I am an artificial intelligence and robotics lawyer. That sentence sounds like I might be an artificial intelligence machine that can perform legal tasks. But that’s not what I am talking about. I am a human practicing lawyer in Silicon Valley in the 2020s diving into the law of artificial intelligence and robotics. I strike deals, defend my client’s rights, help my clients comply with the law, investigate mishaps, and help govern AI and robotics systems for sellers and buyers of the AI and robotics technology.
People sometimes ask me why I am focusing a major part of my law practice on artificial intelligence and robotics. The short answer is that I can’t think of a more exciting, interesting, and rewarding career path in the law than AI and robotics law. I had been a science fiction fan as a high school and college student, and now I feel like I am practicing the “law of science fiction.” But that doesn’t give you a full picture of why I find the field exciting, interesting, or rewarding. Here’s the longer answer.
By way of background, I read a lot of science fiction growing up. I thought both Star Wars and Star Trek were terrific. The portrayal of robots and AI in science fiction seemed far off in the future to me. But at the time, I thought how cool it would be to dive into legal issues from the fantastic things I was reading. But being a realist, I thought that science fiction stories would have to wait; I needed a legal career in the here and now.
I started my legal career conventionally, but I have reinvented myself as a lawyer a few times over. I started law school during the rise of the PC era; I bought my first PC in the summer of 1985, getting ready for my first year of law school. I thought computers were super interesting and taught myself programming in high school. But I thought it was too bad that I had to leave my computer hobby behind because I wanted to become a lawyer. Then, in my third year of law school, computer software copyright cases became more common and the light bulb went off. I thought I could become a “computer lawyer.” So, I wrote my third-year paper on software copyright cases.
In my early years as a practicing lawyer, I tried my best to pursue a career in “computer law.” I played many PC games and started writing a book on the law of computer games. Then, in the early 1990s, online services like AOL, Compuserve, Delphi, and Prodigy became more popular. Around 1994, it was possible to connect to the Internet. It was a hobby at first. I tried all the online services I could and decided to start reading material posted on various Internet services. My then-law firm started allowing us to read online bulletin boards, and I even used some public material I found on the Internet to convince a big company to back down from threatening my client with trade secret misappropriation. Workers at the big company had already posted the allegedly secret information on a bulletin board. So, there were no protectable trade secrets.
It was then that I changed my thinking. I shouldn’t be a “computer lawyer.” I should be an “Internet lawyer.” I had to reinvent myself. Again, I did all I could to pursue a career in Internet law. The Internet was like a strike of lightning in terms of timing. Within a few short years from 1994 to 1997, the Internet changed from a hobby I indulged in my limited spare time to something on which my family’s livelihood depended. I depended on the Internet because I took a job in 1997 with Internet security company VeriSign.
As a variant of the “Internet lawyer” idea, my job became an “Internet security lawyer.” I didn’t know too much about data security when I started at VeriSign, but I had to learn quickly and reinvent myself. Despite opportunities at other Internet companies, I thought that the VeriSign job was more interesting than anything I could think of. I focused my work on the company’s public key infrastructure services issuing digital certificates to support digital signatures and confidentiality encryption. I became one of a handful of lawyers that know the ins and outs of laws and legal aspects of public key infrastructure and digital certificates. I still do some work in PKI even today.
But something was missing. While information security seemed challenging and stimulating, it was not a mission; it was not a cause. It was just a cool thing to do.
Then, at the 2007 RSA Conference, the light bulb went off again. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, now at Google, gave a keynote address talking about his book The Singularity is Near. He talked about a future of vast and accelerating changes in technology that will transform our future. He spoke of a future world infused with artificial intelligence and robotics. At that moment, the light bulb went off again and I thought that I shouldn’t just be an “Internet security lawyer,” I should be an “AI and robotics lawyer.” I felt a calling to reinvent myself again. I thought that with AI and robotics being the “next big thing,” legal issues would become commonplace, and I could start a new career path at the start of the AI revolution.
Starting in 2007, I began teaching continuing education programs to other lawyers. I spoke at conferences. I wrote magazine articles. I began writing book chapters. And both organically and because of my outreach, client work in the area of AI and robotics started coming my way. It took longer than the three years for me to switch to Internet law, but AI and robotics are harder engineering problems to solve. Nonetheless, I have confidence that their impact will change the course of humanity.
So why AI and robotics law? First, practicing AI and robotics law is, in many ways, a dream come true. A lot of the things I thought of as science fiction in high school and college are here today. By going into this field now, I can realize that vision I had about working in future tech I had as a student. I feel like I truly am practicing “science fiction law,” but it’s even better than that because it’s all real and not fiction or speculation anymore.
Second, AI and robotics is more interesting and challenging than any other field. The technology changes fast. I have to read constantly to keep up with industry trends. I have to learn more about the technology all the time, and I have to understand how businesses are beginning to use AI and robotics, both successfully and unsuccessfully. The constant stimulation of learning new things keeps me engaged and on my toes.
Third, AI and robotics are having a tremendous impact on humanity already, and we are just at the infancy of the technologies. Thinkers like Bill Gates and Elon Musk talk about the risks to humanity from AI and robotics. Equally, others like Jerry Kaplan talk about how AI and robots in the short run are more of a danger because of their incompetence than their malevolence. Shannon Vallor talks about the responsibility that all of us have for making sure AI systems reflect our ethical values.
Finally, I see AI and robotics as a cause. I read Kai-Fu Lee’s 2018 book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. For those of you who don’t know him, Lee is referred to as a “rock star” of the Chinese technology scene. A former Google, Microsoft, and Apple executive, Lee emigrated from Taiwan and received his education here in the United States, which included a computer science Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. He is now a venture capitalist incubating new businesses in China and is considered a technology oracle. In January 2019, Scott Pelley interviewed Lee on the television show 60 Minutes. During that segment, Lee talked about AI. In stressing its importance, Lee told Pelley this about artificial intelligence:
I believe it’s going to change the world more than anything in the history of mankind. More than electricity.
These thinkers make me realize I can contribute to something and that all of my colleagues and I are working on something greater than ourselves. My legal career truly can make a difference if I can help a company bring life-saving technology to the market or help steer a business away from a technology that might harm the public in potentially catastrophic ways.
Indeed, if Lee is right that AI will change the world more than anything before, we need many people working on AI and robotics from all fields. We need to work together to make sure AI and robotics are rolled out in a way that is safe, compliant with the law, and consistent with our fundamental ethical values. By practicing law in this area, I am not just helping Client A achieve result X. I am taking a role, even if modest, that might help to change the direction of the human species.
I do agree with Lee that AI will change the world more than anything in history. It is only a matter of time. I think if I am in error about this, my error has been spending time in my career on a field that will have an impact only decades or centuries from now. I could be long retired or passed on before AI law comes into full bloom.
Nonetheless, I am willing to take the chance on being premature. I adhere to the motto of “be prepared.” I strongly believe we must be prepared today for sweeping changes in science and technology to come. If the COVID-19 virus has taught us anything, it is that science and technology challenges can sweep over us suddenly, almost without warning and bring devastating results. We got caught flat-footed with COVID. We must not let that happen with artificial intelligence and robotics. Now is the time to embark on a journey of discovery together to work together to prepare the world for safe, compliant, and ethical AI. I hope you can join me on the journey.