February 2016

U.S. Letter to Google: A Potential Boost for Self-Driving Cars

Neal Rasmussen, MJLST Managing Editor

As Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology Volume 16, Issue 2 authors Spencer Peck, Leili Fatehi, Frank Douma, & Adeel Lari note in their article, “The SDVs are Coming! An Examination of Minnesota Laws in Preparation for Self-Driving Vehicles,” current laws already permit certain aspects of self-driving cars, but these laws will need to be modified to allow self-driving cars to reach their full potential. While the process will be slow, this modification is starting to happen as evidenced by a recent letter sent to Google, Inc. from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In this letter, Paul Hemmersbaugh, writing as chief counsel for the NHTSA, accepts the fact that the computers driving Google’s self-driving vehicles can be considered the same as a human driver such that the “NHTSA will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants.” Mr. Hemmersbaugh further explains that the NHTSA “agree[s] with Google [that] its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense” and that the NHTSA must work to develop better rules moving forward.

This letter was in response to Google’s proposal for a self-driving vehicle without basic controls, such as a steering wheel and pedals, and ultimately no human driver. The proposal stems from Google’s belief that having features that allow humans to take control could be “detrimental to safety” because human drivers are often ill equipped to take over in emergency situations due to distractions and over reactions.

According to Karl Brauer, a senior analyst for Kelly Blue Book, if the “NHTSA is prepared to name artificial intelligence as a viable alterative to human-controlled vehicles, it could substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road.” While this letter is definitely a step in the right direction, manufacturers still have a long ways to go at the state and federal levels.

In December the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issued proposed regulations that would require a human driver to always be behind the wheel with the ability to take over controls at any time. The DMV expressed concerns that manufactures haven’t obtain enough experience with driverless vehicles on public roads and that more must be done before such technology can be readily available.

So while the letter from the NHTSA offers hope to those within the industry, there are many more barriers to be crossed before self-driving cars can become a full reality.

Culpability in Criminal Law and the Emerging Field of Neuroscience

Daniel Mensching, MJLST Staffer

Criminal law has long held that people are accountable for their behavior and that most behavior is intentional and conscious. This is necessary for the legal system to determine culpability and therefore warrant punishment. In his article Blaming the Brain, Seven K. Erickson explores how the still young field of cognitive neuroscience is beginning to challenge traditional notions of free will independent action and potential legal consequences of this shift in understanding. While the implications for emerging understandings of neuroscience are far-reaching and delve into areas such as psychology and philosophy, viewing human actions as mechanical and absent of free will raises serious questions in the field of law as well, especially criminal law.

Cognitive neuroscience, though still in its infancy, holds the potential to explain all human behavior as a result of involuntary processes occurring within the brain. According to Erickson, cognitive neuroscience leads us to the view that “we are a passive audience to the electrical cadence of neuronal firings buried deep within our heads” and that “what we perceive as the mind is nothing more than a cognitive adaptation established by our brains to allow higher-ordered behavior.” This view is entirely incompatible with the notion of human agency that holds that people evaluate their environments and make choices.

Many exceptions are already made, both in the legal system and in general, for people with certain mental defects. While some defects are obvious, the list of recognizable mental disorders is growing rapidly. The number of official diagnosable mental disorders has increased by almost 300% in the past 50. Behaviors that were once considered indicative of poor character are now considered medical disorders. What could have been considered laziness or immaturity 50 years ago can now be treated with a prescription for amphetamines, a drug considered addictive and dangerous and is therefore illegal for the general public. Many of these diagnoses are made based on inherently subjective criteria. Criminal law already contains the affirmative defense of insanity, and cognitive neuroscience begs the question of how and to what extent neurological conditions should influence culpability and punishment.

But the criminal system is not aimed solely at punishing for the sake of justice. Another main goal of criminal law is to reduce crime in society, both by deterring would-be criminals and by reducing recidivism. While understanding human behavior as simple mechanics may make punishment seem irrational, cognitive neuroscience aims to ameliorate the criminal justice system by understanding the causes of criminal behavior and therefore being able to effectively predict crime and rehabilitate offenders.

3D Food Printing and Its Legal Complications

Riley Conlin, MJLST Staffer

According to a recent article in Bloomberg, the FDA has recently approved the use of a drug that was 3D printed for the first time. The first drug the FDA approved is Spritam, which was created by Aprecia Pharmaceuticals. The drug is to be administered orally to treat adults and children for epilepsy. The 3D printing process supposedly allows the pill to dissolved quickly, which means it will enable the pill to act faster in the case of an oncoming seizure. When this approval occurred several attorneys voiced concern, because of the intellectual property issues related to 3D printing. First, it would be difficult to determine the manufacturer of the drug, making the assignment of IP rights quite challenging. Second, because it would be difficult to determine the manufacturer, it would also be difficult to identify liable parties in potential litigation.

While there are undoubtedly legal issues related to 3D printing, a forthcoming article in the Minnesota Journal of Law Science and Technology Symposium argues that the benefits far outweigh potential legal issues that could slow the adoption of 3D technology in the area of food production. Symposium author, Jasper Tran, notes that there are “endless possibilities” associated with 3D food printing. First, the ability to print food has the potential to significantly impact the global food shortage crisis, because healthy food can be mass-produced via 3D printers. He also argues that 3D printing has the potential to reduce environmental harms associated with current food production. However, he does note that there are legal liability issues with 3D printing, including (1) short-term food poisoning on an individual scale or mass scale and (2) long term impacts of food printing. Despite these concerns, Tran argues the legal risks are far outweighed by the potential global benefits of mass-producing food via 3D printers.

As discussed in the Bloomberg article and in Tran’s note, 3D food and drug printing is the future. It is the responsibility of government organizations to take a proactive approach and attempt to enact rules and regulations that anticipate the new legal issues and challenges associated with the process.

The Threat of Antibiotic Resistance: The Use of Antibiotics in Animal Agriculture and Proposed Regulations to Increase the Involvement of the Food and Drug Agency

Jody Ferris, MJLST Staffer

Antibiotic resistance purportedly caused by the immoderate use of antibiotics in animals raised for human consumption is currently a hot button issue in the news today. It is an issue important to human health and to the food and agriculture industries.   In her note, Slowing Antibiotic Resistance by Decreasing Antibiotic Use in Animals, Jennifer Nomura discusses this issue and makes recommendations regarding which government agency should regulate antibiotic use in animals and how it should best be regulated.

According to Nomura, antibiotics that had been used to treat animal diseases are also being utilized for growth purposes. She says that, “it is now common in the United States for farm animals to be fed low doses of antibiotics on a daily basis.” The species in which antibiotic use is most common are pigs and poultry. She states that “[b]ecause farmers have been feeding antibiotics to animals for so many years, animals are becoming resistant to the effects of these drugs.”   She also states that it is also possible for the antibiotic resistant bacteria in animals to pass to humans and that, “as humans become resistant to antibiotics, health care for treatable diseases becomes more costly. Antibiotic resistance can lead to hospitalization, longer-term care, and potentially even death.” However, despite the grave risk that antibiotic resistance poses, Nomura states that “no direct connection has been established” between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans. Some studies have showed a causal link between the two.

Over the course of her note, Nomura argues convincingly that the primary authority for the regulation of antibiotic use is the Food and Drug Agency in connection with the United States Department of Agriculture and the Center for Disease Control, along with the World Health Organization and the European Union. She proposes that the Food and Drug agency should enact a full scale ban on the animal use of any antibiotic that is also used in the human population. Her note also suggests that the Food and Drug Agency should then establish a monitoring program to keep an eye out for any threats posed to human health through the continued use of antibiotics that would not be covered by the ban.

One regulation that has since been promulgated by the Food and Drug Agency since Nomura authored her note, is the Veterinary Feed Directive rule. This rule will require agricultural producers to get prescriptions for the animal use of antibiotics “considered important to human health, such as penicillin or sulfa” (see Nikki Work’s article Veterinary Feed Directive Will Impact Whole Livestock Industry, But Many Aren’t Aware of the Regulation at http://www.greeleytribune.com/news/20358154-113/veterinary-feed-directive-will-impact-whole-livestock-industry#). The rule will be fully implemented on Jan. 1, 2017.

While the above regulation does not go so far as Nomura’s proposal to ban all antibiotic use in animals when the medications may also used for human health purposes, it is a step in the direction of increased oversight of antibiotic use by the Food and Drug Agency. It will certainly be interesting to follow future regulations in this area as they appear on the horizon, and how the Veterinary Feed Directive impacts antibiotic use and food production.

Name That Star

Quang Trang, MJLST Staffer

For space lovers out there, the opportunity to name a star after a loved one sounds like a nice romantic gift for Valentine’s Day. The issue of whether this is actually allowed is somewhere between yes and no.

The main authority in naming astronomical objects is the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The goal of the IAU when formed in 1919 is to “to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all of its aspect through international cooperation.” Part of the IAU’s authority in its scientific mission promoting and safeguarding astronomy is the duty of being “the arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature.” In normal English, the IAU is the organization that decided Pluto does not qualify to be a planet.

Although the IAU is the leading authority in astronomical nomenclature, the organization still refuses to commercialize outer space by selling the rights to name space objects, such as stars. Due to the IAU being an international scientific organization, it does not have the authority nor the interest in outlawing such a practice. There are many services that would allow you to pick an unregistered star and name it for a fee. However, these multiple services are unrelated and have different databases. Essentially, a star you named with one service may be already be registered under a different name with a different service. Prominent star-naming services such as the International Star Registry are aware of its unofficial status. Rocky Mosele of ISR said “I think people are OK that it’s not official. I’m sure of it. I know because customers call again and again and again.” The ISR’s claims to not mislead any of its customers because it never once claimed to be official.

With each registration costing as much as fifty dollars, one might ask why the IAU does not participate in such a business. The organization would be an industry leader with the ability to give these registered names official status. The proceeds could be used to fund various projects. After receiving many requests to from private individuals to name stars, the IAU explains its policy to stay out of such an enterprise: Thus like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy.