In Memoriam: My Dear Friend and Colleague Ian Kerr


Michael Geist

Nearly twenty years ago, Ian Kerr was a rising star in the law and technology field at the University of Western Ontario. He had already published on the role of computers as intelligent agents in the nascent world of electronic commerce and was crafting new courses examining the legal and ethical challenges posed by machines and the law. In the fall of 1999 – about a year after I had arrived at Ottawa – he agreed to a visit to consider coming to help build a leading program focused on law and tech. I spent the day trying to convince Ian to come, offering tours of the law school, the city’s foodie hot spots, and a dinner at my house. My closing argument was that no matter his decision, this was going to happen since Ottawa was ideally situated to lead on tech law and policy and that there was no better place for him, personally or professionally.

I’m heartened that Ian told me during my last visit with him at the Ottawa Hospital that the decision was one of the best he ever made. But I was wrong. This wasn’t just going to happen. It happened because Ian – my colleague, friend, advisor, and professional partner – made it so.

Ian passed away last night after months of battling complications from cancer. He was a singular talent, whose impact not just on the field, but on everyone he worked with, taught, mentored, or lectured will be felt for decades to come.

He was a prescient scholar who proposed the title of Canada Research Chair in Law, Ethics, and Technology years before the ethical implications of technologies would emerge as a widespread societal issue. His work spanned so many issues – robotics and the law, artificial intelligence, privacy, surveillance, security, digital rights management, algorithms, electronic contracting, human rights, and human enhancement – that he needed to reshape the standard approach to the reporting of academic achievement in order to convey even a fraction of his prodigious output, while his four-way cross-appointment to medicine, information studies, and philosophy reflected a commitment to the study of law and ethics beyond the law school.

He was an extraordinary teacher, who won awards everywhere he went, leaving his students with indelible memories of opening music to set the tone, visually remarkable slides and multimedia materials that challenged students to think in new ways, and an engaging lecture approach that endeavoured to bring out the best in everyone. That teaching extended to the entire globe: teaching the world’s data protection and privacy commissioners on the privacy and technology at their annual conference in Morocco in 2016, delivering keynote addresses in countries around the world from Iceland to Singapore, and serving as a visiting professor at institutions such as New York University, Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa, Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, and Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

He was a great builder, who brought vision and passion to creating new models for teaching, research, and student exchange. It was Ian that led to the creation of our LL.M. in Law and Technology that counts hundreds of students as past alumni. It was Ian that developed the much-beloved Techno-Rico course with the University of Puerto Rico that serves as model for many other courses including mine with the University of Haifa. It was Ian that led the quintessential multi-disciplinary large scale research project with ID Trail, a multi-million dollar initiative that launched many new careers, publications, and provided the roadmap for inclusive, forward-looking, team-based research projects. And it was Ian that worked with successive deans – Bruce, Nathalie, and Adam – on hiring, programming, and a myriad of other issues.

He was a dynamic leader, the heart and soul of the technology law program that blossomed years after we envisioned it around the kitchen table. For the amazing group of professors, program directors, research managers, and supporters, there were no limits to Ian’s generosity and his advice, enthusiasm, and support represented the not-so-secret sauce behind our success.

He was an exceptional advocate, changing the law through his scholarship and tireless efforts. Whether quoted by the Supreme Court of Canada, on the floor of the House of Commons, or in government reports, Ian not only identified the legal challenges associated with law and technology, he influenced the solutions. His work on supporting a global ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons brought him to the United Nations for an address to member states and succeeded in convincing some of the world’s greatest computer scientists to join him at the policy table.

He was pioneer, joining forces in 2012 with Michael Froomkin, Ryan Calo, and Markus Wagner to launch the first We Robot conference. That event has since become the leading conference of its kind, resulting in ground-breaking scholarship and a generation of new scholars in the robotics law field. It was one of Ian’s proudest achievements that We Robot will come to Ottawa for the first time next year.

It is tempting – indeed deserving – to focus on a truly breathtaking record of academic achievement. Ian was widely recognized as a global leader and brought enormous pride to all of his colleagues. He was one of us and showed how Canadians can thrive on the world stage. Yet Ian’s towering career does not tell the most important part of the story nor explain why his loss is so difficult.

It was Ian the person, the mentor, the collaborator, the friend, that sparkles the most from this brightest of stars. He was a creative genius, equally comfortable baking challahs, reciting poetic rock lyrics, or drumming in a band as he was on the biggest academic stage. Earlier this year, he generously provided me with his Canada Research Chair renewal application in order to assist with my own. What stands out in those documents was his incredible love for, and commitment to, his colleagues and students. Over just the last decade, he co-authored pieces with Jena McGill, Katie Szilagyi, Katie Black, Jason Millar, Carys Craig, Jennifer Chandler, Timothy Caufield, Carissima Mathen, Noel Corriveau, Michael Froomkin, Joelle Pineau, Jennifer Barrigar, Jacqueline Burkell, Alex Cameron, Jessica Earle, and Daphne Gilbert. He co-edited works with Mitchell McInnes, Tony VanDuzer, Ryan Calo, Michael Froomkin, Valerie Steeves, Carole Lucock, and Jason Millar. It is an astonishing record of collaboration, demonstrating how Ian was most at home working with others, sharing with others, and ensuring that the spotlight was on others.

You didn’t have to write with Ian to know about his generosity, however. I have never met a colleague more willing to share his work or time. His supervisions of graduate students is legendary with members of Kerr graduate family holding prominent posts at universities around the world. His research assistants and classroom students held a particularly special place in his heart as evidenced by watching Ian continuously pop up and down during convocation as a steady stream of students invariably saved their biggest smile for his enthusiastic, warm embrace as they crossed the stage.

Of course, Ian reserved his biggest smiles and love for his family. A number of years ago, I convinced him to join my fantasy football league. He said yes, not because he was big football fan, but rather because he saw it as a great opportunity to play with his father, who was back home in Calgary. The Steel Kerrtains never managed to snag a title, but Ian had an entirely different goal in mind.

When I last saw Ian in the ICU ward, the talk quickly turned to Erin and Ruby. He pointed to their pictures on the hospital wall, noting that his family was his most important success story as his love for them – and them him – meant everything. They gave him the strength to fight his terrible disease and family life provided the fulfillment and happiness that he wished for everyone.

Last month, about two weeks after Ian was back in the hospital, I ran into our colleague Vanessa Gruben in the law school foyer. Vanessa told me that Ian had been moved to ICU hours before and that the situation was not good. I walked up to my office numbed by the news and as I opened the hallway door that leads to my office, I looked down the hall as I always do. It was then that I realized that for the past twenty years, the first thing I have done when I enter the hallway is look to see if the door to Ian’s office – just two down from mine – was cracked open with some light shining through. I’m not totally sure why. Sometimes I would pop in to say hi, sometimes not. But there was something reassuring knowing that my friend and partner was there. I don’t think I’ll ever stop looking for that light.

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