Maintaining our humanity at the crossroads of law, science and technology

February 17, 2020

Carvalko holding his book

In another time, Joseph Carvalko, JD ’80, might’ve found himself in the company of da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo, a place where science, art and the humanities shared an agenda of ideas.

Instead, this 21st-century Renaissance man — part patent attorney, professor, engineer, author, jazz musician and bioethicist — studies the growing intersection of law, science and technology at the Quinnipiac University School of Law.

Carvalko, a part-time faculty member with 16 patents and nine books to his credit, teaches his students to think beyond the silos of individual disciplines. The technology throttle is already locked in high gear, he insists. The pace will only become more frenetic in the future.

He challenges his students to consider the ethical implications of all these advancements.

Artificial intelligence, digital brain implants, genetic engineering, stem cell therapy, electronic tattoos with circuits and sensors — at what point is humanity sacrificed for technology’s gain?

Welcome to Law 344: Law, Science and Technology, part of the innovative, forward-thinking education at Quinnipiac Law.

As a lawyer, Carvalko has been involved in many dozens of cases as a litigator: supervising cases, trying cases and deposing experts. “I want to pass on the idea that when confronted by technology and science — for example, when dealing with crimes, personal injury or intellectual property — that these are not simply elements existing in a vacuum,” he said, “but within a framework of justice and equity.”

Carvalko, a member of Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and chair of its Technology and Ethics study group, rejects a monochromatic approach to teaching law. The law of tomorrow will not fit neatly into black-and-white arguments. More and more often, there will be gray areas influenced by science, technology, property rights, ethics and morality.

“Who actually owns your body?” Carvalko asked. “For example, the placenta and the umbilical cord have stem cells. Do the stem cells belong to the mother, the child or whom? What about if the newborn’s older sibling has a genetic disease? Can the mother or anyone else say the stem cells legally belong to the sibling for therapy?”

This is the kind of moral conversation that holds Carvalko’s classroom. Cases are won or lost, he tells students, on scientific literacy. A lawyer doesn’t need to completely understand the science, but the best lawyers understand the difference between peer-reviewed research and a data dump of bias.

“It’s essential that students learn to appreciate these differences,” Carvalko said. “If you can’t get past the science and the technology, how can you expect to successfully argue the case?”

As a student, Carvalko was part of the first class to graduate from the University of Bridgeport School of Law in 1980 before it was acquired by Quinnipiac in 1992. He was the longest-serving president of the UB law alumni association during that era.

By the late 1980s, then-Dean Terence Benbow appointed Carvalko to the board of directors for the University of Bridgeport, School of Law, Inc. The panel was charged with helping to choose Quinnipiac as the law school’s next home.

On this particular day, Carvalko is working at home in coastal Connecticut. He is surrounded by swollen shelves of books, a baby grand piano awaiting his next practice session and a long desk facing Long Island Sound.

His latest book, “Conserving Humanity at the Dawn of Posthuman Technology,” was published earlier this year. It’s an articulate response to the challenges of being a lawyer — and a human being — in the 21st century.

“In January 2016,” Carvalko writes, “the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced they would be developing an implantable neural system to enable communication between the brain and the digital world. The device would interface electrochemical signaling, used by neurons, into digital code.”

In other words, a direct connection between the brain and a computer, the ultimate measure of machine learning. The potential gain for knowledge is the stuff of science fiction. The potential loss for humanity, Carvalko writes, is just as profound.

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