New Zealand Law Society - New projects prepare NZ for the information revolution

New projects prepare NZ for the information revolution

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The Law Foundation’s new, dedicated $2 million fund for information law and policy research has kick-started some exciting new projects that will better prepare New Zealand for the challenges of the information age.

Already, four significant projects are under way since the Foundation announced the Information Law and Policy Project (ILAPP) in August 2016. A fifth, related project, on realising the potential of autonomous vehicles in New Zealand is being carried out by Michael Cameron, solicitor with the Department of Corrections. This was made possible by his winning the premier legal research award, the 2016 New Zealand Law Foundation International Research Fellowship.

The results of all these projects will help law and policy-makers keep up with the bewildering pace of change across the technology spectrum. Here are brief summaries of the four ILAPP projects – for more information, including how to submit expressions of interests, see the Foundation’s website (

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is coming at us before we fully understand what it might mean. Established ways of doing things in areas like transport regulation, crime prevention and legal practice are being challenged by new technologies such as driverless cars, crime prediction software and ‘AI lawyers’.

The possible implications of AI innovations for law and public policy in New Zealand will be teased out in a ground-breaking three-year multi-disciplinary project run out of Otago University, supported by a $400,000 Law Foundation grant.

Project team leader Colin Gavaghan says AI technologies – essentially, technologies that can learn and adapt for themselves – pose fascinating legal, practical and ethical challenges. He says the research team will consider the implications of AI technologies under four broad headings: responsibility and culpability; transparency and scrutiny; employment displacement; and “machine morality.”

Professor Gavaghan is an Associate Law Professor and Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation Centre for Emerging Technologies at Otago. His partners on the project include Associate Professor Ali Knott, of Otago’s Department of Computer Science, and Associate Professor James Maclaurin, of the Department of Philosophy. The team will be assisted by two post-doctoral researchers.

Digital currencies

The first project announced under ILAPP is examining the regulation of digital or crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin that use blockchain technology. Lead researcher, University of Auckland Business School Associate Professor Alexandra Sims, says digital currencies are poised to revolutionise the finance world and beyond, and pose challenges for lawmakers and regulators internationally.

Banks have a keen interest in blockchain technology, because it can reduce costs and improve the security and speed of transactions. But digital transactions also threaten banks because they can be made directly between parties, bypassing finance institutions.

Professor Sims says the Reserve Bank is concerned about the potential ramifications of digital currencies for finance system soundness and efficiency. She and her co-researchers, Professor David Mayes, of the University of Auckland, and Dr Kanchana Kariyawasam, of Australia’s Griffith University Business School, aim to develop a legal framework for blockchain regulation in New Zealand and Australia.

Smart contracts and the digitisation of law

Systems and machines are taking on increasingly more tasks previously done by lawyers. Wellington barrister Dr James Every-Palmer will examine work on the development of formal programming languages for contracts, and whether this could facilitate the digitisation of law and smart contracts (contracts that run as computer code).

Regulating new technologies

New technologies like Bitcoin, driverless cars, drones, Uber and Airbnb challenge New Zealand’s traditional regulatory frameworks. Dr Every-Palmer’s second ILAPP project will review how our institutions and legal processes can best accommodate such activities.

Lynda Hagen is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

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