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Our Grandchildren Redesigned, by Michael Bess – A Legal Futurism Treasure Chest

As you may have noticed (or if not, now you know), I haven’t posted anything on the site for a while. I have all the typical excuses: busy at work, family stuff, the holidays, etc. But truth be told, not much grabbed me. That changed when I read Our Grandchildren Redesigned, the latest by my Vanderbilt colleague and friend, historian Michael Bess. As a dabbler in legal futurism, Bess’s book is a treasure chest to me. The subtitle says it all: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future.

In Redesigned, Bess pulls off what others have tried but failed to deliver. Using what is known today about the past, present, and trajectory of pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetics and epigenetics (plus nanotechnology, AI, robotics, and synthetic biology), Bess constructs plausible scenarios of how humans will use these technologies to “improve” on our biology and how society will respond. There is no science fiction in the book, no extreme claims, no utopian or dystopian indulgence. Bess the careful, acclaimed historian has turned his sights on the bioengineered future with the same measured, thoughtful, methodical attention to detail and cogency. And one could spin an endless stream of questions about the law’s future from his scenarios, many of which Bess signals or even digs into.

Bess opens the book (and its ongoing website) with three premises. First, “It’s almost certainly going to happen.” By “it” he means the convergence of the technologies towards the capacity for human physical and mental engineering through drugs, biotech devices, and epigenetic manipulations. Lest there be any doubts, chapters two through five put them to rest. Second, “It will bring both opportunity and peril.” Sure, you might say, so have smartphones. So what? But third, “Its impact will be radical.”  Of course, it’s this third of his premises that might attract the charge that it’s Bess who is being radical, but by the end of the book my only concern was that he didn’t play the scenario out as fully crazy as it could get!

I’m not going to review Bess’s account of the technologies or even the scenarios he builds in any detail. Read the book! Rather, what makes the book of such tremendous potential impact and of value to legal futurists is Bess’s engagement of the social and ethical choices that will have to be made as redesigning becomes possible, then practical, then popular, and eventually part of all our (grandchildren’s) lives. There are three big themes Bess develops in this regard.

First, this will not happen overnight. Many of the legal issues one can envision will flow from the transitional nature of the uploading of redesign technology into society. New technologies will at first be expensive, thus furthering already pervasive wealth disparities. Some technologies will need to begin at young ages to be effective, creating inter-generational disparities. Of course, responding to social disparity is nothing new to the law, but we are not talking about who can afford smartphones, we are talking about who gets the smart pills, the fully-functional artificial eye, the tweaked gene expression for holding off cancer, and so on. Bess’s concern is on target—the redesign disparity could begin to rip apart society as it comes online. How will law respond?

Second, Bess explores issues that will be inherent in the new normal in which a substantial level of redesign is eventually available to the masses. If the average age moves to 150, it takes little imagination to play out what that could mean for employment, marriage, welfare, the environment, prisons, you name it? And if people can be better at anything, with potentially vast improvement on the horizon, what does that mean for sports, warfare, science, the arts, you name it? Plus, in all likelihood we can’t become the bast at everything, so, much as children do today, we will likely see specializations that produce even more extreme differences between groups than are possible today. Will the best tennis players have anything in common with the best flutists?  And what about people who, for moral or religious reasons, choose not to participate? What will we do with them? Lots of law change in store!

Third, Bess asks what we should do now to shape the new normal, if we can. Bess believes, and I agree, that getting control of the direction and intensity of redesign will be hard, but necessary. If the U.S. backs off on moral grounds (e.g., as with stem cell research), what’s to stop North Korea? And if we set international limits, domestic controls on private experimentation will need to be rigorous. And what would the limits look like? Bess suggests seven key challenges, including controlling radical inequality, defending mental privacy, and avoiding commodification of the human being. Again, law will have to be engaged.

I should emphasize that there is far more to Bess’s work than I have let on in this law-focused account. There is a profoundly philosophical dimension, as Bess asks early in the book whether we should redesign and then develops a set of human flourishing factors that he believes should guide our way. Bess animates his descriptive scenarios with short fictional vignettes of life and lives, and even some laws, in the redesign future. By no means corny or out of place, these allow the reader to personalize the impacts of a redesign future. In my case, I found myself drifting into thought about the legal future as well. In short, all I have hoped to do here is scratch the surface of Bess’s brilliant work to whet your Law 2050 appetites.

Bottom line, if you want to get a picture of how being a human will take a sharp turn by around 2050, Our Grandchildren Redesigned is your starting point.

What You Get When 45 Law Students Brainstorm About Legal Futures

Last week my Law 2050 class moved into a group project phase. I’ve divided the 45 students into six groups. Each group is exploring a pair of legal future topics grouped under two themes: (1) emerging legal technologies and practice models, and (2) future legal practice scenarios. The six paired topics are:

Group

Tech/Industry Theme

Practice Scenario Theme

1

Outsourcing

Environment and energy

2

Legal process management

Social and demographic

3

Legal risk management

Economic and financial

4

Routinized and expert systems

Health and medicine

5

Legal prediction

Data and privacy

6

New legal markets Other technologies

Each group member prepared a proposed set of specific research projects fitting the group’s topics, and last week they pitched them to their groups. Each group selected 3-4 projects for each topic. They are exploring the viability of their tech/practice model selections and of their practice development selections. Later in the semester the groups will present their findings to the class as a whole.

Last week, the groups selected their final set of research projects and gave a quick summary to the class. I was quite impressed with the breadth and depth of their selections:

Future Practice Development Topics: synthetic organs, bitcoins, robotic surgery, student loan debt relief, Cloud computing, Google glass, 3-D printing, Dodd-Frank aftermath, crowdfunding,  sea level rise, cybersecurity standards, carbon sequestration, space law & asteroid mining, virtual real estate, ocean-based power sources, biometric identification, water rights issues, genetically pre-fabricated children, natural disaster law, AI decision making, majority-minority America, same sex marriage, LGBTQIA rights, mass human migration, the sharing economy.

Legal Tech and Practice Models: QuisLex, Yuson & Irvine, LPO security breach issues, rebundling of LPO functions, My Case, Onit, Clerky, Axiom, Lex Machina, Casetext, Clearspire, Lawyer Up, Jury Verdict Analyzer, Kiiac, Neota Logic, healthcare compliance software.

I’m looking forward to what they have to say about each of these!

Building Scenarios of Legal Futures

Legal futurism relies on developing robust scenarios of the future to test possible legal developments and outcomes. A recent article in Futures, A Review of Scenario Planning, defines scenarios as “a set of hypothetical events set in the future constructed to clarify a possible chain of causal events as well as their decision points.” Three main principles go into good scenario planning:

  • Identification of predetermined elements in the relevant business or policy environment that will drive and direct future outcomes
  • Developing a macroscopic view that pushes people to explore the relevant environment over a wider area than they normally would
  • A willingness to change mindsets in order to re-perceive reality

There are numerous techniques used in scenario planning, but generally they fall into two categories. Descriptive scenarios are extrapolative exercises designed to present a range of future likely alternative events. Normative scenarios are more goal directed and are designed to assist in implementing desired policy objectives. The primary focus of legal futurism is on building descriptive scenarios of the legal environment in order to test normative scenarios of legal responses. Developing legal futurism scenarios thus will involve a blend of non-legal and legal futures.

Climate change adaptation provides an obvious medium for this kind of scenario planning. Climate change presents a host of different impacts on public and private interests (the descriptive scenarios), and how public and private entities respond will depend in large part on their respective policy goal alternatives (the normative scenarios). For example, the interaction of sea level rise and storm intensity could play out over several different scenarios for a region, and possible policy responses include to “defend” the shoreline built environment with more infrastructure or to “retreat” from the increased threats by shifting land use development inland. Legal futurism combines these two interacting scenario sets to explore the likelihood of different legal developments, such as whether an aggressive retreat strategy might lead to public regulations triggering takings liability.

An excellent example of this kind of exercise is found in Dan Tarlock‘s recent article in the Vermont Law Review, Takings, Water Rights, and Climate Change. Tarlock combines descriptive scenarios of climate change with normative scenarios of policy responses to explore how takings law might apply to futures ranging from “sea-level rise inundates private property and the state asserts that the land is now subject to the public trust” to the state ordering “the diversion of water from entitlement holders to mitigate adverse climate-change impacts.”  His analysis, which bears down how takings jurisprudence encourages moral hazard problems, reveals the usefulness of scenario building not only for anticipating and planning future legal developments, but also for gaining insight about existing legal doctrine. Thinking about how law might work in future scenarios, in other words, tells us something–perhaps a lot in some cases–about how it is working now.

Introducing Law 2050 – A Forum about the Legal Future

I am pleased to announce the creation of the Law 2050 blog, a forum for envisioning the future of law, legal practice, and legal education. My shorthand term for this endeavor is “legal futurism.” Legal futurism primarily considers questions such as: How will climate change influence property law? How will liability law respond to robotics and human bioengineering? How will energy regulation law need to change to accommodate a renewable energy future? Legal futurism draws from nonlegal disciplines such as scenario planning and change forecasting to focus on the social, economic, technological, and environmental forces of the future that will put pressure on law to change and will open up new legal opportunities. Legal futurism is thus both theoretical (what might law look like in 2050) and practical (how do lawyers participate in that legal future).

Although the focus of Law 2050 is primarily on the future of law and legal systems, it will also cover important events and news regarding the future of legal practice and legal education. The evolution of law influences the evolution of legal practice, and vice versa. And legal education had better keep its eyes on both processes to stay useful and relevant. (more…)

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