This short story is a work of fiction originally submitted for the Legal Tech Fictional Writing Competition hosted by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division and the Access to Justice Tech Fellows and sponsored in part by LexBlog. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the author and the American Bar Association. Copyright 2021.
Full results of the competition can be found here.
In the matter of Infinite Monkeys
by Theresa Yuan, Notre Dame Law School
“Appeal decision,” I said automatically.
“Unsuccessful. You lack sufficient credits for the appellate submission fee,” the digital clerk told me.
“I know,” I said, even though there’s no arguing with a computer, “But this is my six-year-old son we’re talking about.”
The digital clerk said nothing. I wondered if I could call over a human clerk, but the city only kept two on the payroll and they were typically furloughed.
“Fine,” I said, “Just a minute.”
Kayla had warned me against using Robolawyer. Last night, as we videoed, she wanted me to give up on our son. She would hear nothing about how evil and ridiculous and wrong the boarding school administrators were to insist on transferring Max to a preventative rehab center. Their suggestion that we terminate custody to avoid paying the rehab bills did not even faze her.
“If they’ve calculated his future so exactly, and it looks that bad, who are we to argue?” she said.
“That algorithm they use can make mistakes,” I said, “There’s new science coming out all the time about antipathy in children, if it’s even that, if it isn’t just the school thinking he’s a problem because he’s not as rich as the other kids, he doesn’t look like the other kids, he didn’t go to that charter pre-school program they did—”
“They predicted that next time, instead of killing a gerbil, he’ll break someone’s nose,” Kayla said, “And they predicted he’s gonna permanently maim someone by the time he’s fifteen.”
Her lips were pressed into a thin line. I was so familiar with those lips. We used to be in a post-industrial synth band together. We played sets all over the city. Kayla sang. Her lips were ruby red, almost touching the microphone. The bars paid us in beers. We sat on the stools to cheer for the opening bands. It was a time to undertake joint projects, to play everywhere we were invited, to agree with our hearts pounding and our hands clasped together over the plus-sign on the pregnancy test that we should have Max.
The bars started hiring algorithmic bands to open. At first, the crowd talked over those sets. Who cares to watch if there’s nobody swaying and twitching onstage? But the algorithmic bands got better. They studied the entire musical catalogue of man-made music and moved onto natural sounds like whale songs and leaves rustling before a storm. The melodies were faster than anything I could pluck out on the bass guitar. The music swelled exactly when you wanted it to. Even I had to admit, shouting in Kayla’s ear, that algorithmic music was beautiful.
Kayla stopped drinking beer because she was carrying Max. I stopped too because I felt sick to my stomach listening to perfect music. Then the bars stopped inviting us.
Now Kayla had long sold her microphone, my guitar. She was back up north, taking samples on the oil rig and videoing me after third shift, a ghost in pixels for most of the year.
“Their antipathy algorithm could be wrong,” I told Kayla.
I had to repeat myself because my connection flickered out, and saying it the second time, it sounded stupider. I trusted the science. I knew hundreds of programmers checked algorithms for biases and bugs. And if artificial intelligence so dumb, how did it manage to replace us in the bars?
Kayla sighed. “Even if the algorithm is wrong and the school is wrong and whatever the judge says tomorrow is wrong, we can’t afford to do an appeal and lose and then pay for Max to be at that rehab place.”
“We can afford Robolawyer,” I said to her. “It’s free to do appeals through that algorithm that’s learning how to do appeals.”
Kayla’s face went flat. I fantasized that it was just her connection failing. I knew she was disappointed in my obstinacy. I knew she was second-guessing whether the dating algorithm all those years ago had correctly calculated our compatibility. After I wasn’t a long-haired bass player in a band anymore, after that particular mask slipped away, I was just some hairy chump in a sweatshirt, lifting Max to the camera for her to see as he grew over the years. I knew she wanted out, maybe a new baby with a new partner, and shared custody of Max was delaying her. I didn’t care.
The conversational quality algorithm, which listened and parsed keywords from hundreds of similar conversations, flashed a warning on both our screens: Unproductive conversation.
“Tomorrow I’m gonna use Robolawyer if I have to, to get our son back,” I said, reaching for the button to end the call, “I hope you’ll be here to welcome him when I do.”
“Robolawyer is loading your appeal,” said the pleasant deep voice coming out of my phone. I trusted that voice right away. Such timber. Straight out of a real office with mahogany bookcases and a freestanding globe.
“Robolawyer is ready to submit your appeal,” said the pleasant deep voice, “Press ‘Submit.’”
My finger hovered over the button. I pressed “Submit.”
“Your appeal is filed,” the digital clerk said.
“Can I read the appeal?” I asked Robolawyer.
“No. It is proprietary information,” said the pleasant deep voice.
I realized I was sweating and cold all at once. But it was out of my hands. This algorithm would take care of us.
The Monday after, the school informed me that Max had bit a classmate at recess. The classmate required surgery. I tried not to think about that on the way back to the juvenile court. They had summoned me. They had reached their decision.
I arrived breathless. I didn’t have time to load Robolawyer before a human clerk handed me the decision. It was two sentences long.
The appeal is frivolous. Adjudication of delinquency affirmed.
It had to be a mistake. I fumbled for my phone. My hands shook. The human clerk tapped on the glass window between us to get my attention.
“You used Robolawyer?” she said.
“Yeah, I mean, I think there’s been some mistake,” I said, “So I’ll try again—”
“Don’t bother, Mr. Sun,” she said, “We’ve been seeing this a lot with that app.”
She pressed a copy of the appeal against the glass window. I leaned in to read it.
Motion for rehearing in the matter of M.S.
Pursuant to § 33-48, I request that this case be set for rehearing before the Juvenile Court Judge. I am appealing the order from the decision of the Magistrate. The specific part of the Magistrate’s order that I am appealing is: the order from the decision of the Magistrate. The specific part of the Magistrate’s order that I am appealing is: the order from the decision of the Magistrate. The specific part of the Magistrate’s order that I am appealing is: the order from the decision of the Magistrate—
The rest of the page went on in a loop.
“They say infinite monkeys typing on infinite keyboards could eventually write Shakespeare,” the human clerk said, “But maybe the algorithms aren’t there yet.”
I could feel Max’s hair against my cheek the last time I hugged him at the school gate.
“I’ll appeal again,” I said.
“Everyone only gets one bite at the apple,” the human clerk said.
I sagged into my collared shirt. Somehow, from some churn of an invisible machine, it was over. The human clerk looked at me as if in pity.
“Why don’t you ask the judge for the alternative program?” she said.
It’s Sunday at the train station, two months after I asked for the alternative program. Kayla has all her bags. She’s leaving. She won’t be back. She’s sure.
Max watches me carefully. Ever since coming back from that school, he’s been quiet. He isn’t crying right now, but I am.
I take off the total surveillance glasses to dab at my eyes. The glasses feed footage to the juvenile delinquency identification algorithm, which flashes warnings to me. Aggressive behavior, when I see Max take savage delight in crushing a row of ants. Antipathy detected, when Max lies about breaking the television. I’m supposed to correct the behavior. I ignore the warnings. Algorithms can be wrong.
It’s fine that the glasses watch us. It watches so many families. From its perspective, we must look like rows and rows of scrambling primates. I don’t feel shame at what it sees.
There is nothing to hide. Just Max’s round body, luminous in the sunlight streaming into the station. Just the two of us, my cheek pressed to his hair, for a minute.