Technological Revolution and Catastrophe Part 2: can we manage technological revolution now?

August 12, 2021

“Whoever becomes the leader in artificial intelligence will become ruler of the world”

President Putin, June 2017

The landscape of new technologies is vast and complex while the commercial opportunities arising from cutting edge technologies are boundless. The most powerful fast-growing companies in recent years are those that have been quick to exploit new technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence (Amazon, Google, eBay and others). In every era in modern times, companies and nations that have successfully exploited ground-breaking technologies have thrived.

We saw in Part 1 to this article that a failure of legislators in Edwardian Europe to control new technologies was an important causative factor in the outbreak of World War One, contributing to a chain of events that lead to the deaths of 70 – 80 million people. Have we learned the lessons of history? Do we have sufficient legal control of our own technological revolution of the 2020s? Are we at risk of repeating the technology induced crises of the 20th century? 

In some areas, legislation appears to have anticipated and controlled the risks of several new important technologies. For example, our legal system appears to have succeeded in anticipating and controlling the danger of drones to aeroplanes. In December 2018 Gatwick Airport was closed after drones were found to be flying above the airport complex. Mercifully, despite this and other near misses, no airline calamities have been caused by drone collisions as timely legal changes were implemented as far back as 2012. Likewise, the UK Law Commission is now concluding a painstaking and thorough three-year consultation on the law relating to the use of self-driving cars, prior to devising new laws to make autonomous vehicles safe. In a different sector of technology, human genetic engineering has also been tightly controlled by the prescient Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which was enacted as  far back as 1990.

Conversely domestic and international law-making continues to lag behind other powerful new waves of technological change, leaving a dangerous lawless area of the economy and society where unregulated technology is deployed. Consequently serious harm has occurred and is likely to continue to occur.

Our out-of-date laws create an environment in which cybercrime increasingly thrives, generating very high profits for cyber criminals with a very low risk of prosecution and punishment. The international growth in disastrous ransomware attacks is increasing steadily, yet the domestic and international legal framework for cybercrime is, in numerous important respects, deficient. In the UK and America, it is still legal for insurance companies to make ransom payments to cybercriminals which only serve to fuel this highly lucrative racket. Few politicians have an expert understanding of emerging technologies and, in the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service lacks both in depth knowledge of cybercrime and sufficient resources to successfully prosecute cyber criminals, instead relying on domestic legislation (the Computer Misuse Act) that is woefully out of date and no longer fit for purpose.  

Colonial Pipeline Cyber Attack by “DarkSide”
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