One of the goals of the annual C2 conference in Canada’s vibrant city of Montreal is to explore trends and disruptions in the business community and solve big-picture problems through “radical solutions and breakthrough technologies.”
On May 26, 2017, I had the opportunity to interview fellow attendees Andrew Arruda and Jimoh Ovbiagele, the co-founders of ROSS Intelligence, which builds artificial intelligence (AI) tools for the legal sector.
The C2 team would refer to them as “moonshotters,” or people who dream up great ideas and foster the necessary talent and environments to bring them to life.
Ovbiagle, despite the negative connotation, was ‘inspired’ by a difficult experience. When his parents separated, his mother struggled under the weight of high legal fees, and he remembers feeling angry and confused.
When Ovbiagele was in university studying AI, his mother’s experience laid the groundwork for ROSS Intelligence, a company that would use technology to make the law more efficient and increase accessibility to affordable and high-quality legal care.
He called Arruda, who was a lawyer in Toronto at the time, to ask his opinion. His initial response? “It’s like getting a call from someone saying that in your industry you’re using an abacus and now I have high-powered calculators.”
Arruda left the legal practice where he was working, and ROSS Intelligence was born.
Question: Was the company really launched in a basement? We hear this anecdote all the time about entrepreneurs.
Arruda: It was, and we have pictures to verify it. And it was very, very cold.
Q: Was it a finished basement or an unfinished basement?
Arruda: It was a basement that was essentially being used to just throw stuff out. It was student housing, and you know how those get. The basement had no heating, and it was the winter, and so they were like “yeah, you can use it for free.” It was some of our friends. Our first purchase was a small heater, which was pretty funny.
Q: Do you see AI as here and now? It’s ready for prime time?
Arruda: We commercialized our product within 10 months. Then what we did was benchmark it, and lawyers equipped with ROSS can cut 30 per cent of their time in the research process and work 40 per cent more effectively. It’s not just about us: Google has benchmarked their stuff, Amazon has benchmarked their stuff. A lot of the time people are like “AI is maybe stuck in a hype cycle.” And I think for sure sometimes you open up an article and it’s like “AI enabled roti-making machine,” you might not need that. But I do think what we’re seeing right now is we’re past that. When you see what’s out there and what’s happening right now it’s here and it’s now. Conferences like (C2) are a testament to that. Today if I had a quarter for every time someone said “AI” I’d probably be very wealthy. It’s that frequent.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about the product itself. Tell me who your customer is, and what it is that they’re doing with the product.
Arruda: Our customers are lawyers at any shape and sized law firm or organization. The challenge we’re taking on, and you’ve probably seen it in movies before, you have to do a whole bunch of research to help someone. People would come into my office and tell me their problem, and unless I had dealt with that before, there goes me, devoting hours and hours reading a whole bunch of cases to try to find what they need. What we did is train ROSS to be able to do that and instantly provide those answers. ROSS will read through over a million pages of case law a second, and it’s going to find all the passages of law that you need. It’s kind of doing all that grunt work for you, but it’s still, and I think this is key, it still has the human lawyer at the centre of it, and it’s really extending their capabilities. Sometimes there’s this big emphasis with AI on replacing jobs, but I think in law especially when you consider how many people would love to have a lawyer but they can’t afford it in the current way it’s being delivered, I think AI in law really offers a unique example of the democratization of something that’s really necessary for society.
Q: Would your family be able to use this now?
Ovbiagele: My family wouldn’t be able to use this, but people in the position of my family would benefit from it because what we’re doing is making the legal industry more efficient. We’re enabling a single lawyer to help more people. A stat that shocked us when we started doing deeper research was that 80 per cent of the people in the United States who need legal services can’t afford it. At the same time we have a record low number of lawyers, so the supply isn’t meeting the demand. And one of the reasons why, as Andrew encountered when he was working at a law firm, if someone comes into your firm there’s this basic amount of legal research you need to do, and other stuff, in order to help them. To recoup that cost you have to charge fees to make a living. We’re lowering the cost to deliver legal services and that’s how it’s going to help everyday people and businesses.
Arruda and Ovbiagele were interviewed in the ‘aquarium’ at C2, a glassed-in studio that simulcast on YouTube.
You can view the segment in its entirety here:
Sean Stanleigh is managing editor of Globe Edge Content Studio. You can follow him @seanstanleigh