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Over the next decade, developments in artificial intelligence will move faster than the past 50 years combined – and the law will need to adapt just as quickly to keep up.

On 29 October 1969, the first ever internet message was sent from one computer to another at UCLA’s university campus in California. Leonard Kleinrock and his team attempted to send the word ‘LOGIN’, but the receiving computer crashed after ‘LO’.

Today, less than 50 years on, the likes of Volvo, Google and Mercedes are beginning to consumerise self-driving cars, UAVs are giving us eyes in the sky and reinventing how we get our consumer obsessions from A to B, and robotics are enabling unreal advances in medicine. The generation to come probably won’t even bat an eyelid at the robot cleaning their house and cooking their dinner. 

With AI and robotics advancing at such a pace, one may ask how it all ends and whether we can keep up – so how will it, and can we? 

Some of us may even still be pondering as to the true meaning of AI. Google defines it as “the development of computer systems able to perform tasks ordinarily requiring human intelligence” – but why stop there? The original definition of ‘computer’ came from its ability to ‘compute’, or in other words ‘perform’ mathematical calculations. Yet a computer today is so much more than a fancy calculator. If computers have developed so exponentially, wouldn’t it be naïve to think that AI will stop at the point that it is now? What about, for example, a robot whose intelligence is so indistinguishable from that of a human that it can pass the Turing test?

The speed at which these developments are progressing has meant that gaps are becoming more and more evident in our systems and legislation. After all, they were designed for humans and not for mechanical superhumans, weren’t they? 

The jurisdictional rat race has already begun and countries have started to adjust their rules and regulations in an attempt to become pioneers in the way that AI and robotics should be factored in to our everyday lives. For instance, whilst it is still illegal to have a driverless car on the road in Europe (except in very limited circumstances), other countries seem to be developing faster. Even though Uber’s driverless vehicles have now been removed from the streets of San Francisco, they were there for a week, and Uber are committed to redeploying them in the near future – something that would be out of the question in Europe at present.

As the most widely available forms of AI, driverless cars and drones are the main topics of conversation at the moment. But shouldn’t we recognise that we are already chasing our tails and instead try to legislate for robotics and AI that is yet to be developed? The reality is that AI and robotics can be developed twice (if not thrice) as quickly as new laws and systems to provide for them. It is inevitable, therefore, that there will be criticism about our lack of an ability to keep up. Unfortunately, due to the unpredictability of the future of AI, we will always be a few steps behind. After all, it is estimated that developments in the next 10 years will be more dramatic than those in the last 50 years combined. Elon Musk is already planning interplanetary colonisation in case AI takes a dark turn and the robots become our overlords. Perhaps we should all start saving some pennies to invest in a plot of land (or oxidised iron dust, as the case may be) on the surface of Mars...? 

It is possible that in the next few years we will be talking about domestic and occupational robots in the same way as we currently speak about driverless cars and drones. Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant have already become additional family members in a number of households, but how long will it be until we have human-sized versions of these that can walk, talk, work and play?

If AI and robotics advance as quickly as we expect them to, a number of professions will have to adapt just as quickly, including the legal profession. We will have to ensure that we are well-equipped to assist our clients with a whole new array of questions. Will we ever reach the point where a robot has separate legal personality? What will be the tax consequences of owning or ‘employing’ a robot? If a robot I own creates a new design, do I have the right to apply for the IP rights, does the manufacturer, or do we both? 

All of these questions remain to be answered, but choosing to ignore them now will almost inevitably result in being left behind. If we can go from being able only to send two letters of the alphabet between computers, to developing machines that can think and behave better than the best of us and in less than 50 years, there is no telling what the next 50 years might hold.

Published: 09 November 2017

Focus on Manufacturing - Edition 6

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