Divorce Software Designed to Handle Negotiations

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Divorce is never pleasant, but new software is aimed at making the process a little less harrowing.

The computer program combines artificial intelligence, game theory and an electronic or human external mediator to help divorcing couples settle their disputes in a fair and rational manner—and hopefully with fewer gray hairs.

The new software is a fresh incarnation of a project going back to 2004, when Emilia Bellucci and John Zeleznikow from Victoria University in Australia developed "Family Winner" to help couples settle divorce disputes by focusing on compromise.

For example, even if both a husband and wife want to keep the family car, one will probably want it more than the other and will therefore be willing to accept greater trade-offs in order to get it.

The program, which is based on the game theory concepts developed by mathematician John Nash, separately asks the husband and wife to "rate" every disputed item by assigning points to each in a way that reflects each item's relative importance to him or her.

A wife might assign 30 points to the car, for instance, while the husband might assign only 20, indicating that the car is more important to the wife than to her spouse. In total, each person has 100 points to assign to all of the items or issues.

The software tallies all the points, creates an initial "trade-off map" and begins by solving the easiest dispute—the one for which there is the largest point discrepancy.

"The result, then, is a direct reflection of the priorities set by the disputants," Bellucci told LiveScience.

The person who "loses" the first dispute is given extra points to assign to the remaining issues. The trade-off map is revised and the software moves on to resolve the next "easiest" dispute, continuing on this way until all are resolved. The idea is to create a "win-win" scenario.

While "Family Winner" successfully met the needs of both husband and wife, it wasn't always fair to the needs of third parties, like children, according to Bellucci and Zeleznikow.

So, to address this problem, they developed new software called "Family Mediator." As the name implies, the software relies on a mediator—either a family law practitioner or an electronic decision support system, depending on the requirements of the institution using it—to ensure that decisions reflect the best interests of all involved, including kids.

While neither software application has been commercialized (there are only research prototypes at the moment), the team hopes that this might soon change.

"We have applied for a university grant, which if successful will lead as a by-product to a commercially viable mediation program," Bellucci said. The software might then be adopted by social service professionals, she added.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, some family lawyers have already expressed interest in using it, Bellucci said.