2024: A Technological Odyssey

Donovan van der Haak
PhD candidate at Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society

Donovan van der Haak is a PhD candidate at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (Tilburg University). He is also a young scholar of ALGOSOC, a large research consortium in The Netherlands focused on safeguarding public values in the algorithmic society. Donovan’s major research interests revolve around the philosophy of technology, specifically focusing on public values and technomoral change, the transformation of moral values through technology.

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What the Space Odyssey movie teaches us about the future of law and technology

In a time marked by vast technological advancement, there is much we can learn about the relation between law and technology from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. By showing us how humanity and technology co-evolve, the movie helps us discover that the law not only has to adapt to new risks and opportunities that innovative technologies put forward, but even to changes to ourselves. Throughout this review, I will use some of the movie’s scenes to shine a light on three different ways in which technological change impacts the law: 1. Technology sets the law in stone, 2. Technology is an object of regulation, and 3. Technology changes human values.

The following sections will go through each form of change, ending with a short conclusion.

Setting the law in stone

The movie opens with our far ancestors living in a state of chaos, continuously competing for scarce resources—a portrayal not far from a Hobbesian state of nature. After a mysterious Monolith (a machine in a black cuboid) appears, one of the tribes comes to an important discovery: they can use bones as tools, and in particular, as weapons! In their next encounter with a rival tribe, the primates use these bones to violently beat their rivals for control of important resources, such as a local water hole. The scenes symbolize the beginning of the Palaeolithic Era, the period in human prehistory characterized by the first use of stone, wood and bone tools.

These first few minutes of the movie form some of the greatest scenes in cinematic history. More importantly, analyzing these scenes can help us think about the pre-technological state of lawlessness of our ancestors and the role technology has played in the development of formal laws. Although the tribes of our far ancestors already had social rules that regulated their behavior, these rules were extremely primitive compared to the advanced laws and regulations we see in modern societies. Whereas their social rules merely consisted of social expectations enforced by social punishments (think about the social exclusion of those who break our rules), modern laws formalize our rules by codifying and enforcing them through a governing authority that can impose legal sanctions such as fines or imprisonment.

Although social rules remained relatively primitive for millions of years, even after the Palaeolithic Era, the discovery of tools started a long process of technological developments that contributed to the transition of social rules into enforceable laws. Technology, for instance, played a crucial role in inducing the agricultural revolution and the subsequent growth of larger societies, which gave rise to increasingly centralized forms of authority. Technology also provided us with the ability to set social rules ‘in stone’ for the first time in history. Finally, we were able to write down the rules that were so important to us, contributing to the transformation of social rules into formal laws. From laws being written in stone and later on paper, we now live in a time where laws can be found online and on printed paper. In the near future, it might even be the case that artificial intelligence will support us in writing laws. How exactly the law will be ‘set in stone’ in the future is an open question. What matters more is what these laws are concretely saying. Technology has historically brought us great progress, but it also brings with it increasing capacities for violence and domination. And so, we thank you, technology, for your contributions to the development of law. But now it is time to regulate you, too.

Technology as an object of regulation

We make a jump of a few million years when we meet Dr. Bowman and Dr. Poole, astronauts on a mission to Jupiter, and HAL 9000, the sentient artificial general intelligence computer in control of their spaceship. Over time, HAL starts experiencing subtle malfunctions, prompting Bowman and Poole to decide to deactivate HAL to prevent more severe issues. It does not take long before HAL turns from a friendly human assistant to the movie’s main antagonist. Confronted with the possibility of being disconnected, HAL makes the unsettling decision to eliminate the astronauts as a means of safeguarding its programmed objectives.

HAL shows how great technological developments bring new challenges to which the law must continuously adapt. Although the threat of an evil artificial general intelligence machine turning against humanity is not one of the most pressing worries we currently face, the movie does warn us that a failure to regulate and program AI with public values such as human dignity and safety in mind could prove disastrous, and it stresses the importance of always keeping a human-in-the-loop. In the age of the internet, endless data gathering and the rise of AI, information law and its future are more relevant than ever before. With the increasing integration of AI in various industries, there is a growing need for ethical guidelines and regulations. Issues such as biases in algorithms, data privacy, and the impact of AI on employment are prompting policymakers to consider new laws to ensure responsible AI development and deployment, including the AI Bill of Rights in the United States and the AI Act in Europe.

Reflecting on the movie also teaches us about the importance of taking science fiction seriously when thinking about information law. Even though the movie came out in 1968, its depiction of HAL shares many capacities of today’s artificial intelligence systems, including speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip reading, interpreting emotional behaviors, automated reasoning and even playing chess.

Of course, the predictions of science fiction movies must be taken with a grain of salt. But if we had taken the lessons provided by HAL’s role in the movie more seriously, perhaps information law would have been better prepared for the rise of contemporary AI applications, such as the ‘sudden’ launch of ChatGPT.

Law and technomoral change

We cannot simply regulate and reduce technology to useful instruments that serve our ends. Technology changes us too! This is the key message that the mysterious monoliths that appear throughout the movie depict. A gift from an unknown, extra-terrestrial species, the monoliths are machines that encourage humanity to change and evolve through technological development. Again, Space Odyssey hits the mark. Technology has had a significant impact on how humanity developed and is still changing what our societies look like today. Think about the widespread forms of data collection used to nudge us into buying products and services. Or the algorithmization of the public sector and its subsequent dependency on private tech companies.

These examples, however, still only illustrate how technology changes us as they are used to entrench power inequalities and serve the interests of a small set of monopolies. More unexpectedly, technology even impacts the very values that we hold dear and thereby also requires changes in the law. How is this possible? Philosophers of technology have called this phenomenon ‘technomoral change’. Technomoral change explains how technological innovation changes our values by creating new ways of decision-making, altering the expectations that we have of others, and providing us with new information that changes how we perceive and relate to the world. The rise of the smartphone and text applications, for instance, raises new moral questions: can I ghost someone on WhatsApp? How long can I wait to reply to my partner? These new questions also result in new discussions about the law. The Dutch Minister of Social Affairs and the political party PvdA proposed a ‘right to be unreachable’ to protect employees from employers that make excessive use of the 24-hour availability that smartphones offer. Although the proposal did not make it, it exemplifies how innovative technologies raise new moral questions that need to be taken up by the law.

A technological odyssey

Looking forward to 2024 and beyond, we cannot be fully certain what the next steps in technology’s long and eventful journey (or ‘odyssey’) will be. What we do know is that the law needs to be ready to regulate risky, new technologies, accommodate new forms of setting law ‘in stone’ and even adapt to changing values as a result of technological innovation. Despite the uncertainty of what the future will bring, we can learn great lessons from science-fiction in the meanwhile to prepare ourselves for what is yet to come.

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