New Technology

And Then AI Came For The Lawyers…?

Matt McCord, MJLST Staffer

 

Artificial intelligence’s possibility to make many roles redundant has generated no small amount of policy and legal discussion and analysis. Any number of commentators have speculated on AI’s capacity to transform the economy far more substantially than the automation boom of the last half-century; one discussion on ABC’s Q&A described the difference in today’s technology development trends as being “alinear” as opposed to predictable, like the car, a carriage with an engine, supplanting a carriage drawn by a horse.

Technological development has largely helped to streamline law practice and drive new sources of business and avenues for marketing. Yet, AI may be coming for lawyers’ jobs next. A New Zealand firm is working to develop AI augmentation for legal services. The firm, MinterEllisonRuddWatts, looks to be in the early stages of developing this system, having entered into a joint venture agreement to work on development pathways.

The firm claims that the AI would work to reduce the more mundane analytic tasks from lawyers’ workloads, such as contract analysis and document review, but would only result in the labor force having to “reduce,” not be “eliminated.” Yet, the development of law-competent AI may result in massive levels of workforce reduction and transformation: Mills & Reeve’s Paul Knight believes that the adoption will shutter many firms and vastly shrink the need for, in particular, junior lawyers.

Knight couches this prediction in sweetening language, stating that the tasks remaining for lawyers would be “more interesting,” leading to a more efficient, more fulfilled profession engaging in new specialties and roles. Adopting AI on the firm level has clear benefits for firms looking to maximize profit per employee: current-form AI, according to one study, AI is more accurate than many human attorneys in spotting contract issues, and vastly more efficient, completing a 90-minute task in 30 seconds.

Knight, like many AI promoters, claims that the profession, and society at large, should embrace AI’s role in transforming professions by transfiguring labor force requirements, believing AI’s benefits of increasing efficiency and work fulfillment by reducing human interaction with more mundane tasks. These words will likely do little to assuage the nerves of younger, prospective market entrants and attorney specializing in these “more mundane” areas, who may be wondering if AI’s development may eliminate their role from the labor force.

While AI’s mass deployment in the law is currently limited, due in part to high costs, experimental technology, and limited current applications, machine learning, especially recursive learning and adaptation, may bring this development firmly into the forefront of the field unpredictably, quickly, and possibly in the very near future.


The Unfair Advantage of Web Television

Richard Yo, MJLST Staffer

 

Up to a certain point, ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T enjoy healthy, mutually beneficial relationships with web content companies such as Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon. That relationship remains so even when regular internet usage moves beyond emails and webpage browsing to VoIP and video streaming. To consume data-heavy content, users seek the wider bandwidth of broadband service and ISPs are more than happy to provide it at a premium. However, once one side enters the foray of the other, the relationship becomes less tenable unless it is restructured or improved upon. This problem is worse when both sides attempt to mimic the other.

 

Such a tension had clearly arisen by the time Verizon v. FCC 740 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 2014) was decided. The D.C. Circuit vacated, or rather clarified, the applicability of two of the three rules that constituted the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order. The D.C. Circuit clarified that the rule of transparency was applicable to all, but the restrictions on blocking and discrimination were applicable only to common carriers. The FCC had previously classified ISPs under Title I of the Communications Act; common carriers are classified under Title II. The 2014 decision confirmed that broadband companies, not being common carriers, could choose the internet speed of websites and web-services at their discretion so long as they were transparent. So, to say that the internet’s astounding growth and development is due to light touch regulation is disingenuous. That statement in and of itself is true. Such discriminatory and blocking behavior was not in the purview of broadband providers during the early days of the internet due to the aforementioned relationship.

 

Once web content began taking on the familiar forms of broadcast television, signs of throttling were evident. Netflix began original programming in 2013 and saw its streaming speeds drop dramatically that year on both Verizon and Comcast networks. In 2014, Netflix made separate peering-interconnection agreements with both companies to secure reliably fast speeds for itself. Soon, public outcry led to the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order reclassifying broadband internet service as a “telecommunications service” subject to Title II. ISPs were now common carriers and net neutrality was in play, at least briefly (2015-2018).

 

Due to the FCC’s 2018 Restoring Internet Freedom Order, much of the features of the 2015 order have been reversed. Some now fear that ISPs will again attempt to control the traffic on their networks in all sorts of insidious ways. This is a legitimate concern but not one that necessarily spans the entire spectrum of the internet.

 

The internet has largely gone unregulated thanks to legislation and policies meant to encourage innovation and discourse. Under this incubatory setting, numerous such advancements and developments have indeed been made. One quasi-advancement is the streaming of voice and video. The internet has gone from cat videos to award-winning dramas. What began as a supplement to mainstream entertainment has now become the dominant force. Instead of Holly Hunter rushing across a busy TV station, we have Philip DeFranco booting up his iMac. Our tastes have changed, and with it, the production involved.

 

There is an imbalance here. Broadcast television has always suffered the misgivings of the FCC, even more than its cable brethren. The pragmatic reason for this has always been broadcast television’s availability, or rather its unavoidability. Censors saw to it that obscenities would never come across a child’s view, even inadvertently. But it cannot be denied that the internet is vastly more ubiquitous. Laptop, tablet, and smartphone sales outnumber those of televisions. Even TVs are now ‘smart,’ serving not only their first master but a second web master as well (no pun intended). Shows like Community and Arrested Development were network television shows (on NBC and FOX, respectively) one minute, and web content (on Yahoo! and Netflix, respectively) the next. The form and function of these programs had not substantially changed but they were suddenly free of the FCC’s reign. Virtually identical productions on different platforms are regulated differently, all due to arguments anchored by fears of stagnation.


Judicial Interpretation of Emojis and Emoticons

Kirk Johnson, MJLST Staffer

 

In 2016, the original 176 emojis created by Shigetaka Kurita were enshrined in New York’s Museum of Modern Art as just that: art. Today, a smartphone contains approximately 2,000 icons that many use as a communication tool. New communicative tools present new problems for users and the courts alike; when the recipient of a message including an icon interprets the icon differently than the sender, how should a court view that icon? How does it affect the actus reus or mens rea of a crime? While a court has a myriad of tools that they use to decipher the meaning of new communicative tools, the lack of a universal understanding of these icons has created interesting social and legal consequences.

The first of many problems with the use of an emoji is that there is general disagreement on what the actual icon means. Take this emoji for example: 🙏. In a recent interview by the Wall Street Journal, people aged 10-87 were asked what this symbol meant. Responses varied from hands clapping to praying. The actual title of the emoji is “Person with Folded Hands.”

Secondly, the icons can change over time. Consider the update of the Apple iOS from 9 to 10; many complained that this emoji, 💁, lost its “sass.” It is unclear whether the emoji was intended to have “sass” to begin with, especially since the title of the icon is “Information Desk Person.”

Finally, actual icons vary from device to device. In some instances, when an Apple iPhone user sends a message to an Android phone user, the icon that appears on the recipient’s screen is completely different than what the sender intended. When Apple moved from iOS 9 to iOS 10, they significantly altered their pistol emoji. While an Android user would see something akin to this 🔫, an iPhone user sees a water pistol. Sometimes, an equivalent icon is not present on the recipient’s device and the only thing that appears on their screen is a black box.

Text messages and emails are extremely common pieces of evidence in a wide variety of cases, from sexual harassment litigation to contract disputes. Recently, the Ohio Court of Appeals was called upon to determine whether the text message “come over” with a “winky-face emoji” was adequate evidence to prove infidelity. State v. Shepherd, 81 N.E.3d 1011, 1020 (Ohio Ct. App. 2017). A Michigan sexual harassment attorney’s client was convinced that an emoji that looked like a horse followed by an icon resembling a muffin meant “stud muffin,” which the client interpreted as an unwelcome advance from a coworker. Luckily, messages consisting entirely of icons rarely determine the outcome of a case on their own; in the sexual harassment arena, a single advance from an emoji message would not be sufficient to make a case.

However, the implications are much more dangerous in the world of contracts. According to the Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 20 (1981),

(1) There is no manifestation of mutual assent to an exchange if the parties attach materially different meanings to their manifestations and

(a) neither party knows or has reason to know the meaning attached by the other; or

(b) each party knows or each party has reason to know the meaning attached by the other.

(2) The manifestations of the parties are operative in accordance with the meaning attached to them by one of the parties if

(a) that party does not know of any different meaning attached by the other, and the other knows the meaning attached by the first party; or

(b) that party has no reason to know of any different meaning attached by the other, and the other has reason to know the meaning attached by the first party.

 

Adhering to this standard with emojis would produce varied and unexpected results. For example, if Adam sent Bob a message “I’ll give you $5 to mow my lawn 😉,” would Bob be free to accept the offer? Would the answer be different if Adam used the 😘 emoji instead of the 😉 emoji? What if Bob received a black box instead of any emoji at all? Conversely, if Adam sent Bob the message without an emoji and Bob replied to Adam “Sure 😉,” should Adam be able to rely upon Bob’s message as acceptance? In 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the emoticon “:P” denoted sarcasm and that the text prior to the message should be interpreted with sarcasm. Does this extend to the emoji 😜😝, and 😛, titled “Face with Stuck-Out Tongue And Winking Eye,” “Face With Stuck-Out Tongue And Tightly-Closed Eyes,” and “Face With Stuck-Out Tongue” respectively?

In a recent case in Israel, a judge ruled that the message “✌👯💃🍾🐿☄constituted acceptance of a rental contract. While the United States does have differing standards for the laws of contracts, it seems that a judge could find that to be acceptance under the Restatement of Contracts (Second) § 20(2). Eric Goldman at the Santa Clara University School of Law hypothesizes that an emoji dictionary might help alleviate this issue. While a new Black’s Emoji Law Dictionary may seem unnecessary to many, without some sort of action it will be the courts deciding what the meaning of an emoji truly is. In a day where courts rule that a jury is entitled to actually see the emoji rather than have a description read to them, we can’t ignore the reality that action is necessary.


PyeongChang: The Opening Ceremony

MJLST Staffer, Amber Peterson

 

The opening ceremony of the Olympics is always a big show and the 2018 Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea was no exception. Intel created a display that featured a world-record setting 1,218 drones. The display featured drone murmurations that depicted images of a snowboarder that morphed into the Olympic rings using four billion color combinations enabled by onboard LEDs. This display surpassed Intel’s previous Shooting Star drone world record which flew 500 drones simultaneously in Germany in 2016.

Intel’s Shooting Star drones are each about a foot-long, weigh eight ounces, and can fly in formation for up to 20 minutes given the limitations of current lithium-ion battery technology.

While the show is certainly impressive, from a software perspective, it is very much similar to flying a smaller, 300-drone show. The additional drones simply increase the resolution and quality of the images to create more depth. Every drone is operated from a central computer system, which tweaks things such as individual battery life and GPS signal. The drones communicate with this central computer instead of with each other. After animators draw up the show using 3D design software, each individual drone acts as an aerial pixel to fill the night sky.

The only minor tweak that Intel had to make to the design of the drone was to the rotor cages to account for the cold and windy conditions in Pyeongchang. Intel ran test flights in Finland, which has a similar climate to Pyeongchang, to make sure the drones could handle the climate.

This record for the “most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously” may have an asterisk however, since the display was pre-recorded after a last minute logistical issue which prevented the record setting drones from flying live at the ceremony. The show that was pre-recorded last December was instead broadcast during the event.

The South Korean laws and regulations that Intel had to comply with are as follows: 1) the maximum height that a drone can fly is 492 feet and if the flights are higher than this distance, government approval is required; 2) drones can only be flown during the day unless government approval has been given; 3) drones must be operated in a range that is viewable from the naked eye; 4) certain zones are banned for drone flights; and 5) drones must always yield to manned aircraft.

Drone law has developed from the explosion of online shopping in Korea. Korean privacy laws however, are some of the strictest in the world so a vexing issue remains as to how to deal with the invasion of privacy from drones. Maintaining a balance between supporting technological advances and being cognizant of protecting safety and individual rights remains an issue that requires further debate.


Apple Inc. Under Continued Scrutiny After iPhone Throttling Admission

MJLST Staffer, Alex Eschenroeder

While innovative tech companies typically receive widespread attention for increasing the speed and performance of a given device, Apple Inc. has received attention in the past few weeks for exactly the opposite reason. Apple’s actions have caught the attention of consumers and consumer advocates around the world, and recently, they have caught the attention of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as well.

 

The action at issue is Apple’s intentional throttling, or slowing down, of iPhone performance. Apple apologized for its intentional throttling on December 28, 2017, in reaction to building pressure from “users and tech analysts” who noticed iPhone slowdowns. In its apology message, Apple focused on the risk of unexpected phone shutdowns resulting from the fact that “[a] chemically aged battery also becomes less capable of delivering peak energy loads, especially in a low state of charge.” Apple asserted that it addressed this risk by delivering an iOS (iPhone operating system) update that “dynamically manages the maximum performance of some system components when needed to prevent a shutdown.” In addition to providing its explanation behind the throttling in its message, Apple announced a fifty dollar discount for iPhone battery replacements. However, replacement availability has been limited, and the discount has not stopped investigations and inquiries from multiple parties.

 

Shortly after Apple’s admission, consumer and watchdog groups in France, Italy, and China, submitted questions to Apple. The French consumer group, “Stop Programmed Obsolescence,” filed a complaint in December alleging “that Apple pressures customers to buy new phones by timing the release of new models with operating system upgrades that cause older ones to perform less well.” This complaint sparked an investigation by the Paris prosecutor’s office. Another source of questioning has been from within the US Senate, as South Dakota Senator John Thune wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook that “pressed Apple for answers to a series of questions about how the company decided to throttle back iPhone processing performance in phones with older batteries.”

 

In addition to these sources of pressure, the latest major development is that the SEC and DOJ have initiated their own probes. Both the SEC and the DOJ declined to comment about their investigations. Further, “Apple acknowledged in a statement that it is responding to questions from some government agencies, though it declined to disclose which agencies or any details regarding the questions.” Thus, very little is known at this point about the substance of the investigations. Current speculation includes that, in this type of case, “the SEC could try to fault a public company for failing to make timely disclosures about material information that would affect the stock price.”

 

While a more superficial investigation is possible, it would likely leave critical questions unaddressed. Some questions I would like to vent to Apple are as follows: If Apple’s battery issues cause peak energy load delivery problems primarily in a low state of charge, why does the dynamic management system coded into iOS slow down app launch times even at or near full charge? If the iOS update manages max performance of system components when needed to prevent a shutdown, does that mean a phone that takes longer to launch any given app on any given launch is constantly at risk for shutting down? What would it mean when Apple releases code to deactivate throttling and an iPhone with previously slow app launch times doesn’t turn off immediately? How many other devices does Apple throttling apply to, and when might Apple admit to them? Looking at you, Apple Watch.

 

These questions are not expertly devised, but they represent a reality that Apple will have to grapple with in the coming months: when so many people use your product frequently, there are mountains of user experiences that could be referenced to throw any “explanation” into question. These experiences may help to debunk any likely stories that vary significantly from the truth.


The Electric Vehicle: A Microcosm for America’s Problem with Innovation

Zach Sibley, MJLST Staffer

 

Last year, former U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director, David Kappos, criticized a series of changes in patent legislation and case law for weakening innovation protections and driving technology investments towards China. Since then it has become apparent that America’s problem with innovation runs deeper than just the strength of U.S. patent rights. State and federal policies toward new industries also appear to be trending against domestic innovation. One illustrative example is the electric vehicle (EV).

 

EVs offer better technological upsides than their internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) counterparts. Most notably, as our US grid system moves toward “smart” infrastructure that leverages the Internet of Things, EVs can interact with the grid and assist in maximizing the efficiency of its infrastructure in ways not possible with ICEVs. Additionally, with clean air and emission targets imminent—like those in the Clean Air Act or in more stringent state legislation—EVs offer the most immediate impact in reducing mobile source air pollutants, especially in a sector that recently became the highest carbon dioxide emitter. And finally, EVs present electrical utilities that are facing a “death spiral” an opportunity to recover profits by increasing electricity demand.   

 

Recent state and federal policy changes, however, may hinder efforts of EV innovators. Eighteen state legislators have enacted EV fees—including Wisconsin’s recent adoption, and the overturned fee in Oklahoma—ranging from $50 to $300 in some states. Proponents claim the fee creates parity between traditional ICEV drivers and the new EV drivers not paying fuel taxes that fund maintenance of transportation infrastructure. Recent findings, though, suggest EV drivers in some states with the fee were previously paying more upfront in taxes than their ICEV road-mates. The fee also only creates parity when solely focused on the wear and tear all vehicles cause on shared road infrastructure. The calculus for these fees often neglects that EV and ICEV drivers also share the same air resources and yet no tax accompanies EV fees that would also charge ICEVs for their share of wear and tear on air quality.

 

At the federal level, changes in administrative policy are poised to exacerbate the problem further. The freshly proposed GOP tax bill includes a provision to repeal a $7,500 rebate that has made lower cost EVs a more affordable option for middle class drivers. This change should be contrasted with foreign efforts, such as those in the European Union to increase CO2 reduction targets and offer credits for EV purchases. The contrast can be summed up with one commentator’s observation regarding The New York Times who reported, within the span of a few days, about the U.S. EPA’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan and then about General Motors moving toward a full electric line in response to the Chinese government. The latter story harkens back to Kappos’ comments at the beginning of this post, where again a changing U.S. legal and regulatory landscaping is driving innovation elsewhere.

 

It is a basic tenant of economics that incentives matter. Even in a state with a robust EV presence like California, critics question the wisdom of assessing fees and repealing incentives this early in a nascent industry offering a promising technological future. The U.S. used to be great because it was the world’s gold standard for innovation: the first light bulb, the first car, the first airplane, the first to the moon, and the first personal computers (to name a few). Our laws need to continue to reflect our innovative identity. Hopefully, with legislation like the STRONG Patents Act of 2017 and a series of state EV incentives on the horizon, we can return to our great innovative roots.


Tax Software: Where Automation Falls Short

Kirk Johnson, MJLST Staffer

 

With the rise of automated legal technologies, sometimes we assume that any electronic automation is good. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate so well for extremely complicated fields such as tax. This post will highlight the flaws in automated tax software and hopefully make the average taxpayer think twice before putting all of their faith in the hands of a program.

Last tax season, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) awarded its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (“VITA”) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (“TCE”) contract to the tax software Taxslayer. For many low income taxpayers using these services, Taxslayer turned out to be a double-edged sword. The software failed to account for the Affordable Care Act’s tax penalty for uninsured individuals resulting in a myriad of incorrect returns. The burden was then thrust upon the taxpayers to file amended returns if they were even aware they were affected by the miscalculations. This is hardly the first time a major tax preparation software miscalculated returns.

American taxpayers, I ask you this: at what point does the headache of filing your own 1040 or the heartache of paying a CPA to prepare your return for you outweigh the risks associated with automated tax preparation services? The answer ultimately lies with the complication of your tax life, but the answer is a resounding “maybe.” The National Society of Accountants surveyed the market and found that the average cost of a 1040 without itemized deductions is $176 (up from $152 in 2014) while the preparation of a 1040 with itemized deductions and accompanying state tax return to be $273 (up from $261 in 2014). Many taxpayers can find a service like TurboTax or H&R Block if they make less than $64,000 per year (enjoy reading the terms of service to find additional state filing fees, the cost of unsupported forms, and more!). Taxpayers making less than $54,000 or 60 years or older can take advantage of the VITA program, a volunteer tax preparation service funded by the IRS. Filing your own 1040: priceless.

When a return is miscalculated, it’s up to the taxpayer to file an amended return lest the IRS fixes your return for you, penalizes you, charges you interest on the outstanding balance, and retains future returns to pay off the outstanding debt. I assume that for many people using software, your intentions are to avoid the hassle of doing your own math and reading through IRS publications on a Friday night. Most software will let you amend your return online, but only for the current tax year. Any older debt will need to be taken care of manually or with the assistance of a preparer.

VITA may seem like a great option for anyone under their income limits. Taxpayers with children can often take advantage of refundable credits that VITA volunteers are very experienced with. However, the Treasury Inspector General reported that only 39% of returns filed by VITA volunteers in 2011 were accurate. Even more fun, the current software the volunteers are using enjoyed three data breaches in the 2016 filing season. While the IRS is one of the leading providers of welfare in the United States (feeling more generous some years than they ought to be), the low income taxpayer may have more luck preparing their own returns.

Your friendly neighborhood CPA hopefully understands IRS publications, circulations, and revenue rulings better than the average tax software. Take this anecdotal story from CBS: TurboTax cost her $111.90, refunded her a total of $3,491 in federal and state taxes, and received a total of $3,379.10. Her friendly neighborhood CPA charged a hefty $400, received $3,831 in federal and state refunds, and received a total of $3,431. Again, not everyone is in the same tax position as this taxpayer, but the fact of the matter is that tax automation doesn’t always provide a cheaper, more convenient solution than the alternative. Your CPA should be able to interpret doubtful areas of tax law much more effectively than an automated program.

Filing yourself is great… provided, of course, you don’t trigger any audit-prone elements in IRS exams. You also get to enjoy a 57% accuracy rate at the IRS help center. Perhaps you enjoy reading the fabled IRS Publication 17 – a 293 page treatise filled with Treasury-favored tax positions or out-of-date advice. However, if you’re like many taxpayers in the United States, it might make sense to fill out a very simple 1040 with the standard deduction yourself. It’s free, and as long as you don’t take any outrageous tax positions, you may end up saving yourself the headache of dealing with an amended return from malfunctioning software.

My fellow taxpayers that read an entire post about tax preparation in November, I salute you. There is no simple answer when it comes to tax returns; however, in extremely complex legal realms like tax, automation isn’t necessarily the most convenient option. I look forward to furrowing my brow with you all this April to complete one of the most convoluted forms our government has to offer.


“Gaydar” Highlights the Need for Cognizant Facial Recognition Policy

Ellen Levish, MJLST Staffer

 

Recently, two Stanford researchers made a frightening claim; computers can use facial recognition algorithms to identify people as gay or straight.

 

One MJLST blog tackled facial recognition issues before back in 2012. Then, Rebecca Boxhorn posited that we shouldn’t worry too much, because “it is easy to overstate the danger” of emerging technology. In the wake of the “gaydar,” we should re-evaluate that position.

 

First, a little background. Facial recognition, like fingerprint recognition, relies on matching a subject to given standards. An algorithm measures points on a test-face, compares it to a standard face, and determines if the test is a close fit to the standard. The algorithm matches thousands of points on test pictures to reference points on standards. These test points include those you’d expect: nose width, eyebrow shape, intraocular distance. But the software also quantifies many “aspects of the face we don’t have words for.” In the case of the Stanford “gaydar,” researchers modified existing facial recognition software and used dating profile pictures as their standards. They fed in test pictures, also from dating profiles, and waited.

 

Recognizing patterns in these measurements, the Stanford study’s software determined if a test face was more like a standard “gay” or “straight” face. The model was accurate up to 91 percent of the time. That is higher than just chance, and far beyond human ability.

 

The Economist first broke the story on this study. As expected, it gained traction. Hyperbolic headlines littered tech blogs and magazines. And of course, when the dust settled, the “gaydar” scare wasn’t that straightforward. The “gaydar” algorithm was simple, the study was a draft posted online, and the results, though astounding, left a lot of room for both statistical and socio-political criticism. The researchers stated that their primary purpose in pursuing this inquiry was to “raise the alarm” about the dangers of facial recognition technology.

 

Facial recognition has become much more commonplace in recent years. Governments worldwide openly employ it for security purposes. Apple and Facebook both “recognize individuals in the videos you take” and the pictures you post online. Samsung allows smartphone users to unlock their device with a selfie. The Walt Disney Company, too, owns a huge database of facial recognition technology, which it uses (among other things) to determine how much you’ll laugh at movies. These current, commercial uses seem at worst benign and at best helpful. But the Stanford “gaydar” highlights the insidious, Orwellian nature of “function creep,” which policy makers need to keep an eye on.

 

Function creep “is the phenomenon by which a technology designed for a limited purpose may gain additional, unanticipated purposes or functions.” And it poses a major ethical problem for the use of facial recognition software. No doubt inspired developers will create new and enterprising means of analyzing people. No doubt most of these means will continue to be benign and commercial. But we must admit: classification based on appearance and/or affect is ripe for unintended consequences. The dystopian train of thought is easy to follow. It begs that we consider normative questions about facial recognition technology.

 

Who should be allowed to use facial recognition technologies? When are they allowed to use it? Under what conditions can users of facial technology store, share, and sell information?

 

The goal should be to keep facial recognition technology from doing harm. America has a disturbing dearth of regulation designed to protect citizens from ne’er-do-wells who have access to this technology. We should change that.

 

These normative questions can guide our future policy on the subject. At the very least, they should help us start thinking about cogent guidelines for the future use of facial recognition technology. The “gaydar” might not be cause for immediate alarm, but its implications are certainly worth a second thought. I’d recommend thinking on this sooner, rather than later.


Invisible Cryptography: Should Quantum Communications be Subjected to Legal Restraint?

Jacob Weindling, MJLST Staffer

Sending secret messages across the world has traditionally required sending messages that risked interception or eavesdropping by unintended recipients. Letters sent on horseback, telegraphs sent over wires, and radio transmissions through the atmosphere were all theoretically capable of interception in transit between the sender and the receiver. This problem was particularly pronounced in World War II, when the Allies easily intercepted secret Axis transmissions and vice versa. To ensure secrecy the messages were consequently encoded, resulting in seemingly random jumbles of characters to unintended recipients.

Message encoding in World War II operated on two separate principles. For particularly sensitive messages, ‘one-time pads’ were created using (theoretically) random values as starting points. This technique for encryption, while essentially ‘unbreakable’ without access to a copy of the one-time pad, required both the sender and the recipient to hold identical copies of the pads. The second method used machines to transform plaintext messages into code. This second method, famously employed by Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine, substituted true randomness for a complicated but non-random algorithm that provided convenience and reliability. While Enigma proved a sufficient safeguard against traditional pen-and-paper codebreakers, early computers proved adept at quickly defeating the encryption, as dramatically highlighted in “The Imitation Game,” the recent film detailing Alan Turing’s invention of a codebreaking computer during World War II.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, cryptographic systems were added to the State Department’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (“ITAR”) Munitions List shortly after World War II. Thus, while the U.S. government was severely limited in its ability to shield secret messages from foreign adversaries, it categorized the tools, methods, and development of cryptographic systems as munitions and severely regulated their export to foreign entities. While today the Department of State has narrowed the scope of cryptography to exclude civilian products, regulations remain on specialized military applications. A key assumption of this regulatory regime is that sensitive diplomatic and military information will be transmitted ‘in the clear’ for all who happen to have access to the channel of communications. While today many communications have moved from radio waves to fiberoptic cables, both systems remain vulnerable to surveillance over the air and online.

Last year however, China took a major step toward a vast departure in the philosophy of secret communication. With the launch of the Quess satellite, China hopes to enable quantum entanglement communication between two ground sites. The satellite would in principle transmit a photon to the ground, while retaining a photon that is ‘entangled’ with the released photon. Any changes to the photon on the satellite would thus be reflected in the photon on the ground, serving as a rudimentary method for transmitting binary information. This test comes on the heels of an experiment at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, which demonstrated the transmission of information between two electrons separated by a distance of 17 kilometers.

A unique feature of this mode of transmission is that information is not propagated from the sender to the receiver via radio waves, which can be intercepted, but rather via the principle of quantum entanglement. Any attempt to eavesdrop would theoretically be perfectly detectable, as the act of observing the photons being transmitted would potentially change their state and render the communication either unreadable or otherwise obviously tampered with. A system could therefore be developed to automatically cut off communications if disturbances are detected.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted a patent that describes a similar method for transmitting information via quantum entanglement. The invention, claimed by Zhiliang Yuan and Andrew James Shields on behalf of Toshiba Corporation, was filed with the PTO on September 8, 2006 and published August 7, 2012. This patent builds on prior art that envisioned quantum cryptography, much of which was quietly filed with the PTO during the preceding two decades. Nevertheless, neither Congress nor the Department of State has acted to incorporate any reference to quantum communications into law, perhaps reflecting an unwillingness to address emerging technology that sounds like science fiction, as with self-driving cars and cyberspace before it.

Despite Congress’ history of lethargy in addressing new innovations and the State Department’s regulatory silence on the matter, legislative action or regulation may yet be premature. China has claimed its satellite has successfully sent a ‘hack-proof’ communication from its satellite, but the results have not been studied by the scientific community. Furthermore, no public demonstration has been made of a practical, non-laboratory quantum entanglement communication product. Even if the technology were to be brought to market, any early application will likely have severely low bandwidth by today’s standards, more closely resembling the telegraph than a gigabit internet connection. But with organizations around the world exploring ground- and space-based experiments with quantum communications, the technology appears poised to exit science fiction and enter practical application. Within the next generation, the codebreaking arms race may ultimately become obsolete, and Congress will be faced with a need to address the new secret communication regime.


Artificial Wombs and the Abortion Debate

Henry Rymer, MJLST Staffer

In a study published in the latter part of April 2017, a group of scientists reported that they had created an “extra-uterine system” that assisted in the gestation, and eventual birth, of several fetal lambs. This device, which houses the fetus in a clear plastic bag, is filled with a synthetic amniotic fluid that flows in and out of the bag through a pump system. While inside this artificial womb, the fetus is attached to a machine outside of the bag by its umbilical cord. This machine is used for several purposes: providing nutrition to the fetus, giving the fetus necessary medication, providing the blood of the fetus with a blend of air, oxygen and nitrogen, and removing carbon dioxide from the bloodstream. The scientists report that in housing the premature lamb fetuses in this system, the scientists were able to “maintain stable haemodynamics, have normal blood gas and oxygenation parameters, and maintain patency of the fetal circulation” within the fetuses. Additionally, the scientists report that the fetal lambs subject to this test were able to demonstrate “normal somatic growth, lung maturation and brain growth and myelination.” The scientists’ report that they believe that this extra-uterine system would not be relegated only to animal use, as they believe that the device could support a premature human infant “for up to four weeks.”

With the advent of this new piece of neonatal technology, specifically with the implications of what this invention (and others like it) would have on fetal development for humans, the artificial womb poses the power to completely shift the paradigm in regards to how the abortion debate is framed. In particular, the impact that this invention will have when combined with American jurisprudence will surely be a new point of contention between Pro-Abortion activists and their Anti-Abortion counterparts.

With the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, SCOTUS re-enshrined the thesis of Roe v. Wade: namely that women have the right to have an abortion prior to the viability of the fetus. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 846. The Casey court also stated that states have the power to “restrict abortions after fetal viability, if the law contains exceptions for pregnancies which endanger the woman’s life or health” and that the “State has a legitimate interest from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus that may become a child.” Id.

The arguments that arise from the advent of an artificial womb in conjunction with case law flows from the notion of what a “viable” fetus would be after extra-uterine systems become more mainstream and sophisticated. If these machines develop to a point in which they can take a fetus the moment after conception and develop it for its entire gestation period, will abortion procedures become completely outlawed? Will “viability” remain the measure by which a fetus is distinguished from a human, or will a new metric be invented to replace “viability?” Additionally, will this be a problem that the courts will have to answer? The legislature? Or a combination of both? The invention of artificial wombs seems to be a periphery legal issue that will not have to be answered for some time yet. However, there are many questions that need to be answered as technology improves and develops, and the abortion debate will not be a topic that will remain untouched as humanity moves into the future.