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The Future is Almost Here: Are We Ready?

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Even though we have not yet reached the speed of light, the future is almost here.

The future comes to different parts of the globe unevenly. But we can already see its shape. What challenges do we, lawyers, have on the horizon? What can already be foreseen? Which legal questions may arise? How can we answer them? Let us consider.

Legal Tech

A number of new technologies are already beginning to change the legal landscape.

Smart Contracts are special types of contracts, in electronic form, that are either fully or partially self-executing. For instance, when a cargo ship reaches the port of destination, a GPS device can inform the smart contract that its shipment has been delivered, and the contract can automatically give a command to wire money to the Seller. 

Legal Bots use software to fill in templates of claims, requests, etc. It’s not rocket science, but it saves time. For instance, there is a bot in the UK to fill in challenges to parking or speeding tickets, complaints about flight delays, etc. 

Computer-Assisted Document Review can help locate particular clauses in different parts of contracts, obvious contradictions, etc.

Decision Prediction Software analyzes the court decisions of a particular judge, and forecasts the likelihood of a particular result. 

Ghost legal firms consist of lawyers working from home, communicating and cooperating with one another via computer. Traditional legal firms are already feeling pressure from such firms because, as they have no offices, and thus no leasing and utilities costs, they are able to offer much lower prices.

E-Justice may soon exist, consisting of autonomous, AI-driven virtual courts able to hear and resolve disputes quickly and cheaply. Imagine a judge who does not eat, does not sleep, is not prejudiced, does not get tired, and cannot be influenced by a third party. The only thing important for him or her is the law. But please forget about your psychological tricks to generate sympathy from the Court. They will not work with an e-judge.

New Blockchain Currencies

Bitcoin, lightcoin, and other electronic means of payment, all based on blockchain technology, are growing in popularity. The question remains, however, whether and to what extent governments will allow such currencies to coexist with their national ones. For now, authorities are very cautious in this matter, and blockchain-based currencies are prohibited in many jurisdictions. One thing we know for sure – allowing such currencies to circulate is indeed a threat to government’s currency monopoly.

Robots 

In the middle of the last century famous science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov proposed laws for robots, now known as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  • A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Legislators in many countries (including the EU and in Russia) have started to draft specific laws for robots. According to a recent EU draft law smart autonomous robots (i.e., not all robots) can be defined by taking into consideration the following characteristics of an intelligent robot: 

  • acquires autonomy through sensors and/or by exchanging data with its environment (inter-connectivity) and trades and analyzes data
  • is self-learning (an optional criterion)
  • has physical support
  • adapts its behavior and actions to its environment

Can and should autonomous robots have rights, obligations, and liabilities, just as individuals and legal entities do? Should a robot have a set of basic rights? At the moment, a robot, like a car, is just the property of an owner, who is fully responsible for any damage the robot causes.

Do we need to create a new fiction for smart robots (as we have for legal entities) providing them with legal capacity? But if  a robot is to be legally liable for something, should we then start paying it a salary, or providing it with the right to live – i.e., not to be switched off?

In my opinion we should apply Occam’s Razor and work with the legal tools we already have: Insurance against damage to 3rd parties caused by robots; special funds, run by owners of robots, for the same purpose; programmers, designers, or producers liability for damage caused by a smart robot; and in some cases, taxes on robot labor. There is no need to provide legal capacity to robots – to complicate things without reason.

Another related issue is the transfer of human brain function into machines (for those whose bodies fail because of age or sickness, among other reasons). Questions that will undoubtedly arise include: Is this the same person or a copy? Does the transfer of personality mean the transfer of legal rights, obligations, and property to the new being –  and how should that be apportioned for copies? Will the heritage legal mechanism be applicable here? Will an electronic person have the right to shut him or herself down, since he/she will not be limited by biological age?

Artificial Intelligence

Some scientists are expecting human-level artificial intelligence or even higher (so-called “superintelligence”) to appear in this century. The problems with the coming AI are more philosophical than legal: How to build this superintelligence such that no one group of people obtains an advantage over others, does not turn against humanity, and is instead used for the benefit of all people, everywhere. Several NGOs, including the OpenAI project that is sponsored by Elon Musk, are already working on this issue.

Internet of Things

The Internet of things is another area of fast development. Your refrigerator makes an order through the Internet and the parcel is delivered to your apartment by a drone. In turn, your apartment is a Smart House, saving electricity, using solar panels and geothermal energy, etc. Sounds good – but there are potential risks:

  • Your provider may be able to obtain control of your property against your will
  • Subscription means you pay constantly, not one-off
  • Monopoly of the provider on the related markets
  • Your property expenses increase
  • The provider can collect data from your property for unauthorized use
Cosmos

According to the United Nations’ Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space: 

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind
  • Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States
  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes
  • Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects 
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

But what should we do with the mining of asteroids (which are very rich in metals) and/or bringing them to Earth orbit to use for settlements, which may be started by private companies as soon as the 2020s? As space bodies belong to everybody, who can authorize or license such activities? Who will be granted ownership of metals from asteroid depths? How can one lease a space elevator or a space hook?

Human colonies on Moon, Mars, and satellites of Jupiter and Saturn may also come fairly soon, requiring the creation of local law. We should start drafting it now.

And how about a contract with Extraterrestrials? Imagine you’ve got a request from your client to think it over. The client says, “look, we need a supply contract with these ET-guys from the news ASAP.” Do they have the legal capacity to sign contracts? And how about Global Earth Customs and export/import operations through it?

Fusion (Thermo-Nuclear Energy)

ITER (which means “the way” in Latin), which is currently under construction in Southern France, is a magnetic fusion device designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. It is based on the same principle that powers our Sun and stars. The experimental campaign that will be carried out at ITER is crucial to advancing fusion science and preparing the way for the fusion power plants of tomorrow. ITER will be the first fusion device to produce net energy, maintain fusion for long periods of time, and test the integrated technologies, materials, and physics regimes necessary for the commercial production of fusion-based electricity. No doubt, it will change the global energy balance. But, oil and gas tycoons, you can relax till the mid of 2030s – ITER is not expected to be up and running earlier.

Medicine and Genetics

New medicines, including ones personally designed based on an individual’s particular DNA, are on their way. Questions to be on our table soon include those related to three or more parents of a baby and their legal status, the legal status of genetically and technically modified (augmented) people, and the legal and ethical issues of genetic experiments over humans.

New Balance in the Intellectual Property Area

There is a growing demand for new balance in intellectual property law, including digital rights management. Growth of the Internet and global communications requires a review of legal regulation in IP rights, since the present model, created centuries ago, is outdated in the modern information society, where people spend much more time on creative activities than they did before. The present model is not flexible enough (think how much is required to register a Trade Mark, for instance) and belongs to industrial society, seriously limiting the rights of third parties to modify somebody else’s creations for their own use, for instance. New trends in the intellectual property area include crowdfunding, free-will donations to a creator instead of usage fees, fair-use doctrine development, liability of Internet-providers and hosting service providers for violation of IP rights, among others.

Big Data and Personal Data protection

Banks, state agencies, retailers, advertisers, payment systems, NGOs: it seems that everybody collects personal data. They know everything about you: Where you shop, where you work, where you live, what you like, what are you up to.

There is a growing demand from individuals for personal data protection, to maintain a legal right to exclude private info from the public space – the right to be forgotten. The right to be forgotten is a concept put into practice in the European Union in the beginning of the 21st century, arising from the desire of individuals to determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.

So, make a solicitation to be forgotten right now. Leave your laptop, tablet, cell phone and other gadgets home. Come alone. Write by pen on paper. Big Brother is watching you.

***

As you see, the questions from science fiction books are already on the table. The sooner we start dealing with them, the better for us. Better to do our homework in time than to react when the issue is already here and burning.

This Article was originally published in Issue 4.4 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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