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‘Technology shouldn’t shape our future; we should’

Technology holds so much promise – from self-driving cars to enhanced physical performance from smart implants under the skin. But we should not let ourselves be caught off guard. That is the message of Bart Custers, Professor of Law and Data Science in his inaugural lecture on 21 May. ‘We don’t talk enough about what we want the future to look like.’

Just a few decades ago, we had no smartphones, GPS technology or drones. Those are all useful tools, but they are also undermining our privacy. It would have taken somebody with quite a vivid imagination to predict all the technology that we have today. In his inaugural lecture, Professor Custers will ask us to think more carefully about the future we want: what technology will we have in the coming decades and what impact will it have on our lives? ‘We have the power to shape that future for ourselves. But that makes you wonder why we aren’t talking much more about that future. After all, we get to decide what is and what isn’t okay,’ he explains.

Who will be liable if autonomous drones crash or self-driving cars collide? There’s no proper legislation yet.

Our laws are not ‘future-proof’

In many areas of the law, we are unprepared for the new technologies that are on their way, argues Professor Custers. Who will be responsible if autonomous drones crash or self-driving cars collide? Our constitution protects the integrity of a letter or a phone call, but it does not yet do the same for emails, apps, zoom meetings and chats. The use of algorithms is leading to new, hidden forms of discrimination: is that really what we want? And new technology is opening up countless opportunities for criminals, while the police and the judiciary are sometimes prevented from using the same technologies. ‘The law is lagging behind technology,’ warns Professor Custers.  

Cooperation with philosophers and technology experts

It is very concerning that the law is so sluggish because legislation is sorely needed to steer technological development in the right direction. But there is a lack of leadership. ‘At present, there’s no one in the driver’s seat,’ says Custers. In order to keep up with a changing society, lawyers need to work closely with technology experts and experts from other disciplines. This is what his interdisciplinary SAILS programme is all about. Academics from every faculty are jointly researching what artificial intelligence means for fields as diverse as archaeology, astronomy, linguistics and medicine. Custers contributes his expertise in technological and legal developments – in order to develop a coronavirus app that can be used in field lab experiments, for instance.  

The risk of inadequate legislation

The key to regulation is striking the right balance, says Professor Custers. ‘On the one hand, we don’t want too many unnecessary regulations about every detail. That makes enforcement difficult and can also stifle innovation. But on the other hand, if our legislation is inadequate, we risk having insufficient legal safeguards.’ 

Smart forecasting models make it is easier to predict whether litigation makes sense

Big data and the legal profession

New technology can offer many opportunities to lawyers, too, says Professor Custers. For example, text mining makes it possible to automatically search for relevant information, enabling lawyers to prepare their cases more thoroughly. And smart forecasting models make it easier to predict whether litigation makes sense. But that does not mean that lawyers are going to become redundant – on the contrary. ‘Legal big data will not replace case law and legal research, but it can provide an additional tool to accelerate the process and to make it more rigorous.’

Text: Linda van Putten

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