Yannick Meneceur, Policy Advisor on Digital Transformation and Artificial Intelligence at the Council of Europe, discusses the challenges and opportunities for ethical digital transformation in justice systems.

Avenue Code: Tell us about your educational and career journeys. How did you get from Ministere de la Justice to Policy Advisor on Digital Transformation and Artificial Intelligence?

Yannick Meneceur: Thanks to my background in law and computer science, I have had a very rich career in public administration. I have been a prosecutor in French courts leading the fight against cybercrime and counterfeiting, as well as an IT project manager in the administration of justice within the ministry. 

My status as a magistrate also gives me the opportunity to serve on secondment for international organizations. Thus, I joined the Council of Europe as a special advisor, first on issues related to the use of digital technologies in justice, and now on more general issues related to their regulation.

I should note that the Council of Europe is an international organization separate and independent from the European Union. The Council of Europe has 47 member states, including Russia and Turkey, for example, and our mandate is not economic. The Council of Europe's mission is to ensure the protection of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in all its member states, in a spirit of political and legal integration, according to its founders.

AC: How do you define e-justice in relation to ethics, security, etc.? Why do we need it?

YM: The concept of e-justice refers to the use of information technology in the field of justice. It may thus refer to the dematerialisation of procedures and documents, but today, it also refers to the resolution of disputes.

I prefer the term cyberjustice. It is indeed a question of understanding how justice is transformed by contact with these new tools, and that is exactly what the Cyberjustice Laboratory in Montreal is doing. A tool is never neutral; it shapes the environment in which it operates. The use of technology, such as videoconferencing, for example, changes a lot of things in the course of a trial.

We therefore need to understand what these technologies can do to improve access to justice and to help individuals settle their disputes while respecting fundamental rules. In Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights provides a very precise and imperative framework for all Council of Europe member states. Access to the judge must be guaranteed at all times, and the trial must be fair. 

This is not, therefore, a simple ethic that should be respected by operators, even private ones, but a binding and imperative legal framework ensuring impartial justice for all.

AC: How do you think the digital world is impacting human rights? 

YM: I must confess I'm not very optimistic. While technological innovation has been of great benefit to humankind - we live in a world that has globally reduced poverty and hunger - I fear that economic gain often takes precedence over other considerations, including human rights. This is not a specificity of the digital world, but the latest developments, including AI, have sometimes been overvalued for commercial purposes to the detriment of individuals. 

Human rights may seem to some an “old-fashioned” legacy of an old world. Yet these rights are the ones that give us the direction for the sustainable development of technologies for the benefit of humankind. This is the only meaning that can be given to the vows of human-centered AI development.

AC: What are the key factors for leadership in digital transformation? 

YM: Leading the digital transformation of any organization, public or private, requires, in my view, strong common sense. The success of a digital transformation depends first of all on an understanding of the uses and purpose of the mission of the structure for which one is working. Means should not be confused with ends.

I am reminded of an anecdote related to my experience as an IT project manager at the Ministry of Justice in France. The new software deployed in courts dealing with criminal cases was to replace older tools with a national database. The ergonomics of the old software, even if it corresponded to the standards of the late 1990s, corresponded very well to the needs of the users: the new one was much heavier, with more information to fill in. User resistance was therefore perceived by some as mere resistance to change, but this was not the case! From their point of view, something was being taken away because of a higher-level administrative need.

I have learned from this experience that the first guarantee of the success of a digital transformation is increased attention to the end user, to whom the tool ought to bring demonstrable added value. And I may surprise you by adding that we also have to learn to give up digital if it's not the right solution to meet a need!

AC: What are the unique challenges and opportunities for you as a policy advisor?

YM: Performing my duties requires a great deal of humility. I have to be able to synthesize a lot of information in a very short period of time for my colleagues, highlighting major trends. But production has been so intense in recent years that I have learned to give up: it’s an illusion to imagine anyone can know everything.

The other element that seems essential to me is the search for objectivity. Even if I feel that my mission includes an important dimension of raising awareness of the issues of respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, my training as a jurist and magistrate leads me to try to minimize my own bias.

The complexity of computer technologies may have led to the construction of commercial discourses to which public decision-makers easily adhere. However, human rights give us another viewpoint: deploying a technological solution may very well not be commercially profitable, as it may produce a significant collective and individual benefit. Why, for example, restrict access to AI-enhanced jurisprudence search engines to those who can afford them?

AC: We are in the era of machine learning and AI. How mature do you think AI tools are to be used in justice? Can they make decisions? Please provide examples.

YM: This is such a vast subject that it inspired me to write a book. This book will be published in French in May 2020 under the title "l'intelligence artificielle en procès" (Artificial Intelligence on Trial). To sum up my thoughts on the subject, I would say that a lot of energy and money is spent on problems for which we are not close to having a solution, whereas AI and machine learning could help in very concrete but less "sexy" areas.

YM BookYannick Meneceur’s upcoming book, image courtesy of Yannick Meneceur

The idea of using AI to make court decisions is nonsense and shows a profound misunderstanding of what a court decision is. Applying the law is not just a single mathematical calculation of interest between the parties. The famous legal theorist Herbert L.A. Hart spoke of the "open texture" of legal language and its interpretation, and rightly so. The application of a rule of law to new facts, whether in a common law or continental system, is not simply a matter of statistics based on previous cases. The meaning of previous decisions or of the law is never perfect - it leaves gaps that give the parties the opportunity to demonstrate the originality of their case ... and the judge the ability to interpret.

If the rule to be applied to settle a dispute is sufficiently mathematicizable, without any margin of appreciation, then, in my opinion, it is no longer justice but a simple administrative treatment. Leibniz, in the 17th century, was already imagining a mathematicized law. If we have not succeeded since then, there is a good reason: without a solid mathematical model describing the world, certain phenomena will continue to resist us for a long time to come. 

On the other hand, AI (and data science in general) could be a remarkable tool in the service of the administration of justice, and I think it is a pity that we do not invest more in this area. Equipping the courts with the correct means to function is a very sensitive issue in Europe. The Council of Europe even has a Commission dedicated to the evaluation of judicial systems - the CEPEJ - in order to compare the means granted. Very strong disparities exist between states, and a thorough examination of activity data (number of cases dealt with, number of judges, registrars) could help in understanding why these disparities exist.

AC: What was your biggest “Aha!” moment in the last 6 months as it relates to strategy/management?

YM: Writing my book has led me to discover many new concepts and to reaffirm many certainties. Less than a particular Eureka discovery, I would like to highlight the method of inspiring discoveries. I advise any entrepreneur, manager, or public official to devote time to questioning his knowledge: not everyone will have time to theorize and write a book, but it seems essential to me to remain open to contradiction. There is nothing worse than the illusion of knowledge when making decisions.

AC: What do you do to stay updated regarding innovations in tools and technologies?

YM: I admit that the mechanisms of the "attention economy" developed by social networks work well on me! I follow a lot of accounts of researchers, academics, and public officials, particularly Yann LeCun, Joanna Bryson, Paul Nemitz, and Jan Kleijssen, as well as French lawyers like Adrien Basdevant.

As part of my research activities with the Institut des Hautes Etudes sur la Justice (IHEJ) in France, the university network also gives me relevant reading that inspires the construction of public policies.

AC: What channels do you like best for receiving information, and what do you read?

YM: While I do use media, I also continue to subscribe to paper journals and buy my books in "physical" format. Naturally, I read a lot of essays and books on AI. Among the most striking are some rather old books, such as the writings of Jacques Ellul and Günter Anders, on the criticism of the technique, which are still very relevant. 

To relax, I'm currently reading Ian McEwan’s "Machines Like Me," which offers some extremely compelling insights into the relationship between human and AI. As you can imagine, I'm also an avid reader of science fiction, and I read Philip K. Dick's books over and over again. My favourite novel by him is certainly “Upon The Dull Earth,” published in 1954, which deals with the search for the loved one.

AC: Thank you for your insights on the applicability of AI in the realm of justice, Yannick! It’s been a pleasure hearing your valuable perspective. 


Anna Vander Wall

Anna Vander Wall is a freelance senior editor and writer in the tech industry and beyond. She particularly enjoys collaborating with Avenue Code’s talented Snippets contributors and whitepaper authors.

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