The impact of technology is visible in all aspects of our lives: we can grow replacement cells to insert into our bodies, and enter into contracts with utility companies without speaking to a human. We can use blockchain to sell wheat from the farm gate to a household across the globe, and use big data to build compliance procedures that could render much of legal services obsolete.
We are also confronted with new, fundamental questions: how do citizens in liberal democracies work through the ethical, equity and governance challenges these technologies create? And what role can universities play in addressing them?
Universities across the globe are establishing centres to study artificial intelligence, big data and technological innovation. Some of these are discipline-based, focusing on the developments themselves or their social, political and economic implications. As popular concern increases over the governance of technologies and continued alignment with institutional values — but without discouraging innovation — it is essential to work across several disciplines.
Over the past decade, interdisciplinary research has grown to support work that interrogates difficult new topics such as healthcare technology, consumer law, digital markets, digital currencies, new resources and human rights in a digital age. As dean at an Australian law school, I am optimistic about this trend and see it becoming a part of research universities’ DNA.
“Sandboxes” — which allow entrepreneurs to test new technologies without being impeded by existing, and potentially ill-suited, regulation — were pioneered in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority. Such experimentation allows financial institutions, technology companies and lawyers to shape laws to respond to new financial technologies. In Australia, there have been calls to adopt the sandbox approach more broadly to ensure that new technology and regulation make tech more accessible and not biased against particular social groups.
The need for interdisciplinary work is exemplified by emerging health technologies such as next-generation cellular therapies. Lawyers working alongside biomedical scientists can respond to regulation at each step as the technology advances, rather than belatedly reacting to developments.
As cellular therapy is poised to introduce new functions to the human body, the rules that will inform the appropriate use of this technology are not yet in place. As former Australian high court justice Michael Kirby said in 1979: “All laws, policies and strategies to deal with a new and puzzling challenge having a scientific dimension must be based on good science. Not ignorance, prejudice, unquestioned dogma or even instinctive reaction.”
Universities have an important role to play instilling an interdisciplinary approach. The Melbourne Social Equity Institute, for example, formed an interdisciplinary research team, with expertise in how consumer law, human rights law and policy, disability rights, social work, and mental health law work. The aim was to improve access to telecommunications, energy, and water services for consumers with cognitive disabilities. The team consulted with members of these groups to develop tailored support strategies and consumer information that is easier to understand. It incorporated design techniques and content that does not rely on heavy, legalistic text.
Leveraging work done in other jurisdictions can be very beneficial to interdisciplinary work: connections must be fostered through exchange programmes, working with business and industry, and developing the next generation of academics to ensure they are internationally mobile.
Universities also need to adapt their curriculums to ensure that law graduates can work with technology and interrogate its impacts. Law schools across the globe, including my own, are introducing design courses and new subjects that challenge students to move beyond doctrinal categories when problem solving. Law is adept at change. The lawyer of today and tomorrow has to steward rational, careful and creative legal development.
A clear vision of what a legal work force will look like in the future is impossible. But what we do know is that lawyers will need to be able to unpack what is unique and beneficial about new technologies, what is merely old technology presented as something new and shiny, and what poses significant risks to democratic institutions and requires regulatory oversight.
For this, law graduates need to draw on their legal skills as well as insights from computer science, ethics, psychology, economics, health, history and beyond. At Melbourne Law School, our Masters programme brings together legal and non-legal graduates, including students from the health, engineering, construction, government, mining and financial services sectors. We afford an interdisciplinary education, because it is critical to our technology-infused future.