Technology moves quickly. By the time you get good at operating your new smartphone, odds are that it's just about obsolete. By contrast -- and by design -- almost nothing in American society moves more slowly than the law. And so as technological cycles spin ever faster, the creaky wheels of justice become more and more outdated.
American law has always recognized property as a bedrock value, and yet in this era of digital piracy, crowd-sourcing, and open-source platforms, how do we decide who gets credit ... and revenue from things we create together?
Oversharing isn't just a problem for kids posting ill-advised pictures from Friday night. Lots of software these days is programmed to "learn" from the Internet as millions of publicly available data points are downloaded, processed, and programmed into an ever-improving product.
David Hanson is the CEO of Hanson Robotics, a company that makes frighteningly lifelike robots, which, he hopes, will also one day have human-level intelligence. Hanson's team taught a robot language by letting it read thousands of hours of stories, interviews, and lectures written by the sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick ... but only after getting permission from Dick's estate.
Hanson has also developed open-source software so that anyone can help his robots get smarter. "If robots are learning from interactions with people," Hanson asks, "who owns the results of those interactions?" And what will happen if the robot achieves something like cognition, if it has a marketable idea or skill all by itself? When all of humanity collaborates -- maybe even unwittingly -- why does one company get to own the valuable results?
When futurists talk about new frontiers, the discussion isn't always metaphorical. As companies like Virgin Galactic work to dramatically reduce the cost of space exploration, international law will need to quickly become intergalactic in order to keep pace. One company called Moon Express, for example, refers to the moon as "Earth's eighth continent" and ultimately plans to mine the lunar surface for rare-earth elements.
"Somebody has to do it," CEO Naveen Jain said recently at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit in San Jose, Calif. And given easy access to space, somebody certainly will try to profit from it.
As Virgin Galactic reduces the cost of firing off a payload from $100 million to as low as $500,000, the number of companies vying for a piece of the action is going to skyrocket. At the moment, many of these space cowboys express confidence that earth regulations won't impeded celestial success. But self-assurance in the absence of a legal framework is no assurance at all.
Imagine if some company does begin mining a profitable vein for these elements. What will their reaction be to a rival company -- or a rival nation -- simply poaching their claims? Operating in a lawless frontier is only fun as long as you're the head outlaw in charge.
As technology becomes ever more intimately associated with the way we live our lives and conduct our business, each new innovation begets new legal perils. Automotive assist technologies are great, for example, but when a self-parking Prius rams into a Mercedes, do we blame the driver (who wasn't driving) or the software engineer who botched the code?
There can be no innovation without risk, and at the moment we may be innovating so fast that we no longer know how to award credit ... or assign blame.