to-middle income people.  Most, but not all, are seniors. It serves 2.6 million taxpayers annually at more than 5,000 sites nationwide. Nationally, the organization has 35,000 volunteers, and only 12 paid staff.   It’s a great example of how the free legal information at the LII helps those who help others.

Deb and her husband Warren work for Tax-Aide because they like to solve puzzles. “I saw an article in the newspaper about the training,” Deb says. “I had just retired and was missing the numbers part of my brain. I got absolutely hooked.” She would come home and tell Warren about the intriguing puzzles she had solved, so he volunteered too.

“In some volunteer jobs, you understand how important they are, but go a long time before seeing results,” explains Deb. “With Tax-Aide, at the end of the hour you have someone just glowing with thanks—it’s almost a drug, being so appreciated.” The anti-drug happens “when you have people who unexpectedly end up owing money and have to make a monthly payment plan. That’s emotionally hard.”

Twenty years after helping with her first tax return as one of Tax-Aide’s thousands of volunteers, Deb is one of 10 who serve on the National Tax Training Committee (NTTC), working to develop the materials used for training the Tax-Aide volunteers.

The NTTC volunteers collaborate to develop Tax-Aide training in a specific area, as well as assisting the IRS to develop the official training materials. Deb explains: “The ten of us produce the AARP supplements. We also produce special programs for the instructors in case the class needs a particular problem to supplement their training.”

Her husband Warren is a district coordinator, running what is called a Super Site. “There are five tax sites in our county,” Deb explains. “The fifth one, the Super Site, is at a local mall. It’s open six days a week and two evenings, with 12 to 15 volunteer preparers. They do 4,000 tax returns each year. Warren makes sure the sites run well, and that the instructors cover everything the volunteers need to know. He also takes one day a week to do tax returns.”

Deb and Warren trained as civil engineers, then worked for the forest service. “Campgrounds need power, water, roads, bathrooms, and offices,” says Deb. “I mostly worked on roads and trails. We did trail bridges, a lot of road and trail design. Warren was a ski-lift engineer—so he had to go skiing.”

The couple lived in Anchorage, Arizona, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Quincy, CA. “When we were married, we made a list of places we wanted to live,” Deb explains. “We had wonderful careers, with good people who were all working toward the same thing.” They chose to retire early—and have had 20 years of fun!

The Fishers now live in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, “We had bought land there when we were first married, and we would come and camp on it every Labor Day,” recalls Deb. “It was 80 degrees, sunny, with wonderful lakes. We decided that had to be heaven. But when we moved up here we discovered that winter is cold and gray. The Rockies lie to the east of us, and the clouds pile up here.” On the other hand, she says, the Tax-Aide work is perfect for gray days.

Now, however, Deb helps with training during the tax season, and then spends the rest of the year working with the NTTC to create the training. Working at home, she spends three or four days a week on Tax-Aide. “We certainly take off on vacation now and then,” she notes. In their spare time, Warren likes golfing; Deb likes to line dance—and now she’s a dance instructor. She also enjoys gardening, and, like Ithaca gardeners, has a running battle with nibbling deer. “I’d like to make a deal with them,” she says. “Eat my plants in the daytime when I can see you!” Perhaps the Fishers can solve that puzzle, too.

Deb concludes,“ When someone has a volunteer job they really love and the spouse doesn’t, it can create some conflict, but when we’re both involved, it’s great.”

Hello, I’m Brian Hughes

Brian Laurence HughesLII supporters are very generous people, and we like to make sure that they get credit for their generosity. Of course, we use computers for that—in fact, a complex of computers that run several different, highly secure software systems. Meet the man who glues them together.

In 1999, Brian Hughes was the first full-time programmer to join the founding team of Peter Martin and Tom Bruce. Around 2002, Brian wrote the first, very simple donor-tracking program. These days, with added concerns about security and identity theft, those systems are handled by systems built (and operated by) trustworthy vendors such as Verisign, Elavon and Salesforce—but the LII still needs to integrate them, and that’s where Brian comes in. Although he works on other projects for the LII, such as transforming our up-to-the-minute data feed from the Supreme Court into the pages you read on the site, Brian finds working with donor information much more satisfying. “It’s been something that I’m completely responsible for,” he says.

Brian’s father was a programmer for Sylvania, DEC, and MIT, before working for the Peace Corps and USAID, bringing the Hughes family along, first to France, then to Morocco, finally to Niger. In those countries, young Brian went to French-speaking schools, and learned Moroccan Arabic. When the Hughes family returned to Massachusetts, Brian spent a year in public school before going to Harvard, where he studied linguistics. His parents and two of his three sisters also attended Harvard, while the third sister became a lawyer.

Brian didn’t start out as a programmer. “Library work appealed to me and it’s where I worked for a long time,” he says. “I was always a library assistant, not a professional—I didn’t want the aggravation of being a professional.” (His wife, Cathy Conroy, is a library professional, so Brian hears all about the aggravation that job can bring.)  Then, as now, Brian was strongly oriented toward customer service and to helping people find and understand information.

After college, Brian’s first job was at the Northeastern Law School Library. “I worked at the circulation desk,” he says. “I helped the students find books the professor wanted them to Shepardize” (For the non-lawyers among you, to “Shepardize” is to use the Shepard’s Citation Service–now a part of Lexis Nexis– to check legal citations to ensure the law cited remains current and accurate.

Brian then returned to Harvard, first in their geology library, then as an international law library assistant in the law library. Finally, he joined a computer support team. “I liked that job,” he recalls. “E-mail started near the end of my time there. I got a computer and fooled around with programming. I even wrote a program. You know what happens when you lean your finger on a key, right? You get 7,000 periods ……………………….. on your screen.”  Brian wrote a program to set the repeat at a reasonable rate.

With his growing computer skills, he maintained a database for personnel records. “I enjoyed that job,” Brian says. Since the background of much of LII website consists of complicated databases, one might see that as a sign of Brian’s future career.

Around that time, LII co-founder and current director Tom Bruce was consulting for Harvard Law Library director Terry Martin. They created LEDA, an institutional repository for archiving and distributing legal scholarship—and hired Brian to write the code for it. “Then Tom said—come to the LII,” Brian recalls.

Now, of course, people graduate from college with a degree in computer science. Brian, however, is self-taught. “I’ve always been learning as I go,” he says. For the computer geeks among you, Brian mostly uses Perl, PHP, Python, and MySQL. “They’re good for working on big wads of text,” Brian explains—for example, the U.S.  Code or the Supreme Court decisions.

Brian Hughes speaks or reads several languages, including French and Arabic, and he’s teaching himself Latin. Is this why he’s so good at learning programming languages?

“They call it a programming language, and programming books invoke human language. I think they’re nuts,” Brian says. “Computer languages are just a set of instructions.” In human language, he explains, “I don’t have to say things exactly right, and we still understand each other. We mentally correct as we read, but computers don’t do that.” Computers are literal, Brian explains. Leave out a comma, and the program breaks. Then you have to find that spot and add the comma. As with proofreading a written document (like this one), Brian notes, “it takes immense concentration NOT to see what should be there.” Brian’s work includes hunting for misplaced commas or equals signs, along with reading complex documentation for the various products that he glues together to create the systems that process your gifts.

Brian works from his home in Andover, Massachusetts—the first LII staff member to work remotely, and now the only one. The Harold Parker State Forest is in his back yard, which is perfect for Brian. “I’ve always liked the outdoor stuff,” he says. “When I came back from Niger and was in high school, it was a cheerful time—I was with my age group and speaking American. I had a bike, got books, and rode around identifying things. I can still remember identifying my first titmouse.”

LII Director Tom Bruce says, “Brian is a constant source of astonishment. I mean, this is a guy who labels his spice jars with the scientific names of the plants. But the thing that always makes my jaw drop is his music collection, especially modern stuff. He’s got Scriabin and Stravinsky, John Adams and John Harbison, and I’d bet money that there’s some Esa-Pekka Salonen on the shelf too.”

Now Brian’s back yard is full of birdfeeders. While programming the donor systems, Brian can listen to Esa-Pekka Salonen and watch the titmice forage for seeds.

LII’s prizewinning students are guest of honor at the opening of Gates Hall

BOOM WinnersOctober 1st was a big day at Cornell. Bill Gates was on campus for the dedication of Bill & Melinda Gates Hall, the new home of Cornell’s Faculty of Computing and Information Science. In his remarks, Gates spoke of the “the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in advancing computer science”. That’s an idea we like a lot – it’s what made LII possible from the start.

The Gates Hall dedication also gave us an opportunity to catch up a bit with two students we’d worked with last year. Cornell Masters of Engineering  (and LII project team) alumnae Deepthi Rajagopalan and Neha Kulkarni had been invited to return to campus to attend the dedication ceremony and present their project. Their team, won the Googliest project award at the BOOM science fair and the faculty-selected departmental M.Eng. project award last year. The project involved the use of advanced natural-language processing techniques to identify definitions in the Code of Federal regulations and determine their scope. It was gratifying to see them receive further distinction for their work.

The project was in many ways a model of interdisciplinary collaboration between engineering students, who researched the performance of several techniques for extracting the definitions, and law students, who produced gold-standard data for the engineering students to use for training and evaluating their software. The underlying purpose is to help people who need to read and understand regulations know which terms in the text they’re reading have been explicitly defined and get access the definitions for those terms.

After a frantic but fruitful search for a year-old project poster, we got a chance to catch up a bit on how we’ve ended up building the CFR definition feature for the web site (for example, at Deepthi (now at Oracle in San Francisco) and Neha (now at Nomura in New York) hadn’t forgotten the challenges of working with legal text – convoluted sentences, paragraph nesting, enumeration – and had a wealth of experience to share.

Deepthi and Neha are two of more than 30 M.Eng. students in computer science who have worked with LII over the years. This year, M.Eng. students are working on mapping financial concepts and explanatory materials to financial regulations in the CFR, and MPS students are working on the visual presentation of law related to hydrofracking.