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Regulating the techno-regulators

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These thorny issues are no longer the exclusive domain of cyber-libertarians; they have penetrated the walls of cyberspace and infected our physical environment. A retreat to the Englishman's castle is no longer an option if real space goes virtual and the rule of law is substituted with the rule of technology.

Novel technologies, like coded access to the internet, seek to prohibit or restrict our ability to engage in behaviour that may or may not be illegal. Conference speakers outlined a blossoming eco-structure of design-based and artificially-intelligent organisms which would undercut our constitutional framework, by-passing human rights and undermining our autonomy.

Electromagnetic surveillance enables police to see through our clothes and into our homes without recourse to legislative safeguards; mobile phones transform carriers into roving microphones at the behest of the intelligence services; nano-technology reaches into the past to record yesterday's conversations, and neuro-imaging translates our cognitive processes into coloured pools of ink.

Increasingly complex algorithms are built in to the technology surrounding us to steer our behaviour: smart integrated transport systems will control our driving; cars containing sensors will cut out the engine on detecting tiredness or drunkenness in the driver's physiology; bionic stomachs with limited calorie processing capacity will regulate our metabolism; technologies of human enhancement (a loaded term) will "weaponise" our soldiers; and direction-controlling audio transmitters will decorate our walls.

These sorts of technologies are under construction and amount to powerful resources for controlling society. They are not being designed according to the normal procedures for democratic rule-making, but by engineers. So how do we control this process?

A novel method proposed by a handful of speakers would be to embed democratic principles within the technological design - a process some refer to as "ambient law". No means for encoding and incorporating these principles were actually specified. Could the legal profession, in extending its research tentacles into the sci-fi world of "ambient law", be accused of making a bid to become part of the ruling elite in an emerging technocracy?

The idea that the Terminator could be taught to respect human rights is an intriguing one, but there is a danger of legislators falling into the same trap as law enforcement and allowing human judgement to be substituted with algorithm-educated detectors of unlawful behaviour.

Perhaps before governments and corporations rush into the erection of technology that seeks to override human volition, they should ask their citizens and customers (who are paying for the research behind these projects) how secure we want our environment to be and how tightly secured we wish to be within it.

Unfortunately, the majority of our increasingly fearful citizenry would probably answer "as secure as possible please". Which is why TELOS is focusing on how to regulate the regulators of the future within an appropriate legal framework. ®

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