Examining the relationship between the law and human rights
Dr Ozlem Ulgen is Associate Professor in Law specialising in the law, ethics, and regulation of AI and robotics; moral and legal philosophy covering weapons law and international humanitarian law; and public international law.
Do whatever interests you or what you’re passionate about – don’t feel compelled to become either a solicitor or a barrister.
How would you explain your research?
I specialise in the law, ethics and regulation of AI and robotics; moral and legal philosophy; international humanitarian law (ie rules governing conduct in armed conflict); and public international law (ie rules governing relations between States). My work considers the legal and ethical implications of deploying AI and robotic systems in the military and civilian sectors (eg autonomous weapons systems, autonomous vehicles, healthcare/companion robots, AI-based household appliances, and public sector resource allocation systems).
I develop a human-centric approach placing ethical values and rights at the forefront of design and development. In my most recent work I develop a “human-centric and lifecycle approach” to legal responsibility for AI. I have developed a schema for integrating pre-deployment common law duties of care with State obligations under international law for autonomous weapons systems. I have developed a user rights model taking account of the EU General Data Protection Regulation, and the Council of Europe Modernised Convention 108+. I explore how ethical principles such as prevention of harm and human agency can be operationalised to inform developers of emerging technologies.
What inspired you to pursue this area?
Back in 2014, informal discussions took place at the UN with military personnel from different countries discussing leveraging AI and robotics in warfare to remove combatants from the battlefield. I remember being horrified at the prospect of a machine making life or death decisions, and the loss of human decision-making and responsibility. The “Fourth Revolution” of AI and robotics is upon us across all areas of society, and I have seen first-hand the harm that can be caused by algorithmic bias and unintended consequences. I wanted to influence change to reduce or eliminate such harms. So, I set about considering the moral philosophical aspects of replacing humans with machines, and legal implications. Further down the line I started working as a technical expert to develop international standards for AI and robotics.
How will your research affect the average person?
In the fast-moving domain of AI and robotics, my work is crucial for establishing rules and a regulatory environment to ensure ethical and legal development, use, and deployment of AI and robotic systems. My work seeks to protect human agency and rights, and to ensure attribution of legal responsibility for when things go wrong with these systems. This benefits society, industry, and government and contributes towards global justice, peace, and welfare. So far, my work has led to the drafting and adoption of the following international legal and standard-setting instruments:
- 2021 IEEE 7007-2021 (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Ontological Standard for Ethically Driven Robotics and Automation Systems
- 2021 UNESCO Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence
- 2019 Guiding Principles on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems
- 2019 IEEE ECPAIS (Ethics Certification Programme for Autonomous and Intelligent Systems) responsibility and accountability ethical certification requirements for autonomous and intelligent systems
How does your research influence your teaching?
In my current teaching (EU Law; EU Trade Law, Brexit and International Relations), I can explain to students the real-world ramifications of AI and robotics development, whether it is data protection and privacy rules under EU law or the importance of international law-making to regulate cross-border matters. I am developing two specialised masters modules for future students so that they can actively learn and benefit from my areas of research and expertise:
- Law, AI and Robotics (which looks at the legal and ethical challenges posed by such technologies, and considers the legal and regulatory governance regimes at the international, regional, and national levels)
- Weapons Law and International Armed Conflict (which considers the area of weapons law with specific focus on autonomous weapons systems and human-machine systems)
I supervise individual masters dissertations and welcome PhD applications in these areas.
What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?
It’s quite difficult to isolate one because there have been so many “key moments” – eg being in a UN drafting meeting right up until 2am and rushing to catch my flight back to the UK at 4am! I made it and it was worth it as it led to the 2019 Guiding Principles on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. All of the international law-making and standard-setting work I do is a privilege and makes me feel that I am contributing tangibly towards the betterment of society and the international community.
I’m proud of my ability to traverse different disciplines (eg law, philosophy, engineering, robotics, and data science) and work in cross-disciplinary teams to achieve outcomes that impact wider society and the global community. And it’s always nice when this is recognised in some way – eg last year, as a member of the IEEE P7007 group, I received the IEEE-SA Emerging Technology Award for outstanding contribution to developing an innovative ontological standard on the ethics of AI.
What's the biggest challenge in your field?
Apart from the rapid development of AI and robotics, getting some members of the engineering and programming communities to understand potential harms and the importance of law in mediating between competing interests through rights, responsibilities, and remedies for harms suffered and wrongs committed.
What advice would you give to someone considering an undergraduate degree in law?
Whether or not you intend to enter the profession, look upon your studies as a means to stimulate intellectual curiosity and broaden your horizons about real-world problems. Logical reasoning, analytical skills, and problem-solving are core legal skills that are transferable to many different professions. Be open to exploring complex ideas – there will be moments of frustration but many more of inspiration and enjoyment!