New Technology

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.


Extending the Earth’s Life to Make It Off-World: Will Intellectual Property Law Allow Climate Change to Go Unchecked?

Daniel Green, MJLST Staffer

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently discovered seven Earth-like planets. Three of these planets are even located the specific distance from the star, Trappist-1, in order to be considered in the proposed “Goldilocks zone” necessary to sustain life, thereby bringing about the conversation of whether a great migration for humanity is in order such as seen in movies of the last ten years such as Passengers, The Martian, Interstellar, even Wall-E. Even Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have made statements that the human race needs to leave earth before the next extinction level event occurs. The possibility that these planets may be inhabitable presents some hope for a future to inhabit other planets.

Sadly, these planets are forty light years away (or 235 trillion miles). Although relatively near to Earth in astronomical terms, this fact means that there exists no possibility of reaching such a planet in a reasonable time with present technology despite the fact that NASA is increasing funding and creating institutes for such off worldly possibilities. As such, humankind needs to look inward to extend the life of our own planet in order to survive long enough to even consider such an exodus.

Admittedly, humanity faces many obstacles in its quest to survive long enough to reach other planets. One of the largest and direst is that of climate change. Specifically, the rise in the temperature of the Earth needs to be kept in check to keep it within bounds of the two-degree Celsius goal before 2100 C.E. Fortunately, technologies are well on the way of development to combat this threat. One of the most promising of these new technologies is that of solar climate engineering.

Solar climate engineering, also known as solar radiation management, is, essentially, a way to make the planet more reflective in order to block sunlight and thereby deter the increase in temperature caused by greenhouse gases. Though promising, Reynolds, Contreras, & Sarnoff predict that this new technology may be greatly hindered by intellectual property law in Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property: Toward a Research Commons.

Since solar climate engineering is a relatively new scientific advancement, it can be greatly improved by the sharing of ideas. However, the intellectual property laws run directly contrary to this, begging the question as to why would anyone want to hinder technology so vital to the Earth’s survival. Well the answer lies in numerous reasons including the following three:

  • Patent “thickets” and the development of an “anti-commons”: This problem occurs when too many items in the same technological field are patented. This makes patents and innovations extremely difficult to patent around. As such, it causes scientific advancement to halt since patented technologies cannot be built upon or improved.
  • Relationship to trade secrets: Private entities that have financial interests in funding research may refuse to share advancements in order to protect the edge it gives them in the market.
  • Technological lock in: Broad patents at the beginning of research may force others to rely on technologies within the scope of the patent when working on future research and development. Such actions may ingrain a certain technology into society even though a better alternative may be available but not adopted.

There is no need to despair yet though since several steps can be taken to combat barriers to the advancement of solar climate engineering and promote communal technological advancement such as:

  • State interventions: Government can step in so as to ensure that intellectual property law does not hinder needed advancements for the good of humanity. They can do this in numerous action such as legislative and administrative actions, march-in rights, compulsory licensing, and asserting a control over funding.
  • Patent pools and pledges: Patent pools allow others to use one’s patents in development with the creation of an agreement to split the proceeds. Similarly, patent pledges, similarly, limit the enforcement of a patent holder by a promise in the form of a legally binding commitment. Though patent pools have more limitations legally, both of these incentivize the concept of sharing technology and furthering advancement.
  • Data commons: Government procurement and research funding can promote systematic data sharing in order to develop a broadly accessibly repository as a commons. Such methods ideally promote rapid scientific advancement by broadening the use and accessibility of each advancement through the discouragement of patents.

Providing that intellectual property laws do not stand in the way, humanity may very well have taken its first steps in extending its time to develop further technologies to, someday, live under the alien rays of Trappist-1.


Social and Legal Concerns as America Expands into the Brain-Computer Interface

Daniel Baum, MJLST Staffer

A great deal of science and technology has been emerging in the field of the brain-computer interface, the connection between the human brain and machines. In addition to forming effective prosthetics and helping doctors repair brain damages, technology in the brain-computer interface has recently allowed a man to operate a prosthetic hand and an electric wheelchair with his mind using only a microelectrode array surgically implanted into his arm’s nerve fibers. The professor who developed the implant also experimented on himself, and made himself able to see in the dark: with an implant into the median nerve of his wrist, he could use the electric feedback from an ultrasonic range-finding sensor mounted on his hat to guide himself around a room blindfolded. Since this technology is still in its experimental stages, American law does not have much to say about human enhancements. Already, dangerous medical devices can lead to confusing and unfair trials, and it’s easy to imagine courtrooms getting even more confusing and unfair as medical devices progress into the brain-computer interface. This technology is close enough that the implementation of legal changes now could help this emerging technology develop in ways that will balance minimizing harm with utilizing its enormous potential to make people better.

Current laws impose no affirmative duty on manufacturers to allow pacemaker users access to their own data, and the top five manufacturers do not allow patients to access the data produced by their own pacemakers at all. As we begin to view machines as extensions of ourselves, in order to maintain our personal autonomy, we will need to be able to control who accesses the data we produce. This calls for an already necessary legal change: a right to access and control access to the data generated by objects that are effectively extensions of ourselves.

As this technology moves from healing disabled humans to giving normal people supernormal powers, its use will become much more widely pursued—“the disabled may prove more abled; we may all want their prostheses.” If other job applicants are capable of so much more because of their built-in brain-computer interface technology, employers may discriminate against natural, unenhanced humans. To protect people who cannot or who choose not to install machinery in the brain-computer interface, for financial, medical, ethical, religious, or any reasons, an independent statutory scheme with the purpose of eliminating discrimination both for and against individuals with brain-computer interface devices would not disturb the currently established disability protocols in the Americans with Disabilities Act and could be amended to account for each new form of machinery.

Another frightening concern arises once these enhancements become capable of connecting to the internet: if someone hacks into somebody else’s machinery and makes that person damage something or someone, who will be criminally and civilly liable for the damage? Since American law does not have much to say about human enhancements, no defense has been defined for the person who was hacked into and forced to cause harm. The person whose body actually committed the act could try pleading the affirmative defense of duress—that is, the defendant was compelled to commit the crime against his or her will or judgment—but the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2014 in Rosemond v. United States that “circumstances that traditionally would support a necessity or duress defense” require proof that the defendant “could have walked away.” The hacker took away the defendant’s control of his or her own body, making it impossible for the defendant to have walked away. To solve this problem, states that recognize the defense of insanity could amend their statutes to allow defendants who were mentally unable to control their own bodies due to hacking to plead the affirmative defense of insanity. States that conform to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure would then order the defendant to be mentally examined by an expert who could determine and tell the court to what extent the defendant was in control of his or her own mind and body at the time of the crime. The defendant could them implead the hacker to shift the liability for committing the crime. However, since the insanity defense is a mental health defense and brain-computer interface devices aren’t necessarily related to mental health, states may want to define a new affirmative defense for being hacked into that follows a similar procedure but that better fits the situation and that doesn’t carry the stigma of mental disorder.

New machinery in the brain-computer interface is exciting and will allow us both to heal physical and mental damages and to develop supernormal powers. Legal changes now could help this emerging technology develop in ways that will balance minimizing harms like invasions of privacy, discrimination, and hacking with utilizing its enormous potential to make people better.


Court’s Remain Unclear About Bitcoin’s Status

Paul Gaus, MJLST Staffer

Bitcoin touts itself as an “innovative payment network and a new kind of money.” Also known as “cryptocurrency,” Bitcoin was hatched out of a paper posted online by a mysterious gentleman named Satoshi Nakamoto (he has never been identified). The Bitcoin economy is quite complex, but it is generally based on the principle that Bitcoins are released into networks at a steady pace determined by algorithms.

Although once shrouded in ambiguity, Bitcoins threatened to upend (or “disrupt” in Silicon Valley speak) the payment industry. At their core, Bitcoins are just unique strings of information that users mine and typically store on their desktops. The list of companies that accept Bitcoins is growing and includes cable companies, professional sports teams, and even a fringe American political party. According to its proponents, Bitcoins offer lower transaction costs and increased privacy without inflation that affects fiat currency.

Technologies like Bitcoins do not come without interesting legal implications. One of the oft-cited downsides of Bitcoins is that they can facilitate criminal enterprises. In such cases, courts must address what status Bitcoins have in the current economy. The Southern District of New York recently held that Bitcoins were unequivocally a form of currency for purposes of criminal prosecution. In United States v. Murgio et al., Judge Alison Nathan determined Bitcoins are money because “Bitcoins can be accepted as payment for goods and services or bought directly from an exchange with a bank account . . . and are used as a medium of exchange and a means of payment.” By contrast, the IRS classifies virtual currency as property.
Bitcoins are uncertain, volatile, and complex, but they continue to be accepted as currency and show no signs of fading away. Going forward, the judiciary will need to streamline its treatment of Bitcoins.


Recent Ninth Circuit Ruling an Important One for State and Local Governments Seeking to Regulate Genetically Modified Plants

Jody Ferris, Note & Comment Editor

Genetically modified plants (GMOs) are and have always been a hot topic in agriculture and food policy.  Since they were first developed, groups have been lobbying at various levels of government to impose regulations on how they are grown or to have them banned outright. A noteworthy decision has come down for those following legal challenges to GMO regulation. In Alika Atay et al. v. County of Maui et al., the Ninth Circuit court in Hawaii has ruled that state and local governments may regulate the production of GMOs in their jurisdictions.

The original suit was filed by GMO proponents after the County of Maui enacted a ban on genetically modified crops.  The court held that federal regulation of GMOs does not preempt state and local regulation after the variety is commercialized. This means that the United States Department of Agriculture holds jurisdiction over all GMO varieties prior to commercialization, which is the period during development and testing before the variety is sold on the market. According to the Ninth Circuit, after the variety is commercialized, however, state and local governments are free to enact regulations, including outright bans of GMO production, without the need to worry about federal preemption.

Interestingly, the county regulations in Hawaii that were at issue in the suit were nonetheless stricken down by the court because the State of Hawaii already has a comprehensive regulatory scheme which the court held to preempt county GMO regulations.  This outcome disappointed local environmental and anti-GMO groups due to their support of the new county level GMO restrictions.  However, the decision will help clarify the respective regulatory responsibilities between individual counties and the State of Hawaii. Despite the disappointment of these groups, the decision that there is no federal preemption on regulation of commercialized GMO varieties is an important one for many of the states in the Ninth Circuit, as there are counties in Washington and California, for example, which have also enacted bans on GMO production.

This decision will likely be an encouraging one for states wishing to enact their own regulations for how GMO varieties are grown and handled.  It is also encouraging for individual counties who wish to enact GMO bans or county level regulations, should state level regulations not be preemptive.  It will certainly be interesting to follow how state and local governments structure any future regulatory activities in light of this ruling.


Navigating the Future of Self-Driving Car Insurance Coverage

Nathan Vanderlaan, MJLST Staffer

Autonomous vehicle technology is not new to the automotive industry. For the most part however, most of these technologies have been incorporated as back-up measures for when human error leads to poor driving. For instance, car manufactures have offered packages that incorporate features such as blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warnings with automatic breaking, as well as lane-departure warnings and prevention. However, the recent push by companies like Google, Uber, Tesla, Ford and Volvo are making the possibility of fully autonomous vehicles a near-future reality.

Autonomous vehicles will arguably be the next greatest technology, that will be responsible for saving countless lives. According to alertdriving.com, over 90 percent of accidents are the result of human error. By taking human error out of the driving equation, The Atlantic estimates that the full implementation of automated cars could save up to 300,000 lives a decade in the United States alone. In a show of federal support, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx released an update in January 2016 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) stance on Autonomous Vehicles, promulgating a set of 15 standards to be followed by car manufactures in developing such technologies. Further, in March 2016, the NHSTA promised $3.9 billion dollars in funding over 10 years to “support the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation.” As the world makes the push for fully autonomous vehicles, the insurance industry will have to respond to the changing nature of vehicular transportation.

One of the companies leading the innovative charge is Tesla. New Tesla models may now come equipped with an “autopilot” feature. This feature incorporates multiple external sensors that relay real-time data to a computer that navigates the vehicle in most highway situations.  It allows the car to slow down when it encounters obstacles, as well as change lanes when necessary. Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO estimates that the autopilot feature is able to reduce Tesla driver accidents by as much as 50 percent. Still, the system is not without issue. This past June, a user of the autopilot system was killed when his car collided with a tractor trailer that the car’s sensors failed to detect. Tesla quickly distributed a software operating system that he claims would have been able to detect the trailer. The accident has quickly prompted the discussion of how insurance claims and coverage will adapt to accidents in which the owners of a vehicle are no longer cause of such accidents.

Auto Insurance is a state regulated industry. Currently, there are two significant insurance models: no-fault concepts, and the tort system. While each state system has many differences, each model has the same over-arching structure. No-fault insurance models require the insurer to pay parties injured in an accident regardless of fault. Under the tort system, the insurer of the party who is responsible for the accident foots the bill. Under both systems however, the majority of insurance premium costs are derived from personal liability coverage. A significant portion of insurance coverage structure is premised on the notion that drivers cause accidents. But when the driver is taken out of the equation, the basic concept behind automotive insurance changes.

 

What seems to be the most logical response to the implementation of fully-autonomous vehicles is to hold the manufacture liable. Whenever a car crashes that is engaged in a self-driving feature, it can be presumed that the crash was caused by a manufacturing defect. The injured party would then instigate a products-liability action to recover for damages suffered during the accident. Yet this system ignores some important realities. One such reality is that manufactures will likely place the new cost on the consumer in the purchase price of the car. These costs could leave a car outside the average consumer’s price range, and could hinder the wide-spread implementation of a safer automotive alternative to human-driven cars. Even if manufactures don’t rely on consumers to cover the bill, the new system will likely require new forms of regulation to protect car manufactures from going under due to overwhelming judgments in the courts.

Perhaps a more effective method of insurance coverage has been proposed by RAND, a company that specializes in evaluating and suggesting how best to utilize new technologies. RAND has suggested that a universal no-fault system be implemented for autonomous vehicle owners. Under such a system, autonomous car drivers would still pay premiums, but such premiums would be significantly lower as accident rates decrease. It is likely that for this system to work, regulation would have to come from the federal level to insure the policy is followed universally in the United States. One such company that has begun a system mirroring this philosophy is Adrian Flux in Britain. This insurer offers a plan for drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles that is lower in price than traditional insurance plans. Adrian Flux has also announced that it would update its policies as both the liability debate and driverless technology evolves.

No matter the route chosen by regulators or insurance companies, the issue of autonomous car insurance likely won’t arise until 2020 when Volvo plans to place commercial, fully-autonomous vehicles on the market. Even still, it could be decades before a majority of vehicles on the street have such capabilities. This time will give regulators, insurers, and manufactures alike, adequate time to develop a system that will best propel our nation towards a safer, autonomous automotive society.


Digital Health and Legal Aid: The Lawyer Will Skype You Now

Angela Fralish, MJLST Invited Blogger

According to Dr. Shirley Musich’s research article: Homebound Older Adults: Prevalence, Characteristics, Health Care Utilization and Quality of Care, homebound patients are among the top 5% of medical service users with persistently high expenses. As it stands, about 3.6 million homebound Americans are in need of continuous medical care, but with the cost of healthcare rising, the number of elderly people retiring, hospitals closing in increasing numbers and physician shortages anticipated, caring for the homebound is becoming expensive and impractical. In an article titled Care of the Chronically Ill at Home: An Unresolved Dilemma in Health Policy for the United States, author Karen Buhler-Wilkerson notes that even after two centuries of various experiments to deliver and finance home health care, there are still too many unresolved issues.

One potential solution could be at the crossroads of technology, medicine and law. Telemedicine is a well-known medical technology providing cost effective medical care for the homebound. Becker’s reports that telemedicine visits are often more affordable, and access is a very important component, both in the sense of enabling patients to communicate through a smartphone, and the ability for clinicians to reach patients at a distance, particularly those for whom travel to a hospital on a weekly basis for necessary follow-ups or check-ins would be costly and is not feasible. Telemedicine is a form of affordable technology reaching homebound patients.

Legal aid organizations are also beginning to integrate virtual services for the homebound. For example, at Illinois Legal Aid Online, clients are able to have a live consultation with a legal professional, and in Maryland, a virtual courthouse is used for alternative dispute resolution proceedings. Some states, such as Alaska and New York, have advocated for virtual consults and hearings as part of a best practices model. On September 22nd of this year, the ABA launched a free virtual legal advice clinic to operate as an online version of a walk in clinic. However, despite these responsive measures, virtual technology for legal aid is expensive and burdensome.

But what about the cancer patient who can’t get out of bed to come in for a legal aid appointment, but needs help with a disability claim to pay their medical bills? Could diversifying telehealth user interfaces help cure the accessibility gap for both medicine and law?

Some organizations have already begun collaborations to address these issues. Medical Legal Partnerships work together to provide comprehensive care through cost effective resource pooling of business funds and federal and corporate grant money. Partnerships resolve the sociolegal determinants impacting the health of a patient. One classic case example is the homebound patient with aggravated asthma living in a house with mold spores.  A lawyer works to get the housing up to code, which reduces the asthma, and consequently future medical costs. Lawyers resolve the economic factors perpetuating a health condition while physicians treat it biologically. These partnerships are being implemented nationwide because of their proven results in decreasing the cost of care. In the case of telehealth, the homebound asthmatic patient, could log on to their computer, or work through an app on their phone, to show the attorney the living conditions in high resolution, in addition to receiving medical treatment.

The government seems to be favorable to these resolutions. The Health Resources and Services Administration allocated $18 million to health center collaborations seeking to improve quality care through health information technology. Further, the FDA has created the Digital Health program to encourage and foster collaborations in technologies to promote public health. Last year alone, Congress awarded $4 million to the Legal Services Corporation, who then disbursed that money among 15 legal aid organizations, many of which “will use technology to connect low-income populations to resources and services.” Telehealth innovation is a cornerstone for medical and legal professions committed to improvements in low cost quality patient care, especially for the homebound.

Medical facilities could even extend this same technology profitably by offering patients an in-house “attorney consult” service to improve quality of care. Much like the invention of the convenient cordless phone, a telehealth phone could be used in house or outpatient to give a health organization a leading market edge in addition to decreasing costs. Technology has yet to fully develop the number of ways that telehealth can be used to deliver legal services to improve healthcare.

So if there is a multidisciplinary call for digital aid, why aren’t we seeing more of it on a daily basis? For one, the regulatory law landscape may cause confusion. The FDA governs medical devices, the FTC regulates PHI data breaches and the FCC governs devices using broadcast services or electromagnetic spectrum. Telehealth touches on all of these and results in jurisdictional overlap amongst regulatory agencies. Other reasons may involve resistance to new technology and ever-evolving legislation and policies. In Teladoc, Inc., v. Texas Medical Board, a standard of care issue was raised when the medical board issued an injunction for physicians who prescribed medicine, but had not yet seen the patient in person. One physician in the case stated that without telehealth, his homebound patient would receive no treatment. Transitioning from traditional in person consultations to virtual assistance can greatly improve the health of patient, but has brought an entourage of notable concerns.

Allegedly, the use of telehealth was first executed by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 when he made a phone call to his doctor. Over 140 years later, this technology is used by NASA for outer space health consults. While the technology is still relatively new, especially for collaborative patient treatment by doctors and lawyers, used wisely, it can be an interdisciplinary collaborative renaissance in using technology to improve healthcare systems and patient lives.

From all perspectives, virtual aid is well funded future component of both the medical and legal fields. It can be used in the legal sense to help people in need, in the business sense as an ancillary convenience service generating profits, or in the medical sense to provide care for the homebound. The trick will be to find engineers who can secure multiuse interfaces while meeting federal regulations and public demand. Only time will tell if such a tool can be efficiently developed.


Permissionless Innovation or Precautionary Principle: The Policy Menu of the Future

Ethan Konschuh, MJLST Staffer

In their recent paper, Guns, Limbs, and Toys: What Future for 3D Printing?, published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology Volume 17, Issue 2, Adam Thierer and Adam Marcus discussed the potential regulatory frameworks for technological innovations that could spur what they call “the next great industrial revolution.”  They believe that 3D printing, one such innovation, could offer such great benefits that it could significantly enhance global welfare.  However, they worry that preemptive regulations on the technology could undermine these benefits before giving them a chance to be realized.  The paper advocates for a method of regulation called “permissionless innovation,” as opposed to regulations following the “precautionary principle.”  While there are many pros to the former, it could leave unchecked the risks curtailed by the latter.

“Permissionless innovation refers to the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default.”  It follows from the idea that unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated, and problems, should they arise, can be addressed later.  The authors point to numerous benefits of this approach with respect to emerging technologies.  One of the most obvious benefits is that this type of regulatory framework does not prematurely inhibit potential benefits.  “Regulatory systems based on precautionary thinking focus on preemptive remedies that aim to predict the future and its hypothetical problems. But if public policy is rooted in fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios, it means that best-case scenarios will never come about.”  It would also preserve the modern startup culture where “just about anyone can afford to launch a business.”  Implementing a framework based on the precautionary principle will create barriers to entry and raise the cost of innovation.  This would also reduce the ability to maximize competitive advantage through trial and error, which refines the technology and efficient allocation of resources for development.  As an example of the potential detriments to competitive advantage from preemptive regulation, the authors point to the different policies of the Europe and the U.S. in the mid-nineties internet explosion where the former preemptively regulated and the latter allowed for permissionless innovation, resulting in the U.S. being a global leader in information technologies and Europe lagging far behind.

An alternative regulatory approach discussed in the article is based on the precautionary principle, which generally refers to the belief that new innovations should be curtailed or disallowed until it can be proven that they will not cause harm.  This approach, while posing problems of its own discussed above, would solve some of the problems arising under permissionless innovation.  While there are many economic and social benefits to permissionless innovation as the bedrock on which policy rests, it inherently allows for the “error” half of “trial and error.”  The whole concept is rooted in the idea of ex post regulation, creating policy to correct for problems that have already occurred.  While traditionally, as shown through the internet regulation difference and outcome between Europe and the U.S., the risk of error has not outweighed the benefits that result, new technologies pose new risks.

For example, in the realm of 3D printing, one of the hot topics is 3D printed firearms.  Current laws would not make 3D printed guns illegal, as most regulations focus on the sale and distribution of firearms, not creation for personal use.  The reasons why it might be more prudent to adopt a precautionary principle approach to regulating this technology are obvious.  To adopt an ex post approach to something that could have such dire consequences could be disastrous, especially considering the amount of time required to adopt policy and implement regulations.  Permissionless innovation could thus become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in that major tragedies resulting from 3D printing could result in exactly what advocates of permissionless innovation seek to prevent in the first place: strict regulation that undermines the development of the technology.

The debate will likely heat up as technology continues to develop.  In the era of self-driving cars, private drones, big data, and other technologies that continue to change the way that humans interact with the world around them, 3D printing is not the only area in which this discussion will arise.  The policy decisions that will be made in the next few years will have far reaching consequences that are difficult to predict.  Do the economic and social benefits of being able to manufacture goods at home outweigh the risks of legal, discrete self-armament and its consequences?  The proverbial pill may be too large for some to swallow.


EmDrives: The End of Newtonian Physics?

Peter Selness, MJLST Staffer

The EmDrive has been the center of much controversy over the past decade, and rightfully so.  But what exactly is an EmDrive, and why does it have the scientific community at odds with one another over the underlying science behind it?  The EmDrive is a type of propulsion system that was first designed by Roger Shawyer in 2001.  Essentially, it is a RF resonant cavity thruster that relies on electro magnetic radiation projected into the cavity of a cone to produce thrust.

The EmDrive was met with no small amount of criticism when first proposed because it is what is known as a propellantless propulsion system in that it consumes no fuel when producing thrust.  Not only does it consume no fuel, however, it also appears to only produce force in one direction, thus contradicting Newton’s third law of “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  Such a proposition has been compared to standing on the deck of a sailboat and pushing on the mast to propel it across a lake, or the old adage of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”  The implications of such a device means that our understanding of physics as it relates to Newton’s third law (which has been relied upon for centuries) is either not entirely understood yet by humanity, or is completely wrong; which is largely why the EmDrive has received such criticism from the scientific community.

And yet, there are multiple confirmed reports of EmDrive testing resulting in this unexplainable thrust that have arisen independently from Roger Shawyer.  Even NASA conducted testing on EmDrives in 2014 and reported measuring a thrust produced by the device.  A similar experiment was then carried out by NASA again in 2015 to correct for some reported errors from the first test, but thrust was surprisingly recorded again despite the corrections.  Also, an EmDrive paper has finally been accepted by peer review by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, granting the technology more authority from critics.

Interestingly enough, legal developments have also granted significant legitimacy to the EmDrive.  Roger Shawyer currently has three patents granted on the EmDrive, while two more are still going through the patent process.  Being granted three patents from the UK IP Office means that the physics behind the EmDrive has been thoroughly examined and was found to not violate the laws of physics, as such a violation would inevitably have lead to the patent applications being denied.  Furthermore, Shawyer’s most recent patent, as of October 12th, was filed more than 18 months ago, allowing the patent office to disclose the information contained to the public.  Such a public disclosure should in turn allow for greater scrutiny of Shawyer’s more recent efforts in developing the EmDrive.

The implications of the EmDrive being accepted as a legitimate technology are immense.  First of all, a working propellantless propulsion system would allow for future space craft to be much lighter and cheaper without requiring large amounts of rocket fuel for each take off.  It also would allow for much faster space travel, possibly allowing humans to reach the outer limits of our solar system in a matter of years and Mars within only a few months.  Furthermore, outside its space propulsion systems applications, there’s really no limit to what it may be applied to.

Despite passing several hurdles in recent years, however, the EmDrive is still a long way from leading us to interstellar travel.  The testing conducted by NASA, while showing positive results, also recorded thrust of a force just slightly higher than the magnitude of error for the experiment.  Also, while this positive result allowed it to pass peer review, that does not necessarily mean that the technology is sound and will not later be found to have flaws.  In all likelihood, the chances of a new technology being discovered that, for the first time, violates the laws of physics as we have known them for hundreds of years is a far less likely result than finding some sort of experimental error in the technology.  But maybe, just maybe, this could be the end of Newtonian physics as we know it.


The “Fourth Industrial Revolution”: Queue Chaos And Disarray

Rhett Schwichtenberg, MJLST Staffer

We are all familiar with Hollywood’s drastic miscalculations when predicting the future. In Timecop, which took place in 2004, time-travel was the conventional means of transportation. In the world of Marty McFly, 2015 marked the year where hoverboards were the standard means of transportation. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the moon was colonized by 2001. The list goes on. While we [unfortunately] see none of this today, perhaps Hollywood was not too far off.

Today, robots are shaping the way we live and have contributed a world of good to society. While Google Glass might have been an utter failure, Google’s Self-Driving Car Project is making fast advances to provide the world with hand-free, piece-of-mind driving. Taxi giant, Uber, has also entered the self-driving market with the implementation of self-driving Uber vehicles in the Pittsburgh market. Self-driving technology has the ability to eliminate the extreme and unnecessary amount of traffic deaths occurring every day in addition to providing a reliable mode of transportation for individuals that cannot operate a vehicle. Apart from the transportation industry, robots are growing rapidly in nearly every industry including the agriculture, food service, manufacturing, military, and rehabilitation industries.

Earlier this year, the EU made a proposal calling for the classification of autonomous  robots as “electronic persons.” If codified, this proposal could bestow legal rights upon robots, require companies to pay a social security tax for using them, and impose a liability insurance upon companies using robots in order to protect against any harm they might cause. While ridiculed by many, is there no merit in this proposal?

The age of robotics that is currently among us is being referred to as the “fourth industrial revolution” by economists. The first industrial revolution introduced steam power, the second, electric power, and the third, electronics and information technology. While the past three industrial revolutions have advanced at a linear rate (occurring approximately one-hundred years apart) the current revolution is advancing exponentially. Previous technology has threatened blue-collar jobs, but has never caused us to question whether jobs will even exist in the near future. With the implementation of quantum computing looming, the professionals in scientific and medical fields might experience issues of job security.

Alan Manning, leading author in labor economics and professor at the London School of Economics, seems to remain calm, cool, and collected when tasked with answering the question of how autonomy will affect the labor market. He strongly opines that such technology should not be taxed. Implementing the proposed tax will slow the advancement and use of such technology. Instead, Manning expects investment in modern technology to increase productivity and, at worst, leave the labor market where it currently stands. Manning believes the expert prediction that 47% of jobs will be threatened by autonomic robots is just that, a mere prediction. He retorts that such a prediction is grounded in ignorance rather than educated measures. Manning states that the entire job market must be looked at, not just the specific occupations that will see job reduction. Looking at the job market as a whole, Manning admits that jobs will be lost in some areas, but trusts that new jobs will arise due to an increase in companies’ spending power through the use of autonomic robotics.

So given that autonomic robotics and advanced computing technology is already written in our future, what are the implications of such technology? The simple answer is: we must wait and see.