5th Annual Governance of Emerging Technologies Conference: Part 1

LSI‘s Fifth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics was held at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Beus Center for Law & Society in Phoenix, AZ on May 17-19, 2017.

 What follows is a periodic series of summaries from the various conference keynote and plenary sessions, prepared by rising 2L student, Jesse James.

The first feature consists of “The Conference: the big picture” from a law student’s perspective.

2017’s Conference & The Elephant in the Room

By Jesse James

2L – Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona Sate University

The LSI Governance of Emerging Technologies Conference (the “Conference”) is a venue for forward-thinking interdisciplinary academics, industry leaders, and agents to come together and explore governance challenges for emerging technologies, societal implications, and the pitfalls and dangers involved. 2017’s Conference covered a mass of dense material over a gigantic scope of subjects. Scores of speakers provided insight on a variety of topics from the responsible and safe development of artificial intelligence to the consequences of uberveillance on the human psyche. But overall, there was an acute focus on governance and the role law has to play in the future, an important theme being of law’s struggle to keep up with the ever increasing technological complexity of society. In terms of size and wonder to behold, the Conference itself is enormous.

The Conference began and ended by addressing the elephant in the room: mankind’s potential to destroy or enslave itself as made increasingly possible through more powerful technologies. The catastrophic risk posed to humanity by AI, gene editing as the new nuclear weapon, and the human rights consequences of an always-on, always-connected society were presented as potential dystopic futures, not so far off, that we must do our best to avoid. It was a theme touched on by the majority of speakers at the event, that while technological innovations may provide great benefits, the risks can make for a heavy calculus. What is done today matters, and a safe future must be secured.

Law has historically provided the safety net from these elephant-problems by plodding along slowly and self-correcting until everything has been solved. But, as many speakers stated, law continually plays catch-up and we may have need to rethink our modes of governance to come to more efficient solutions. The proper and appropriate modes of regulation may be quite different from those we currently employ. Speakers examined differences between European and American systems of patents for historical technologies, historical changes in governance reflexive to new technological developments, and potential for private certification schemes to supplement existing legal power. Offering innovative proposals such as these gets people thinking about solutions.

By educating one another on precise, specialized topics and issues, speakers at the 2017 Conference recreated a valuable and necessary modern-day performance of the ancient fable of the blind men and the elephant. In the fable, several blind men encounter an elephant, and each man touches and identifies a different part (a tusk, a tail, an ear, etc.). However, to conceptualize the whole of the elephant, the men must each share their individual interpretations, and synthesise them all together.  The Conference, likewise, is all about getting the bigger picture, from various areas or parts. Presentations on modern day letters of marque for private hacking, AI development, and big data are presentations on the tusks, tails, and ears of the increasingly complex and fast-moving society of which we are all part. Research cannot be specialized. The impacts that one technology may have upon another, the complete reshaping of our societal landscape is a problem invisible at the micro level. The big picture can only be seen by synthesis.

Problems cannot be solved unless the problems have been identified. The Conference provides a stage for people to expose these elephant-scale problems, and get people thinking about them. Whether or not law is suited to engage and govern new technologies is an important question, applicable only once one is aware of the potentialities and implications that exist. Then, after the blind men have identified the elephant the most important and fundamental question is “How does one eat an elephant?” The answer, of course, “One bite at a time.”


About Yvonne Stevens

LL.M. - Biotechnology & Genomics, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, Arizona State University. LL.B - Dalhousie University, Schulich School of Law, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Cert. Criminal Justice & Criminology - The London School of Economics and Political Science, London, England. B.A. Hon. Philosophy, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
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