How digital technology is reshaping the legal landscape

13 June 2018

Putting on his futurist glasses, Benjamin Liu offers four bold predictions about what our laws and legal system will look like in 2038.

Twenty years ago, the internet was achingly slow, with traffic crawling along at just 56kb per second; today it is a blazing 20,000 times faster. Back then, two Stanford University students had just formed a quirky start-up called Google, and iPhone was still a decade away from being launched.

"It is amazing how much digital technology has improved in just 20 years, and how much our lives have changed as a result," says Benjamin Liu, a Senior Lecturer in the Business School's Department of Commercial Law.

With many more innovations on the horizon, expect an even more profound social transformation in the next 20 years, says Liu.

By 2038, he says, most dangerous, repetitive, or routine tasks will be done by robots. Lawyers, accountants, and doctors will work side by side with digital assistants. And human decision-makers in business, government, and even on battlefields, will be helped or replaced by algorithms based on artificial intelligence.

"Without a doubt, these technologies and the resulting social and economic changes will have a profound impact on our laws and legal systems," says Liu.

Liu offers four predictions:

• Data protection law will become dominant, thanks to the pervasiveness of data in our lives. Today, more than 100 countries have established designated data protection agencies. The Information Commissioner's Office in the UK, for example, employs more than 400 staff and deals with some 20,000 complaints each year. On the legislative front, the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect in May 2018, will affect every organisation that deals with data. Indeed, any New Zealand company conducting business online will need to ensure that it is GDPR compliant.

• A new area of law – which Liu calls 'AI Law' – will emerge as a distinct legal field. Our current laws have evolved with humans in mind and so are not equipped to deal with cognitive machines that can make decisions and take actions by themselves. Therefore, we will need to create new legal principles and rules.

• Employment law will need to be revamped. Existing law divides workers into 'employees' and 'contractors', each with different rights and responsibilities. In the future, however, an increasing number of people will participate in the 'gig' economy through companies such as Uber and Airbnb, and new laws and policies will be needed to give them appropriate protections.

• The importance of the law of negligence will diminish. In the past, this law allowed consumers to seek legal redress directly from those who provided defective products or services. However, as more goods and services are based on digital technologies, consumers will find it increasingly difficult to prove negligence. As a result, we are likely to see the growing use of strict liability.

Whatever the accuracy of the above predictions, says Liu, the legal landscape of 2038 will look very different from today. And, given the speed of technological change, it is vital that lawyers, academics, and politicians begin to tackle these issues now.

"Lawyers will not be replaced by robots in the near future, and perhaps they never will be. However, one thing is certain: lawyers who do not understand and apply technologies will be replaced by those who do."

A version of this article first appeared in the May, 2018 issue of LawTalk.


Benjamin Liu

Dr Benjamin Liu is a Lecturer in the University of Auckland Business School's Department of Commercial Law.



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