Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Law

Law and Emerging Technologies Research Group

In this Section:

This new and innovative initiative brings legal scholars together with academics and other experts working in science and engineering, the social sciences and the humanities to investigate the interconnections between law, commerce, innovation, security and ethics as these relate to new and emerging technologies.

What are emerging technologies? Such technologies include – but are not limited to – medical, agricultural and industrial biotechnology including synthetic biology, nanotechnology, information and communications technology, data processing technologies, 3D printing, robotics, new materials, alternative energy including biofuels, transport, and geoengineering. Any list is open and provisional; such is the emergent and disruptive nature of much of the technological change of recent years.

The interaction of law with technology is rapidly becoming a significant (and controversial) topic, with new technologies appearing as never before, often preceding a full assessment of their impacts on society and the biosphere. Separately, these transformative technologies present major regulatory challenges for the law and for society. However, these technologies are also evolving together by means of an ever-increasing convergence. This is largely in the form of a digitalisation phenomenon spreading from ICT into other fields, especially biology. This implies the possibility of applying simpler, more generalised legal and regulatory systems. But if such systems are maladaptive they will soon become obsolete and form a barrier to progress.

History shows us that science and technology, law, regulation, and business organisation co-evolve with each one influencing, and often helping to shape, each of the others. This is not only a rich yet largely unexplored context for doing scholarly research; such work can also help us to impact on policy to improve our ability to manage rapid and sometimes unpredictable technological transformations in the most social-welfare enhancing directions.

We will undertake critical analysis of new technologies from the legal perspective, and rigorous examination of legally sensitive areas including intellectual property and marketing rights, product approval regulation, privacy, data protection and human rights. At the same time, the limits of the law will become clear when ‘knee-jerk’ regulation is not the right option, and when the law may not be able to provide an appropriate degree of protection for new technologies. Since new technologies will inevitably come up against international legal regimes, the international context is another key theme.

Given that the promotion of creative new technologies may be, but is not always, convergent with the public interest, the question arises of whether and how we balance the promotion of innovation with societal advancement. This leads to a series of more specific policy questions:

  • How can we influence the development and use of new technologies to maximise social welfare while mitigating any risk to human health and the biosphere?
  • Is it realistic to seek to re-design law and regulation for the purpose of accommodating technologies as they are emerging? 
  • Or should the default position be to apply existing regimes until they are demonstrably obsolete?
  • More generally: Can law and regulation help to shape the future for the benefit of future generations and the planet? And if so, how might this aspiration best be pursued?

The University of Leeds has world-class research strengths in the physical and life sciences, and the social science and humanities, including business and law. It is therefore an ideal institution to host such a Research Group. There are academic centres in the world that investigate issues of emerging technologies. However, the particular mix of expertise we have available to us in our department and elsewhere in the university makes it something that could only come from the University of Leeds. We are not an “ivory tower” grouping of scholars disengaged from the real world. The future is being shaped now and we need to contribute to this process by engaging in debates taking place around the world at all levels.


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