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Academic work in a new field – A conversation on the future of law with Prof. Ugo Pagallo (part 1)

Ugo Pagallo is Professor of Jurisprudence at the Department of Law, University of Turin, Italy. His main fields of interest are Artificial Intelligence and Law, Network Theory, Robotics, and Information Technology law. In his 30 years of research, he has published numerous books, countless papers and participated in projects of the European Union. In a three-part interview series, we talk to him about what has been accomplished and what lies ahead. In part 1, he talks about academic work related to artificial intelligence and emerging technologies.


Interview: Jonathan Mehlfeldt


© Antonia Hinterdobler.

Rechtverblüffend: Professor Pagallo, how did you become a professor on the Law of New Technologies and Artificial Intelligence?


Ugo Pagallo: The first part of my career has been a traditional one. I graduated in Bologna, did a PhD in Padua and had my first post as an assistant researcher there. I developed an interdisciplinary approach only over the past twenty years; and I was able to do that only because I was already a full professor. I could finally publish in the field that was particularly interesting to me without any problems of evaluation. According to Italian standards, I already reached the top twenty years ago [laughs]. And still today, before even considering the academic progression of your career, interdisciplinary approaches are dangerous. My scenario is really context dependent. In the Netherlands, for example, they are generally quite open to an interdisciplinary approach.


Rechtverblüffend: You started working in this field only twenty years ago?


Pagallo: Well, I started publishing in this field twenty years ago. And at my age, I have to invent my own road. There is a famous quote from Queen Christina of Sweden: “He that chooses his own path needs no map” [smiles]. And in a way, twenty years ago, it was a completely different world from a technological point of view. Many of the things that I did, I did as a pioneer. Mostly because I was convinced that the world was going in that direction.


Rechtverblüffend: When you arrived in Turin two decades ago, you wanted to start a legal informatics course. Your colleagues didn’t necessarily react positively.


Pagallo: Yes, that is a funny detail. Most of my colleagues didn´t understand why!


Rechtverblüffend: Because that deviated from your previous path?


Pagallo: Well, because it was a new kind of teaching. You might recall the story of Einstein and John von Neumann. When they were at Princeton, Einstein asked John: “What are you doing?” And von Neumann replied – as an engineer, in that case: “I’m trying to build my first computer” Apparently, Einstein responded: “How could a computer be useful to me?”. Even Einstein! [laughs]. Let’s put it this way: I think that the work my generation did over the past twenty years aided in establishing a decent academic environment for this field of research. We are sponsored by the European Union, in particular our Joint International Doctoral degree in Law, Science and Technology. Therefore, luckily, the scenario is changing dramatically – in this case dramatically has a positive meaning. But we can, of course, still improve on what we have done over the past twenty years.


"The work my generation did over the past twenty years aided in establishing a decent academic environment for this field of research."

Rechtverblüffend: What would that be?


Pagallo: For example, I’ve long insisted on introducing classes on computer sciences and programming in all law schools. While this has changed in the US and in the Netherlands, it has not yet happened in Italy. Although, I am teaching computer ethics at the department of computer sciences in Turin. So, things might be changing.


Rechtverblüffend: Our way of teaching law has to change then?


Pagallo: Twenty years ago, I used to say that it makes no sense to teach law as if we were in the 19th century.

If you look at the giants of philosophy of law, such as Hans Kelsen and Herbert Hart, you’ll find that nobody talked about technology. This really is a revolution, meaning that the world and in particular the field of law has dramatically changed within a generation.


Rechtverblüffend: So as the law is evolving, the teaching of law has to evolve with it?


Pagallo: Well, let me give you another example: As a jurist, consider Article 22 of the GDPR: the fact that we have the right to ask for human intervention in automated processing of personal data and – that’s my theory – an additional right to an ex-post explanation. If you don’t have any technological expertise, how on earth could you address the issue of explainability of a black-box technology?


[Editor´s comment: A black-box technology is an implementation of an AI technique, typically Machine Learning (ML), that only allows for observation of its inputs and outputs, but not of its internal processes producing the outputs. The explainability of decisions taken by such devices is problematic especially in a juridical context.]


I also teach that there are cases in which the solution for a legal issue is technological rather

than legal. Take the example of zero-knowledge-proofs: I can, in mathematical terms, prove that my algorithm is a law-abiding algorithm without showing the code of my software – which could be necessary if the code is a trade secret, for example. Again, if you don’t have any idea about technology, it will be very hard for you to find a legal solution for that case.


Rechtverblüffend: You already touched on your involvement in the European Union and some of its projects, such as the “Onlife Initiative” or the “Expert Group on Liability in New and Emerging Technologies”. Could you describe how your experience in these projects differed from your day-to-day work?


Pagallo: I would first distinguish – since you mentioned them, there are of course others as well – between the Onlife Initiative and the Expert Group. The Onlife Initiative – or also the “AI4People” project, which was sponsored by another institution based in Brussels – is strictly connected with what we do in academia: Trying to come up with new brilliant ideas.

My experience with the Expert Group on Liability in New and Emerging Technologies was different, since the aim was – and we knew that – to present a practical, concise and effective document to the European Commission. On many occasions, the representative of the Commission in our group stressed: “Hey guys, you are not at the university. We are dealing with a political document” We were, of course, dealing with a legal document, but for political reasons.


Rechtverblüffend: Does that mean you would distinguish between academic and political projects then?


Pagallo: Yes! And since I am also a philosopher of law, this connects to what Aristotle taught: Our science is a practical science. This means – and this is basic Aristotle – that what we learn is instrumental to dealing with and helping to fix problems. However, Aristotle would add that within the practical sciences, you have a theoretical side of the practical science – represented by Plato – and a political side of the practical science, which is politics – represented by Pericles. Therefore, if I may offer you this metaphor, the Onlife initiative was closer to Plato, while the Expert Group was closer to Pericles.