Research event

Automated States and the Politics of Use

A presentation by Fleur Johns, Professor in the Faculty of Law & Justice at UNSW Sydney. This event is part of the Fundamental Rights Research Colloquium hosted by the Centre for Fundamental Rights

International human rights principles and best practice guides teach that individuals and communities whose rights may be adversely impacted by a public or private actor’s operations, products or services should be engaged by those public or private actors in discussion and decision-making around prospects of potential harm. To this end, proposed EU regulation emphasises the importance of developers making artificial intelligence systems interpretable to users and otherwise conditions such systems’ use to mitigate risks that they may pose to users and affected persons. Such regulatory initiatives presuppose reliable distinctions between developers, users, and affected persons, but these distinctions are far from uncontroversial or benign. On the contrary, they are riddled with problematic hierarchies and contentious categorisations.

In this context, Prof. Johns's paper explores the politics of use and users of artificial intelligence systems deployed by or for states. How, when usage frequently shapes such systems’ configuration, is the line drawn between use and development? What kinds of inputs are typically treated as usable or useful and which not, or who tends to get qualified (and disqualified) as a user? What types of uses are commonly invited by digital interfaces, and which tend to be foreclosed, and with what possible implications? Most importantly, what possibilities for remaking international order and prospects for engaging new constituencies in the process could emerge from the disuse or strategic misuse of prevailing interfaces, systems and technologies?

Drawing from a chapter in her forthcoming book #Help: Digital Humanitarianism and the Remaking of International Order (Oxford University Press, February 2023), this paper shows that the stakes of these questions could not be higher. Far from being “merely” technical, operational concerns, the politics of use engage stark, first-order questions about the societies that we are currently making and unmaking through automation at every scale and the distribution of power and authority within those. 

Fleur Johns is a Professor in the Faculty of Law & Justice at UNSW Sydney. She works in international law, legal theory and law and technology. Her latest research focuses on the implications of digital technology for international law and politics, and how diplomats deal with disaster. She is also an Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2021-2025) and a Visiting Professor at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden (2021-2024). Within UNSW, Fleur is affiliated with the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation and the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and is an associate of the Australian Human Rights Institute. She has published four books and has a book due in early 2023 with Oxford University Press entitled #Help: Digital Humanitarianism and the Remaking of International Order. 

Prior registration is required. Registered attendees will receive the dial-in details as well as a draft paper, on which the presentation is based, via e-mail prior to the event.