AI And The Rule Of Law

Recognizing the old adage “put your money where your mouth is”

It is easy to romanticize the past. For a few years, Downton Abbey was the hot show on public broadcasting. It was a soap opera about life in the aristocracy of England during the early 1900s. The characters dressed in impeccably tailored, always clean, and nicely coordinated outfits. While the differences between “upstairs” and “downstairs” were there, everyone got along in a way only time and TV can soften. The world of Downton Abbey was a wonderful world, but removed from the reality of early 20th century England. (For a somewhat different, but more realistic take, read How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life.)

We could romanticize our notions about the rule of law. There was a time when people were good, law-abiding citizens looking out for each other. Visions of a small town in rural America come to mind. Folks were friendly, doors were left unlocked, and people respected each other’s rights. Welcome to Mayberry, North Carolina where Andy Griffith is Sheriff and the criminals turn themselves in. But, this version overlooks the many tragedies embedded in the law, including racism, gender discrimination, and ethnic discrimination.

How we distribute our resources partly reflects what we value. The teenage boy who lives next door to me highly values his car, I would guess, because he seems to wash and polish it every other day. Some of my neighbors spend lavishly on their backyard patio-barbeque-fire pit areas, while others create amazing flower gardens. These are obvious signs that they value their space.

We also see visible signs when people do not value something. The derelict areas of town have decaying buildings. The seldom used parks have play equipment in disrepair. And in my state, we have streets that are more potholes connected by patches than roads with a few holes in them. We telegraph to others in our community and the world that which is, or is not, important, through our resource allotments.

The Signs Of Disrepair

Society has fallen into the trap of treating the rule of law as a “thing” that is always around, but does not deserve much in the way of resources. As a result, it too is falling into disrepair, consigned to the heap with the potholed road and crumbling buildings.

Unlike the physical objects where lack of care is visible, the rule of law is something hard to see and, therefore, easy to neglect. The signs of its decay creep into everyday life and become just another example of the way we live. It isn’t so much the big things — we all hear the story of the criminal who didn’t get away — as the small things.

My wife was at a quilting show a few weeks ago. Hundreds of quilts from around the world were on display. Viewers could see the intellectual property of those who are the best at their art. Many rooms had signs at the entrance and posted around the room asking that attendees refrain from taking pictures. The quilt designs on display were originals and the creators make their living through selling those designs. Taking a picture was akin to stealing.

As my wife stood admiring one of the quilts, a lady a few quilts down took out her smartphone and began taking pictures. An elderly lady pointed to the nearest “no pictures” sign and reminded the photographer about the prohibition. The photographer thanked her and continued taking pictures. The duo repeated their exchange two more times. Finally, the photographer turned to the elderly lady and said, “and I suppose you follow the rules and the law all the time?” Civil disobedience was not experiencing its finest hour.

This is a small example, yet one repeated tens of thousands of times each day. Minor infractions have always been around, but if new reports are any indication minor and major infractions are more frequent. Our leaders model the path of not following the rules and the law and citizens follow them. Decay of the rule of law comes through repeated disrespect. Complying with the rule of law becomes more like the potholes connected by patches than the paved street with some minor holes. It becomes easier to disrespect something when many others have done so before you.

AI And The Rule Of Law

When you work with computers and with AI, there can be a certain comfort in knowing that at least the computers follow the rule of law, more precisely the “rule of code.” If the rule is “don’t take pictures” the computer will not take pictures — ever. The orderliness of the way things work when computers run processes seems like the type of order that would help us at times.

One of the latest hot areas for AI is the personal assistant, our clever name for programs such as Alexa. (If you are in England, you could be a bit confused since a PA in England is similar to a secretary or human personal assistant in the US.) Each day, the engineers imbue Alexa and similar programs with more features and connections. The major retailers of the computer personal assistants are in an arms race to make personal assistants more useful and grow opportunities for economic gain.

Amazon leads the category and has upped its game to stay in the lead. It is pouring resources (people and money) into the Alexa program. Thousands of engineers work on new ways for Alexa to answer our questions, new conveniences Alexa can bring us (“Alexa, please do my homework”) and new connections between devices and the world. Amazon values these efforts and is putting its money where its mouth is, and so, apparently do we, putting our money where Amazon is.

The law covering personal assistants has not arrived. It has received far less attention than the devices. How will our laws govern in this new world, where humans and AI share air time? This isn’t a question of how do we stop or do away with AI, it is a real question that faces us now. Some of the first issues have started showing up in courts. Can the government force disclosure of the digital records of conversations recorded by the personal assistant?

A related innovation is the camera in the refrigerator. Tap an app on your smartphone and you can see what is on the refrigerator’s shelves when you are at the grocery store. Yes, we are low on milk, I should get some. But can the government tap into that app as a wiretap on your refrigerator? Can it use the app to confirm the fugitive is staying in the house? How will we govern in a hybrid human-AI society?

Questions that were answered for a humans-only society over hundreds of years are popping up again. Can software own anything? Who are the inventors? What are crimes and who commits them? But the duality (maybe plurality) of our emerging society adds more dimensions to the problem. Before you are quick to say “AI can’t own anything, it is just a computer” remember that we already gave corporations and animals rights. We crossed the non-human ownership barrier years ago.

The rule of law is being stretched thin, not just because it has received little care and respect, but because we also want to stretch it to cover the unaddressed issues added to our complex society each day. Like laws themselves, the fabric of the rule of law does not stretch infinitely.

We see the big challenges splashed across the screens as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and other well-known technoscientists raise alarms about AI and its future. But we don’t see the smaller challenges highlighted. Governing society and the rule of law are as much about the small decisions made millions of times every day, as they are about the one big question. And this is where our failure to put our money where our rule of law is will harm us.


Skynet may have become aware at 2:14 am Eastern Time on August 29th, but long before that turning point, devices and humans were interacting in ways that shifted society and the rule of law. As entrepreneurs and capitalists pour money into where their futures lie, we need to invest in our future. We need to spend resources working through how we will adapt to this complex new society, how we will govern, and how we will put our values into our governance mechanisms. We need to spend resources on the rule of law to demonstrate that it is important to us and worthy of respect.

Editor’s Note: This article is published with permission of the author with first publication on The Algorithmic Society – Medium.

Posted in: AI, Intellectual Property, Leadership, Legal Research