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St. John’s Intellectual Property Law Center Hosts Inaugural Conference on Law for Intelligent Machines

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Earlier this month, the Intellectual Property Law Center (IPLC) held its inaugural conference, bringing students, faculty, and leading experts together for a discussion about the legal implications of intelligent machines. This field of technology has been rapidly advancing in recent years, and it’s especially difficult for the legal system to keep up with these changes. Although an era of increased partnership between humans and thinking machines is rapidly approaching, the role of the law in regulating that partnership is still being developed.

Divided into two panels, the conference focused on two topics: artificial intelligence and cognitive computing; and robotics and autonomous machines. Recent innovations at IBM and Google laid a foundation for the legal and policy discussions. Leading experts from law and industry examined the pros and cons of intelligent machines and their potential impact on society and the law.

The day’s panelists were:

  • Marcus A. Boone, IBM Watson Strategy and Product Management
  • Andrea Matwyshyn, Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy
  • Brett Frischmann, Cardozo Law School   
  • Anand Rao, Google
  • Bryant Walker Smith, University of South Carolina
  • Jason Schultz, NYU Technology Law and Policy Clinic

The first panel kicked off with a presentation from Marcus A. Boone, the program director for IBM Watson. Watson is a cognitive computing system that processes information in a human-like fashion. By understanding natural language and generating hypotheses based on evidence and continually learning, Watson is able to distill its knowledge and leverage its expertise to many fields, including high-quality medical care. “Watson is creating a new partnership between people and computers that enhances, scales, and accelerates human expertise,” Boone pointed out, “and by changing how we interact with computers, Watson is unlocking access to data and information.”

Andrea Matwyshyn—recently a senior policy advisor at the Federal Trade Commission and currently in residence at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy—followed with a lawyerly note of caution regarding these exciting new technologies. While there is apt excitement about the benefits that new technologies promise, she said that people should be cautious about “technology maximalism," "technology pollyanaism," and "technology compartmentalism.” New technologies will require scrutiny, regulation, and collaboration between engineers, users, and policymakers to ensure that products and services can be developed, commercialized, and improved with an eye to security, safety, and fair business practices.

Professor Brett Frischmann from Cardozo Law School echoed this note of caution from a social theory perspective, sharing that careful attention should be paid to technologies like Watson, which may have the potential to (re)construct humans and society on an unprecedented scale and scope. He proposed the idea of “reverse Turing tests” that might examine different aspects of intelligence and distinguish humans from machines—not to determine when machines can be deemed as intelligent as humans, but to warn if increasing reliance on technology is making humans excessively resemble machines.

The second panel led off with Anand Rao, senior counsel from Google, who introduced Google’s driverless car, Google Chauffeur. According to Rao, driverless cars are a solution to a social problem, which promise the benefits of requiring less parking space and decreasing time spent in traffic. He also pointed out, however, that many technological and legal issues have to be addressed before Google Chauffeur becomes commercialized among regular users.

Professor Walker Smith from the University of South Carolina discussed some of his recently published ideas regarding the potential legal liability associated with driverless cars. In his opinion, the current legal system is ready for the challenges of autonomous vehicles and doesn’t have to be fundamentally changed in order to adapt to the development of this new technology. He explained that  increases in technologists' "proximity" to end users—the "increasing, and increasingly dynamic, information, access, and control that commercial sellers enjoy"—may impose additional legal and ethical burdens on those sellers and the businesses (such as insurance) that intersect with them, but that ultimately the legal regime is flexible enough to manage the integration.

Professor Jason Schultz of NYU’s Technology Law and Policy Clinic then pointed out numerous unanswered legal and policy questions related to driverless cars. He noted that the application of complex Fourth Amendment doctrines related to law enforcement traffic stops and vehicle searches is highly uncertain in the context of autonomous vehicles. He also raised privacy issues, suggesting that the “third party doctrine” governing law enforcement access to information that an individual has shared with others could conceivably be applied to the rich and detailed data that driverless cars transmit to the cloud—and back to their manufacturers. Finally, Schultz noted the potential intellectual property limitations on the freedom of autonomous car purchasers: Even today's cars are a mix of hardware and software, but most automakers license the software rather than selling it, and are highly secretive regarding their license terms.

Students and faculty agreed that the event was a great success. “Our expert panelists did a fantastic job of explaining these exciting new technologies to an audience of non-specialist lawyers and students, and in laying out the legal and ethical issues that attorneys will be dealing with over the coming years and decades,” said Professor Jeremy Sheff, director of IPLC and moderator of the conference. Student attendee Meng Xu ’16, who is also an IPLC fellow, agreed: “Before today’s event, I didn't realize what an important role a lawyer can play in the development of science and technology. This conference helped bridge the gap between technology and the practice of law.”