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Where the Law Meets Climate Emergency, AI, Digital Sequencing, and Plague


Artificial intelligence used to be creating an algorithm that allowed a computer to play a chess master. Now AI’s reach extends to almost any behavior — by humans, animals, viruses, or matter. The mountains of data obtained by code and machine learning can create predictive models with incredible nuance and accuracy.

For their 2019 article “Taking Laughter Seriously at the Supreme Court,” Professors Tonja Jacobi and Matthew Sag (Sam Nunn Chair in Ethics and Professionalism, and Professor of Law, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Data Science, respectively) created a database based on more than 60 years of Supreme Court oral argument transcripts (1955– 2017). They focused on an element no one had before — the justices’ laughter — and used computers to “scrape” the text of the transcripts. Their article debunked the claim “that the Justices use humor as an ‘equalizer’ with the advocates, to foster a de facto egalitarian environment despite the structured hierarchical nature of the Court.” Quite the contrary, they found.

Both professors joined Emory Law this year. Sag’s hire is part of Emory University’s interdisciplinary AI.Humanity Initiative, which recognizes the ethical and societal implications the technology carries. Its goal is “to better human health, generate economic value, and promote social justice,” in a range of disciplines from art and medicine to business and copyright.

The initiative acknowledges the difference between knowledge and wisdom. What is fair use of the record we create through the hundreds of small and large decisions we make every day? How much should the increasingly granular information about citizens’ daily lives affect their later choices and opportunities?

Ethical questions also apply to global issues of climate, science and medicine. What happens when one country’s failure to act on climate change floods the shores of tiny nations that do govern how they deplete the planet? Associate Professor Mark Nevitt researches how climate change affects national security. In addition to his academic credentials, Nevitt’s writing is also informed by a 20-year career as an aviator and member of the Navy JAG Corps, including two years at the Pentagon. Here, his lead article examines the impact of when an American president declares a climate emergency.

Vast amounts of digital sequence information “are being used and patented, without permission from the countries that own the genetic resources from which the sequences are derived,” Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law Margo A. Bagley writes in her Harvard International Law Journal article, published earlier this year. So how do richer countries compensate less-wealthy nations whose natural resources lead to patents that make corporations lots of profit?’ Bagley’s long experience working in IP law, including with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, informs her views on “just” sharing of resources.

Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law and Professor of Public Health Polly J. Price started her book Plagues in the Nation: How Epidemics Shaped America, before COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. But like Bagley, she’s worked in her field for a long time, including on-site research at the U.S./Mexico border to study health policies to prevent the spread of multidrug resistant tuberculosis. She also serves on the Uniform Law Commission’s Public Health Emergency Authorities Drafting Committee. For years, she’s studied why the American quilt work of local, tribal, state, and federal health agencies sometimes succeeds and at other times results in confusion, contradiction and preventable death. Now she has a book-length argument. We hope you enjoy reading this issue.