Category Archives: Personal

Ian Kerr 1965-2019

My dear friend Ian Kerr died last night. It wasn’t a surprise–complications from cancer had him in hospital in a parlous state for some time–but it’s still a kick in the gut.

Ian was one of the smartest, most joyous, and luminous people I knew. To call him a great friend understates it. We also wrote together, and did stuff: Along with Ryan Calo, the three of us founded We Robot and edited a book on Robot Law.

Ian’s most recent article, The Death of the AI Author (co-authored with Carys Craig) is not only an answer to a copyright challenge that has endured for a couple of decades, but is one of the most elegantly clever law articles I have ever read.

More importantly, Ian was just thoroughly nice and good.

Ian wore his brilliance lightly. He gave his bio on his personal homepage as this:

Unpacking social conventions can be pretty hilarious sometimes.

For example, it is standard practice for every academic to author a never-ending laundry list of what other people might perceive as our most impressive accomplishments. We call this our bio.

The conventional tone of what we say about ourselves in these things is so ridiculous that we write them as though someone else wrote them for us (kind of like when our universities announce that they would like to “nominate” us for awards but then ask us to write a 25 page application to bring money into the university). Once written and posted to a website, our bios are available for conference moderators and other strangers to introduce us as though they know us. The most delightful part of this odd scholarly exercise is that we get to sit there during our introduction and act appropriately modest and sometimes even shocked that they knew all of this detail — as if we had no idea that they would mention any of these things about us.

If you came to this portion of the site to participate in this strange social convention, you can find my conventional bio here.

But to have a more honest sense of the sweet serendipity of it all, the bio more to my liking goes something like this…

In the early-mid 1980s, ian not only chose to have BIG HAIR, he came very close to making another big mistake. He almost became a dentist (not that there is anything wrong with it). Nearing the end of the 11th hour, he somehow realized that schlepping teeth was something his dad wanted for him, but not something he wanted for himself. In what must have felt like an epiphany to a twenty year old, he realized that every single elective he ever took during his science degree was in philosophy.  Upon graduation, bathed in uncertainty and existential angst typical of that stage of things, he made the bold (if not foolhardy) move of bailing on a career in the health sciences and enrolling instead in honours philosophy. His parents, while supportive, must have taken a deep breath.

During his studies in philosophy he fell in love with the law and was eventually sweet-talked into going to law school by this man while completing his doctorate in philosophy and teaching 800 students. Upon completing his academic degrees, ian was in the process of arranging to spend his articling year in toronto, writing appellate facta for the crown, when this man talked him into articling at what has since become this firm. He was then tricked by the then dean of western law to test-out a new three way interdisciplinary appointment in philosophy, law and information technology. This prank profoundly altered the course of his intellectual life, for which he will be eternally grateful. Soon after, with many friends in common, he met the only other canadian common law colleague in the burgeoning field of techlaw, michael geist. A few years later, that guy who talked ian into going to law school became geist’s dean. The rest is, as they say, history.

In contrast, here’s how U. Ottawa described him on his official homepage:

Dr. Ian Kerr is Full Professor and Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law, and Technology at the University of Ottawa, where he holds a unique four-way appointment in Law, Medicine, Philosophy, and Information Studies. His research interrogates legal and ethical issues surrounding the human-machine merger. At one end of the continuum, he examines the social implications of delegating human tasks and decision-making to machines, at the other end, of putting machine parts into people. His current research focuses on artificial intelligence (AI) decision-making, military robots, driverless cars, robotic surgery, automated medical diagnostics and implantable medical devices. His work on these emerging technologies has contributed to the development of a new field of study: AI and robotics law and policy. He also continues to play a leading role on the global stage in rethinking privacy and surveillance law and policy.

Dr. Kerr is regularly invited to consult and collaborate with international institutions, governments, NGOs, and academic/professional institutes on the ethics, regulation and governance of emerging technologies. Some recent examples include: the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, the White House, the office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, the Uniform Law Conference of Canada, the National Judicial Institute, the Standing Parliamentary Committee for Access to Information, Ethics, and Technology, and the Standing Senate Committee for Social Affairs, Science, and Technology.

Dr. Kerr’s prolific contributions to the field integrate philosophical, technological, and legal frameworks and methods. His interdisciplinary research has attracted more than eight million dollars in support from the Canada’s Tri-Council and other agencies. SSHRC and the Canada Research Chair program have funded ongoing work on AI, robotics, artificial organs and medical devices. Transport Canada funds his work on autonomous and connected vehicles. The Department of National Defence funds his research on autonomous weapon systems.

Dr. Kerr has also spearheaded several large team-based research initiatives on privacy and surveillance and was recognized for his outstanding contributions to scholarship with the Karen Spector Memorial Award for Excellence in Privacy Law. His seminal work, Lessons from the Identity Trail, published by Oxford University Press under its first ever Creative Commons licence, assembles the work of philosophers, ethicists, feminists, cognitive scientists, lawyers, cryptographers, engineers, policy analysts, government policy makers and privacy experts from around the globe. Together, they collaborate on a range of topics including: human implantable radio frequency identification chips, ubiquitous computing, predictive data-mining, selective self-presentation, gender identity, the societal impact of web-camming, national identity cards, the social value of privacy and its constitutional limits, the perceived tension between privacy and national security, and a five-country comparative study surveying the place of anonymity across the legal domain.

Dr. Kerr is renowned at the Faculty of Law for his dedication as a teacher and mentor. His devotion to teaching has earned him eight awards and citations, including the University of Ottawa Excellence in Education Prize, the Bank of Nova Scotia Award of Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the University of Ottawa AEECLSS Teaching Excellence Award and the University of Western Ontario, Faculty of Graduate Studies, Award of Teaching Excellence. His courses—Building Better Humans? and The Laws of Robotics—have garnered international attention, with regular invitations to lecture and teach at prestigious institutions across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He is the co-director of the Canada Research Chair Laboratory in Law and Technology, a facility supporting the training of 40 researchers. In addition to supporting and supervising a steady stream of Masters, PhDs and PostDocs, he also hires a select group of 6-8 undergraduate research assistants as part of the Centre for Law, Technology, and Society’s 1L Techno-ship program, attracting the law school’s top talent every year. He is known for immersing his students in cutting edge research, cultivating deep academic interest and involving them in hands-on skill-developing opportunities, including: developing research materials, co-authoring publications, accompanying him to government and court appearances, and, with his top graduate students, co-teaching university courses. He is always in search of exceptional students to join his research team.

Ian was not just a fountain of ideas, a stalwart friend, and a great collaborator, he was also a mentor to many graduate and law students. He leaves behind him not just a large legacy of publications and projects, but of students whose careers took shape thanks to his generosity and intellectual alchemy.

Ian’s long-time colleague at UOttawa Michael Geist has a fuller remembrance of Ian here. Ian leaves a hole nothing can fill.

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Thirty Years!

That, apparently, is how long we’ve been married as of today.  Caroline and I are going somewhere nice to celebrate.

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I’ve Joined the Editorial Board of the Technology & Regulation Journal

I’m proud to be part of the editorial board committee of the brand new Journal of Technology and Regulation (TechReg), housed at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (TILT) at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Technology and Regulation (TechReg) is an international journal of law, technology and society, with an interdisciplinary identity. TechReg provides an online platform for disseminating original research on the legal and regulatory challenges posed by existing and emerging technologies (and their applications) including, but by no means limited to, the Internet and digital technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, neurotechnology, nanotechnology, biotechnology, energy and climate change technology, and health and food technology. We conceive of regulation broadly to encompass ways of dealing with, ordering and understanding technologies and their consequences, such as through legal regulation, competition, social norms and standards, and technology design (or in Lessig’s terms: law, market, norms and architecture).

We aim to address critical and sometimes controversial questions such as:

  • How do new technologies shape society both positively and negatively?
  • Should technology development be steered towards societal goals, and if so, which goals and how?
  • What are the benefits and dangers of regulating human behavior through technology?
  • What is the most appropriate response to technological innovation, in general or in particular cases?

It is in this sense that TechReg is intrinsically interdisciplinary: we believe that legal and regulatory debates on technology are inextricable from societal, political and economic concerns, and that therefore technology regulation requires a multidisciplinary, integrated approach. Through a combination of monodisciplinary, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary articles, the journal aims to contribute to an integrated vision of law, technology and society.

We invite original, well-researched and methodologically rigorous submissions from academics and practitioners, including policy makers, on a wide range of research areas such as privacy and data protection, security, surveillance, cybercrime, intellectual property, innovation, competition, governance, risk, ethics, media and data studies, and others.

TechReg is double-blind peer-reviewed and completely open access for both authors and readers. TechReg does not charge article processing fees.

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Shot Today

Free picture (Vaccine) from


I got the new flu shot today.  You should too. Do your bit for herd immunity please.

U.M. schedules inoculation sessions on various places around the campuses.  Not surprisingly, the med school goes first.  Then it’s the undergrads.  We in the law school are very late on the list – about a month from now. Should I read anything into that?

I wanted the shot before my upcoming trip to Amsterdam next week for the Amsterdam Privacy Conference.  Not that I think Amsterdam is a hotbed of infection, but just on general principles since my immune system has taken a beating from modern medicine these last few years. Turns out it almost took longer to find parking than it did to actually get the shot from the employee wellness clinic.  And almost all that time was spent on paperwork.

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I’m Back

I’m back from a three-week vacation that in part celebrated my being officially cured of a lengthy illness that more or less consumed the first eight of the last twelve months, and then had lingering effects that only recently went away.  I’m told there’s an 80% chance the cure is permanent; if it isn’t, I get to do the wretched treatments over again (or they may invent something better by then).

Perhaps I’ll blog more?

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Joseph N. Froomkin (1927 – 2017)

Joseph N. Froomkin

My father, Joseph N. Froomkin, died early this morning. I don’t have the words for this, but my brother Dan is a journalist, and has written an obituary:

Joseph N. Froomkin was a prolific Washington, D.C.-based economist who made significant contributions to the field of policy analysis during his time in and out of government. He was an early and strong advocate for making decisions about federal education policy based on rigorous, computerized analysis of data, rather than being swayed by anecdotes or politics. And he was one of the first economists to show that the data didn’t support politicians who cited increases in automation as a scapegoat to explain unemployment. (Fifty years later, economists are still fighting the politicians on that one!)

After getting his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, Froomkin was a program planner at IBM and managed its Data Processing Division’s market research department from 1957 to 1966. In 1966, he was tapped to join the Lyndon Johnson administration as Assistant Commissioner for Program Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Office of Education, which was then part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).

At the Office of Education

In that role, from 1966 to 1969, Froomkin introduced data-based policy analysis to federal education programs.

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act was a cornerstone of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” It represented a landmark commitment to equal access to quality education. The bill’s principal architect, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, mandated evaluation as an accountability mechanism for the huge increase in federal funding. But when Froomkin arrived at USOE, he found that the federal government didn’t know what its education money was accomplishing.

“Joe was brought in to make the planning functions more systematic, and to introduce data and information into the decision making process,” said Cora Beebe Fosdick, who worked for Froomkin at the Office of Education before going on to hold senior level policy positions at the Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury, Education and Commerce departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Office of Education was allocating money to where the politicians and the program managers thought it ought to be going, without much consideration of where it was most effective,” she said. “Joe argued strongly to inform the budget decisions and other activities with the information he had on what worked and what didn’t work.”

His rigor sometimes made him unpopular. “He was goring program officers who wanted their programs increased and he was goring individuals on the Hill when we tried to kill their favorite program,” Beebe said.

A 1974 Rand retrospective on the role of evaluation in the governance of Title 1 aid intended to help poor children described how Froomkin butted heads with state and local school officials as well as more politically-minded, educational-establishment colleagues. To collect and assess hard data on the impact of Title I programs. Froomkin proposed to essentially replicate the surveys used by the landmark Coleman Report in 1964, which first documented what came to be known as the achievement gap between African-American children and their white counterparts in school.

Froomkin wanted to measure the change in achievement brought about by programs for disadvantaged children, particularly in large urban areas. But that kind of federal evaluation was fiercely opposed by state and local school leaders, who feared both federal interference and what the data would show.

Froomkin’s “decision to ignore the purely political aspects of evaluation frustrated his own evaluation plans,” the Rand researcher concluded. “I was shot down by the Chief State School Officers and the Commissioner. The Chiefs didn’t want the feds mucking around,” Froomkin told the researcher.

Beebe also said that Froomkin gave women staffers opportunities for advancement that were unavailable to them in most other offices at the time.

Froomkin was one of the heroes in a 1968 Reader’s Digest article titled “Tell Us the Truth, Uncle Sam,” (see page 7) about the U.S. government’s credibility problems.

The author, John Barron, wrote that while President Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) had “claimed marvelous success for Upward Bound, a program with the worthy objective of putting poor youngsters through college, a study by Froomkin concluded that ‘More than half dropped out by the beginning of the sophomore year.'”

OEO angrily “condemned the report as inaccurate and stated that Froomkin had agreed to make corrections on the basis of ‘more complete data’ OEO had supplied.” But, Barron wrote: “He had agreed to no such thing. Rather, he had asked OEO to send along any ‘new data,’ but none was ever provided. Moreover, Froomkin’s report was based entirely on statements OEO itself had made to Congress. ‘I’m all for the idea of Upward Bound,’ he says. “But why not admit how difficult the job really is?’ ”

In 1968, Froomkin coauthored a seminal book titled “Technology and Jobs: Automation in Perspective.” The book was the first rigorous analysis, largely based on census and labor-force data, that refuted the popularly-held view that automation would soon put many if not most Americans out of work.

“Technology and Jobs”

Froomkin and A.J. Jaffe, director of the Manpower and Population Program at Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, showed how jobs data did not support the assumption that increased automation and productivity would come at the cost of higher unemployment. Instead, the data showed that advances in technology and increases in productivity were going hand in hand with economic expansion.

Despite “warnings that the world would be taken over by robots” they wrote, “Our analysis revealed that productivity increases tended neither to depress nor stimulate employment.”

“Technological change is offered by politicians as a scapegoat to explain unemployment,” they wrote. “If unemployment is to be minimized, a dynamic monetary and fiscal policy is needed to balance the prospective demand.”

Brad DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was a close friend of the family when he was growing up. He said he was inspired to become an economist in part because in a city where too many professionals said what their clients wanted to hear, Froomkin’s job seemed to be to say: “ This is what is going on, and I know you do not like to hear me say this now, but in the future you will be glad you heard this.”

DeLong said he is citing Froomkin’s work in a current Berkeley research project on “working, earning, and learning in the age of intelligent tools.”

“What Froomkin and Jaffe recommended in 1968 would have been good policy to adopt then and would be good policy to adopt now,” DeLong said. “They were right to say that we did and do not need to fear large scale technological unemployment. They were right to say that we do need to fear profound problems of adjustment.”

Before and After

After leaving the government, Froomkin operated his own economic consulting firm for more than two decades, and founded and ran HEW’s Educational Policy Research Center for Higher Education and Society. His special focus was on analyzing and projecting the needs for funding and financial aid in higher education. But during his career he also wrote about such diverse issues as management and organization in Japanese industry, tax policy in Latin America, international competitiveness – and produced an early economic analysis of the Concorde airplane.

Froomkin’s life was also an immigrant’s success story.

He was born in Harbin, China, in 1927, and grew up in the Russian Jewish communities there and in Shanghai. He graduated from St. John’s University in Shanghai at the age of 19. He reported on war criminals, refugees and other topics as a reporter for the Shanghai Evening Post.

He arrived in the U.S. at age 20 to study at the University of Chicago, and received an MBA and then a Ph.D. in economics, in 1950. After serving in the U.S. Army, he was naturalized as an American citizen.

He married Maya Pines, who was then a reporter for LIFE Magazine, in 1959. He is survived by his wife and their two sons – Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami, and Dan Froomkin, a journalist – as well as three grandsons.

Dad wrote a partial autobiography, covering his early life up to his arrival in the US. My son David did some interviews with dad about some of the later years. We hope to publish the combined result.

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