12 August 2005

The Day the Legal Profession Begins to Fall Silent

According to Wired, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a "Jerk-o-Meter" which analyzes telephone voice inputs to determine if the caller is acting like a tool or if that caller is really engaged in the conversation at all:
The program, which [project leader Anmol] Madan said is nearing completion, uses mathematical algorithms to measure levels of stress and empathy in a person's voice. It also keeps track of how often someone is speaking.

"It's an academically proven thing," Madan said of the math behind those measurements. "There are a bunch of academic papers published about this."

For now, the Jerk-O-Meter is set up to monitor the user's end of the conversation. If his attention is straying, a message pops up on the phone that warns, "Don't be a jerk!" or "Be a little nicer now." A score closer to 100 percent would prompt, "Wow, you're a smooth talker."

However, the Jerk-O-Meter also could be set up to test the voice on the other end of the line. Then it could send the tester such reports as: "This person is acting like a jerk. Do you want to hang up?"

It's just a nascent technology, but it seems we're reaching a tipping point where lawyers' generally-repellent inter-personal communications skills can be objectively-measured across many media. Caller-side mobile phone conversations are the start; from here, it's both ends of mobile and landline calls, then realtime and recorded conversations. Analysis of written communications and e-mail is already possible, but is more content-based (and thus has more potential for improper intrusion upon privilege); still, the technology exists and could easily be indexed against the scales and factors used in this "Jerk-o-Meter" and related research.

Once something can be measured, it can be controlled, and professional and judicial willingness to control lawyer conduct and civility already exists, albeit only currently as wishy-washy professional standards and judicial guidelines. What's the line between zealousness and abusiveness? It's always been gray, but the dynamic may take on a new character once abusiveness can be objectively and reliably measured and recorded. Perhaps lawyers will adjust by relying more heavily on formal written communications and carefully-scripted personal ones.

Off-the-cuff, no-holds-barred phone calls and conferences may soon be a rarity for attorneys. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Fewer phone calls, more structured meetings, and more asynchronous written communications appeal to me personally. I'll lead the way by unplugging my phone right now!

UPDATE: Attorney-blogger Pejman Yousefzadeh has also noted the Jerk-o-Meter and is concerned that he might have to start feigning interest on a few calls.

UPDATE 2: An error in the placement of the editorial clarification in the article excerpt was corrected.

1 comment:

Mobile Phones said...

What a strange invention. I would never have thought someone would have come up with THAT. Interesting!

I guess, though, that if it does the job well it will definitely be used in ways that are perhaps a little scary. Not just for lawyers... but for politics too. In fact, politics is where it would be most useful. Not just governmental politics, but also corporation politics. This could get really scary, in fact. This is one of those inventions I would never have thought of, but it actually has huge potential. Imagine congress sitting down with jerk-o-meters on the table, and they can measure how serious the president (or whoever is talking) is about his topic. Is he lying? Maybe the jerk-o-meter can pick up the stresses in his voice and let us know. It would definitely be used in criminal investigations too... it's like a 'live' polygraph test.

A little scary, if you ask me!