UK: Legal Aspects Of Artificial Intelligence

Last Updated: 6 February 2017
Article by Richard Kemp


  1. Artificial Intelligence in the mainstream. Writing in the Economist newspaper on 8 October 2016, US President Barack Obama called out artificial intelligence (AI) as one of several areas where 'in recent years we have seen incredible technological advances'.2 Long a backroom area of computer science, AI has captured the popular imagination over the last two years as the range and impact of practical AI applications have expanded at a dizzying pace: a quick search on for 'artificial intelligence and robotics' returned 4 stories from September and October 2014, 16 for the same period in 2015 and 54 in 2016.
  2. AI and the fourth industrial revolution. AI is one of several areas of digital innovation that are all both developing increasingly rapidly and interacting with each other in ways whose consequences are challenging to foresee. A useful portmanteau for these changes is the 'fourth industrial revolution'. After steam, electricity and computing, this is the term coined3 by Davos founder Klaus Schwab for the deep digital transformation now upon us. As digital innovation starts to transform our physical, digital and biological worlds, Mr Schwab's thesis is that we stand on the threshold of vast ranges of IT-driven change where we may expect a 'deep shift' by 2025. Here, AI is just one of a number of technologies which will materially impact all our lives. Others, some of which enable or are enabled by AI, include big data, ubiquitous computing, 'vision as the new interface', implantable and neuro- technologies, the wearable internet, the internet of and for things, connected homes, smart cities and 3D manufacturing.
  3. The 2015 Study Panel's August 2016 'AI and Life in 2030' report. In September 2016, the AI100 Group (part of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, a project hosted by Stanford University) published its first report, 'Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030'.4 The AI100 Group's remit is to investigate the long-term impact of the science, engineering and deployment of AI-enabled computing systems on people, communities and society, and its core deliverables are five yearly surveys assessing the current state of AI, of which the September 2016 report is the first. The report describes AI and its component parts, reviews AI research trends, overviews AI use cases by sector, and makes recommendations for AI policy.
  4. What is 'Artificial Intelligence'? In 1950, Alan Turing, whilst Deputy Director of the Computing Machine Laboratory at the University of Manchester (the developer of the world's first stored-program digital computer) proposed5 what became known as the Turing Test for calling a machine 'intelligent': a machine could be said to 'think' if a human interlocutor could not tell it apart from another human being in conversation. Six years later, at a workshop to investigate how machines could simulate intelligence at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA, Professor John McCarthy was credited with introducing the term 'artificial intelligence'. A current generally accepted definition is based on two steps, addressing machine intelligence and then the qualities of intelligence:

    "Artificial intelligence is that activity devoted to making machines intelligent, and intelligence is that quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment".6

    The 'AI and Life in 2030' report (at page 12) also provides a more empirical definition of AI as an operational branch of computer science, stating that 'the field of AI is a continual endeavour to push forward the frontier of machine intelligence' and noting the paradox that when AI ceases to be at the frontier or leading edge it stops being considered AI. More prosaically, 'it's only AI until you know what it does, then it's just software'.
  5. AI research areas. For many years from the dawn of the computer age, through the mainframe, mini and PC eras and into the early days of the internet, AI research failed to live up to its early promise. Since 2000, however, AI has evolved rapidly and AI-enabled products and services are now becoming established and heralding more widespread commercial success for the future. Driven by exploding volumes of digital data and the advent of the Cloud, major AI developments are taking place in the research areas of machine learning (deep, supervised, unsupervised, reinforcement and large scale machine learning), machine perception (computer vision, speech recognition, natural language processing, Internet of Things) and machine control (autonomous vehicles and robotics). These areas are outlined in Section B of this paper.
  6. The policy perspective. The 'AI and Life in 2030' report notes (at page 45) that 'AI has the potential to challenge any number of legal assumptions in the short, medium, and long term'. Governments and policy makers around the world are starting to grapple with what AI means for law and policy and the necessary technical and legal frameworks. In April 2016, Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) published its Interim Report on the New Industrial Structure Vision as a 'forecasting compass in the public and private sectors to properly address the fourth industrial revolution'.7 In May, the European Parliament published a draft report on Robotics8 proposing an advanced robot registration system managed by an EU Agency for Robotics and AI. In the UK, the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology released on 12 October 2016 a report on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence9 recommending the establishment of a Standing Commission on Artificial Intelligence and a Leadership Council on Robotics and Autonomous Systems. On the same day, the US Administration published its report on the Future of AI10 and its AI R&D Strategic Plan.11
  7. Scope and aims of this white paper. This white paper is written from the perspective of the in-house lawyer reviewing the legal aspects of their organisation's first AI project. It:

    • addresses in non-technical terms the question: what is AI? and provides a brief outline of current areas of AI research and commercialisation (section B);
    • provides three case studies that look at technology, market, legal and regulatory developments in greater depth in each case to give more practical context and perspective on the types of legal issues that arise and how they may be successfully addressed. The case studies are legal services (paragraphs C.15 and C.16) as 'static AI', autonomous vehicles (C.17 and C.18) as 'mobile AI' and smart contracts (C.19 and C.20); and
    • reviews at section D the legal aspects of AI from the perspective of regulation (D.23) and agency (D.24), contract (D.25, intellectual property(D.26) and tort law (D.27).
    The fourth industrial revolution generally and AI in particular raise profound questions about the nature, timing and extent of the rise of new industries; displacement of employment; societal change; and ethics.

    Whilst recognising that political and policy responses to these changes will impact the development of law and regulation as they relate to AI, perhaps in ways that we cannot clearly foresee today, these questions are outside the scope of this white paper.

    This paper is written as at 31 October 2016 and from the perspective of English law.

To read this Report in full, please click here.


1 All websites referred to in the footnotes were accessed between 1 October and 5 November 2016.

2 'The way ahead', Barack Obama, The Economist, 8–14 October 2016, page 23

3 'The Fourth Industrial Revolution', Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum, 2016.


5 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence', Alan Turing, Mind, October 1950

6 'The Quest for Artificial Intelligence: A History of Ideas and Achievements', Prof Nils J Nilsson, Cambridge University Press, 2010.


8 'Draft Report with Recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics', European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs, 31 May 2016


10 'Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence', Executive Office of the President and the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), Committee of Technology, 12 October 2016

11 'The National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan', NSTC Networking and IT R&D Subcommittee, 12 October 2016

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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