Special coverage: General Assembly and Annual Conference - “Innovation is in my DNA”


Gianluigi Riva received the Best Innovator award at the MCAA 2022 Annual Conference. A researcher and lawyer, he specialises in contracts, IT law and data protection. He was an MSCA PhD Fellow at University College Dublin where he obtained his doctorate in privacy, ethics and new technologies.

Gianluigi’s work deals with privacy and profiling issues concerning the technological influence over the decision-making process and the related legal validity of the consent. He recently began connecting this area to neuroprivacy – how to protect the brain and the mind from unregulated influential brain-data processing in the context of brain-computer interfaces and wearable brain-stimulation devices.

What does the Best Innovator award mean to you?

I didn’t expect to be awarded because I personally feel that humanities remain a bit underrated, and not really considered in the scientific discussion and in the wider public opinion, especially when it comes to innovation. So the news came out of the blue and it was as exciting as it was unexpected. I felt particularly flattered and honoured, and still feel a sense of duty to pursue the path to innovation, although sometimes it’s hard.

Indeed, exploring new, interdisciplinary areas isn’t always so welcomed in doctrinal debates – despite appearances – because it often involves rethinking previous consolidated conceptual paradigms, approaches and mindsets. Sometimes it’s frustrating being reviewed by peers that actually don’t have a real insight into the specific interconnection between two distant fields. This also requires much more effort and explanatory sacrifices when talking to a heterogeneous, interdisciplinary audience. I’m very happy and grateful that these sacrifices have been recognised and I’ll do my best to keep being worthy of this award.

How did you get involved in these fascinating fields?

Since I was young, I’ve been dealing with interdisciplinarity. My mother was a biologist and my father an executive. So I grew up with inputs from both humanities and science. I studied law, but I have always held a passion for science and curiosity on matters beyond my knowledge. Indeed, soon after my graduation, I started to combine my legal background with neuroscience and AI.

This eventually drove me to join an ITN programme to address privacy, ethics and human-computer interaction (HCI), adopting an intersectoral approach to investigate issues concerning new technologies. The ITN was itself a multicultural environment focused on mental health. In this melting pot of cultures and stimuli, I have developed the desire to address the unexplored critical questions that ‘classical’ scholars usually consider with a legal perspective only. These multidisciplinary questions concern social consequences of the technological influence over the decisionmaking processes.

My research path has evolved to consider fields related to HCI, genetic and biometric profiling techniques and their implications for our society, as well as the data economic models behind the exploitation of personal data, bridging usually distant domains such as law, computer science and economy.

How do you bring together innovation and law?

Innovation is the ability to connect isolated fields and create new knowledge from unexplored perspectives. However, innovation is also often perceived as a concept primarily belonging to technological advancements or STEM research, while humanities remain somehow underrated concerning ‘innovative’ considerations. Nonetheless, even law produces innovation when it comes to developing intersectoral approaches for governing new social phenomena. A remarkable example is the importance of novel legal conceptions for regulating AI systems and designing policies for trustworthy and fair algorithms. My research captures precisely these underevaluated forms of ‘legal innovation’. My doctoral research has highlighted the current data protection regulatory gaps, while proposing a novel legal-design method (Privacy on Demand) for programming user interfaces ethically to embed regulation by design in the HCI development phase of interfaces, apps, or online services.

My unconventional research has also explored the fascinating connections between quantum mechanics and law – via social physics - to propose a solution (Quantum Law) for overpassing the interpretative limits of AI systems applied to computational legal codifications.

In addition, I also addressed the emergence of data cooperatives as novel entities aimed at disintermediating personal data processing, and I created in my thesis a theoretical legal framework that reconstructs privacy personhood rights as collective goods (commons) to enable a diffuse protection, for example via class actions.

My current research, for which I received the European Commission’s Seal of Excellence, follows this path, and addresses mental privacy by analysing how brain-computer interfaces impact individuals’ most private and autonomous sphere: the mind. This also opens new areas of investigation in the realm of neurolaw, human enhancement and bioethics.

Innovation is in my DNA, and my peers’ recognition of the many efforts spent on this innovative ‘humanistic’ mindset paid back all the sacrifices.

Jerry Stamatelos
MCAA Editorial Team

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