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The Law and “Ultrafast Extreme Events” – Is it Possible to Regulate “Machine Ecology” If it Moves Faster than the Human Mind Can React?

In a fascinating new article in Nature’s Scientific Reports, researchers describe a “machine ecology” humans have built through which we have ceded decisionmaking across a wide array of domains to technologies moving faster than the human mind can react. Consider that the new transatlantic cable underway is being built so we can reduce communication times by another 5 milliseconds, and that a new chip designed for financial trading can execute trades in just 740 nanoseconds (that’s 0.00074 milliseconds!), whereas even in its fastest modes (flight from danger and competition) the human mind makes important decisions in just under 1 second. As the article abstract suggests, the proliferation of this machine ecology could present as many problems as benefits:

Society’s techno-social systems are becoming ever faster and more computer-orientated. However, far from simply generating faster versions of existing behaviour, we show that this speed-up can generate a new behavioural regime as humans lose the ability to intervene in real time. Analyzing millisecond-scale data for the world’s largest and most powerful techno-social system, the global financial market, we uncover an abrupt transition to a new all-machine phase characterized by large numbers of subsecond extreme events. The proliferation of these subsecond events shows an intriguing correlation with the onset of the system-wide financial collapse in 2008. Our findings are consistent with an emerging ecology of competitive machines featuring ‘crowds’ of predatory algorithms, and highlight the need for a new scientific theory of subsecond financial phenomena.

One has to wonder how we can design regulatory mechanisms that will prove effective in controlling “ultrafast extreme events” and how legal doctrine will handle issues of liability, property, and contract when such events are moving at nanosecond speeds beyond human recognition. Indeed, the article’s authors focus on the financial system, and observe that the extent to which the thousands of UEEs their research has detected as occurring during the financial crisis were actually “provoked by regulatory and institutional changes around 2006, is a fascinating question whose answer depends on a deeper understanding of the market microstructure.” I’d love to see how Congress tees up that committee hearing!

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