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Professor navigates engineering-law intersection

As cars become autonomous, devices get interconnected and smart technology gains popularity, new questions are being asked about the privacy and legal implications.

Questions like: If a self-driving car crashes, causing someone to be hurt or even killed, could software engineers or manufacturers be held liable? Should your personal data from a medical device be used to help other patients? And as smart devices become more common in homes and record more data about us, who should be able to access that data?

Professor Bryan Choi listens to student discussion during his intellectual property and ownership course.Assistant Professor Bryan Choi aims to bring both the engineering and law communities together to discuss these issues and help make well-informed policy. His joint appointment in Ohio State's Moritz College of Law and Department of Computer Science and Engineering is the first of its kind at the university, and one of few such appointments nationwide.

With degrees in both computer science and law, Choi is well-suited to bridge the two fields. Before joining Ohio State he was a Faculty Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition, and a Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project. He has also practiced law and worked as a software developer.

One of the goals of Choi’s unique role is to foster more understanding of how the fields of law and engineering can each add real value to the other. He also hopes to inspire more engineers to pursue a career in law.

“The legal field needs more engineers. It’s not just patent attorneys—policymakers, judges and lawyers all need to understand how these technologies work in order to make better law,” he said. “Otherwise we risk letting others make these decisions for us without a complete understanding of the facts or the science.”

For Buckeye engineers who aren't interested in pursuing a law career, Choi hopes his courses will help them understand how knowledge of legal methods and frameworks can make them better engineers. 

At Ohio State, Choi launched the first law class geared toward engineers and the computer science community last spring. It focused on tort law—civil remedies for accidents and other personal injuries—as applied to driverless cars and other cyber-physical systems.

“Normally when we talk about software we aren’t used to worrying about tort law. But when you get to self-driving cars, which start to resemble more traditional torts such as physical loss of life or limb, then these questions become much more important,” Choi explained. “The programmer’s decisions will be closely scrutinized.”

Computer science and engineering master’s student Navnith Ramkrishnan hopes to start his own software development firm one day and enrolled in the course to better understand how to protect himself as a developer.

“What I took from this is understanding the impact products can have on people and how to design products that also do a really good job when they fail,” he said. “Thinking about it that way changed how I design products.”

Ramkrishnan found the course and Choi’s case-based learning approach so valuable that he enrolled in Choi’s current course on intellectual property and ownership. “It’s very helpful for engineers in general, because apart from the engineering skills you build it gives you a broader perspective … and provides insight that will help you in your career.”

On the research side, Choi wants to provide better legal guidance to software engineers who design cyber-physical systems. Especially when things go wrong, he said, it’s important that engineers understand when the law is going to say that a programmer or manufacturer made the wrong decision and must pay, and when the law will say the risk was acceptable. 

His current work focuses on making code safer and more reliable. The key to accomplishing that, Choi explained, is to ensure that systems are "crashworthy" in a way that prevents undue harm when the code fails, the same way we expect seatbelts and airbags to protect us when a car crashes. 

"We shouldn’t be trying to build perfect systems," he explained. "We should instead anticipate that that code will either fail or be compromised, and then ask what’s the best response in that situation?" 

As a member of Ohio State's Translational Data Analytics Institute (TDA), Choi is also part of a team examining big data questions at the intersection of computer science and law. The institute helped create the opportunity for Choi's joint appointment through their focus on recruiting multidisciplinary scholars.

"Self-driving cars, for instance, are going to collect a ton of data. How much data should we keep? How should you keep that data? Should it be tamper evident? How much of that should be built into the systems before deploying them to the public?" Choi said, sharing a few examples of the issues being studied.

TDA’s goal isn’t just to analyze data, but to translate it for the real-world, something that appeals to Choi as both an engineer and a lawyer.

“Law is very much rooted in the practicalities of the real world, as is engineering. Actively engaging with both is necessary at the onset, rather than later when it becomes costly to make meaningful changes,” he explained.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu