On 19-20 October 2023, participants gathered at the EUI's Villa La Fonte for the DigiCon annual conference 'Digital constitutionalism in the age of AI'. Organised by Francisco de Abreu Duarte, a researcher at the EUI Department of Law, together with the EUI Interdisciplinary Research Cluster on Technological change and society, the third edition of this event focused on how digital constitutionalism can adapt to the emerging AI paradigm and what function it can play in the protection of fundamental rights.
DigiCon – The Digital Constitutionalist started two years ago as a scholarly-led blog about law and technology. The idea behind it was "to find a place where all the different people from law and technology could discuss, publish their thoughts, and have an honest debate," explained Francisco Duarte. "That idea was translated into a first conference soon after."
"We believe that the idea of launching a blog instead of a journal is successful because nowadays people don't have much time to read long papers, and the blog not only allows us to publish shorter pieces, but also to interact with each other. For us, this is a strength that we tried to reproduce in the conference," shared Francesca Palmiotto, EUI alumna and postdoctoral researcher at the Hertie School's Centre for Fundamental Rights.
DigiCon III discussed how classic principles of Digital Constitutionalism can apply to AI technologies, when used both in private and public contexts. "We tried to build on a division that exists in every lawyer's mind, which is a distinction between public and private law," explained Francisco Duarte. "We wanted to separate these two fields, so the first day was divided in two sessions: AI under public law, followed by a session on AI under private law."
The sessions featured two keynote speeches by Professor Herwig Hofmann (University of Luxembourg) on 'Public Uses of AI', and by Professor Lilian Edwards (University of Newcastle), on 'The Age of Private AI', each followed by a discussion and a roundtable.
On the second day, the participants convened to discuss the main takeaways of the previous day's outputs. "I think that this methodology actually worked. The clash of ideas resulted in a very active debate and by the end of the conference, both groups felt like there was much common ground that they could discuss. We ended up concluding that this public/private divide is less and less evident when you speak about technology," added Francisco Duarte.
The format of this year's conference allowed for a more flexible exchange of ideas and contributions amongst the participants. "The conference was more contestation than agreement, which is the spirit we want to have in the DigiCon conferences. The idea is to talk and move the debate further," said Giovanni De Gregorio, research associate at the University of Oxford and Professor at the Católica Global School of Law.
"We are very Socratic in a way. Socrates would be delighted! We started with questions, then we added new questions, and we approached these questions with contestation. That's why we didn't have papers, presentations, and Q&As at the conference, but instead we had topics, open-mic discussions, and moderators that constantly brought forward new questions," added Palmiotto.
For Yeliz Döker, researcher at the EUI Department of Law, interdisciplinarity was a key aspect of the conference. "From my perspective as a PhD researcher, it was truly a learning platform without any prejudices. It was a very lively debate. We had PhD researchers, professors, and practitioners, bringing a lot of different insights across disciplines."
One major takeaway from the conference was the importance of using a problem-based approach, noted Francisco Duarte. "It is important for our community to go from a problem to more abstract discussions. The participants enjoyed the idea that we chose AI technology as a case study, starting from ground problems, understanding them, and then seeing how the theory of digital constitutionalism could eventually solve them."
Another important point for the DigiCon team was the need to be more inclusive, going beyond the Eurocentric approach. Lucas Muniz da Conceição, a researcher at Bocconi University, shared his perspective on the issue: “Even though I believe that DigiCon is already an inclusive space, the debates have been very focused on Europe. I think that there is the possibility to include a global voice and engage in others' discussions, especially because it makes the concept and the debate much stronger."
“Even if your focus is on Europe, it is not just about people from Europe or problems from Europe, but also realising that the problems you perceive from a European perspective have an impact on the Global South that you just cannot see," added Palmiotto.
Moving forward, the DigiCon team plans to include additional disciplines in further discussions, such as computer science or mathematics. "To understand these emerging technologies, sometimes lawyers need to hear from the creators themselves. That is why DigiCon is becoming a bridge between the worlds of academia, technology, and even science fiction. It is a great hub to discuss with open mindedness about emerging technologies," concluded Döker.
The DigiCon Board is a multicultural and multinational team composed by Francisco de Abreu Duarte, Francesca Palmiotto, Giovanni de Gregorio, Yeliz Döker, and Natalia Menéndez. You can visit the blog at www.digi-con.org.