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NASA, AI and the law – a conversation with Héloïse Vertadier

“I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

HAL 3000.

The future of technology has always provoked speculation and excitement as to how it will change our lives. For lawyers, however, tackling new developments in technology can often be both confusing and stressful, as they will be responsible for keeping up to date with changing regulations (or even help shape them themselves!).

For this week’s post, I spoke with Héloïse Vertadier, who recently completed a research position for NASA exploring the legal world of all things tech, including robotics, AI, blockchain and much more! Fascinated (and very jealous), I asked her a number of questions about the future world of technology, how the legal industry will respond, as well as what NASA have to say about it all.


What was your recent experience at NASA like? How does something as stereotypically ‘mundane’ as the law manifest itself in the stereotypically awe-inspiring world of space?

HV: “My experience at NASA was both incredible and unexpected. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself to be sure it wasn’t all a dream!

I worked at Ames as a Research Scholar/Intern for three months this summer, on a paper named “Legal and Ethical Framework for Robots and AI”. I had worked in the blockchain and the space industry before during my year at the International Space University (Strasbourg, France). I was thankful that ISU gave me this amazing opportunity to go to Ames in order to keep working on the implication of these new technologies on the law and our society in general.

Law can often be seen and perceived as restrictive – especially when it comes to innovative fields like space. At the moment, space law is quite old. The “Corpus Juris Spatialis” was created between 1967 and 1979 and is composed of five main treaties that were negotiated in the UN:

  • The Outer Space Treaty
  • The Rescue Agreement
  • The Liability Convention
  • The Registration Convention
  • The Moon Agreement

When we see how space exploration has evolved – even during the last decade alone – it is no surprise that these treaties, signed during the Cold War, are having trouble being enforced today. This is especially true considering the absence of any recognised international regulatory body. Having said that, the international context we find ourselves in today makes it impossible to create new treaties or even to modify the existing ones. Instead, we have to see them more as guidelines that establish principles of behaviour for the signatory parties rather than a codified set of vigorous, boundary laws.”

Milky Way, Universe, Person, Stars, Looking, Sky, Night

Many have speculated that we are on the verge of another industrial revolution with the potential rise of technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and next-level robotics. What are your thoughts on this and how do you think this affects the legal sector?

“AI and blockchain technology will surely be game-changers in the future. Law, as well as many other disciplines, will have to evolve in order to keep up. As for AI and the use of robots, the main legal area that will be impacted will be the question of liability: who exactly will be liable if an AI damages something or breaches a contractual arrangement? That is a really big question because, for now, no one knows where AI will lead us. Some experts have speculated that there is a 50% chance that AI will overrun human intelligence by 2045.

AI presents great opportunities, but also some great threats, so the idea is to create a framework that is precise enough to handle these changes, but also flexible enough to not asphyxiate technological development. In my opinion, it is fundamental that lawyers, policymakers and engineers collectively engage in conversation in order to create an evolving legal framework that can accompany any change.”

Blockchain, Block, Chain, Technology, Computer, Symbol

The continuing development of this technology has also raised several moral questions – say, our co-existence with a superintelligent AI. How do you think humans and AI will, or must, ethically co-exist in future?

“I think that studying how AI will interact with humans can be done in three particularly interesting scenarios: 

  • The psychological aspect: humans project a lot their emotions with their devices. Such involvements, whether they are positive or negative, can be dangerous because they will be unilateral. The real danger is that humans could easily personify and anthropomorphize machines and create a unilateral relationship with them.
  • AI as an inventor or an artist: here, the infamous case of the “Monkey Selfie” is interesting, because it demonstrates the legal difficulty to attribute ownership to a work of art created by a non-human entity. 
  • AI for medical uses: a robot surgeon can operate remotely, either in the same room with a machine or as an intermediary. The surgeon controls the gestures that are made by the machine and he/she sees on a screen what is happening, or even from a very distant place. In addition, a team from the Chinese Tsinghua University and iFlyTek AI created a robot driven by an AI named Xiaoyi – “little doctor” in English – that passed a medical entry exam in August 2017, exceeding the average performance of (human) students.

All of these points raise a lot of questions, be they ethical, legal or otherwise, and to me that’s fascinating.”

The infamous selfie from the ‘Monkey Selfie’ copyright case.

For many solicitors beginning their career in the legal sector, the further incorporation of advanced technology within the legal sector can present itself as both an opportunity and a challenge. What do you think the lawyers of tomorrow will be expected to know about LegalTech? What about how they will use it?

“I think it is fundamental that the lawyers in training today are trained to understand these challenges. Today, we lack professionals that are specialized in these areas. We need new blood, new ideas and we most certainly need hard-working, focused and rigorous lawyers that understand the need to develop this area of the law.

Today, people often laugh or smile when we talk about AI and robots. It’s normal and expected, because there is a lack of common knowledge about these technologies aside from common media portrayals. The lawyers of tomorrow that will want to explore this area of law must be aware that their challenge is in two parts:

  • They will need to promote the global knowledge of these topics;
  • They will need to create a new set of rules and laws to fit the particular legal questions raised by AI and robots”

I’d like to extend a big thank you to Héloïse for speaking with me and granting an insight into the world of law, space, AI and tech. You can visit her LinkedIn profile here.

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