Science, Law and Society (SLS) Initiative

To what extent should societies delegate to machines decisions that affect people?

Our mission

The Future Society SLS Initiative is a think-and-do tank dedicated to addressing this question with respect to the extended legal system. We seek to foster and guide a broad dialogue leading to actionable ethical principles, guiding moral values, effective policy frameworks, voluntary codes of conduct, national and international regulations, and a societal consensus aimed at harnessing the technological advancements of our age to the benefit of humans, their societies and their natural environment.

The stakes

Artificial intelligence and other technosciences, if appropriately governed, have extraordinary potential in advancing the well-being of humanity, its societies, and its natural environment. But these same technological advancements also carry profound threats, including to our very conception of what it means to be human. These benefits and risks are particularly stark in the extended legal domain, on which our safety, our rights and our duties, our dignity, and the prosperity and functioning of our societies so centrally relies.

The urgency

Should entirely autonomous, artificially intelligent judges ever have the power to send humans to jail?

This question, and many like it, formulated as a binary choice, are not imminent. However, increasingly common “hybrid intelligence” systems used in the extended legal system raise the same profound ethical and practical questions.  Unless our societies pressingly develop and implement principles and practical rules for the governance of emerging technosciences, any attempt to do so in the future will be rendered inoperative by realities on the ground.

Who we are

Incubated at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Future Society’s Science, Law and Society Initiative brings together a broad range of stakeholders from all realms of society, dedicated to the realization of our mission for the betterment of humanity, its societies, and its natural environment. Meet our team.

Our areas of focus

The law impacts every aspect of how artificial intelligence and humans interact: from the ‘click-to-accept’ terms of every-day apps, to autonomous vehicles and weapons, and the administration of the welfare state. And, at the same time, AI technologies will have a transformative impact on all aspects of the law: how it is made, how it is practiced, how it is enforced. Our primary area of focus is the extended legal system itself, including:

  • Law making
  • Legal ethics
  • Civil and criminal procedure
  • Law enforcement
  • Privacy
  • Access to justice

Examples of the challenges that we face

Some of challenges that will arise may seem distant, but many of them have perceptible early manifestations:

In the longer term

How will the legal system incorporate AI in the provision of legal services? Will there be a time when AI “lawyers” are, for example, a complement to or replacement for overworked public defenders? How will society respond to the possibility of AI “judges” that can demonstrably produce faster, more equitable and more uniform decisions than human judges can? Is it intrinsically improper to have human disputes adjudicated by AI, even if the system‐wide outcomes are more equitable than humans can deliver? Would it be appropriate –even ethically prescribed— to entrust the practice of legal tasks solely to “AI lawyers” if they are proven to be generally superior to humans?

Early manifestations

AI is already used to replicate and automate the work of lawyers in certain fact‐finding tasks, in particular electronic discovery. A ground‐breaking study under the aegis of US NIST demonstrated that automated assessments of relevancy and responsiveness conducted by sophisticated AI systems could, in the hands of scientifically trained experts, perform with greater accuracy and speed than human attorneys could. This raises today the somewhat futuristic question outlined immediately above: if AI systems are demonstrably superior to human attorneys at certain aspects of legal work (e.g., responsiveness assessments), what are the ethical and professional implications for the practice of law?