SCL 50th Anniversary Conference Event Report: “The Dragon Under the Sofa and other stories”

October 24, 2023

What separates humanity from technology? The sudden omniscience of ChatGPT in November 2022 has prompted a good deal of philosophising on that question with the apparent gap between the human and the machine growing ever less defined. There is as yet little common ground on where the boundary lies but one oft cited difference is that of storytelling. Narratives draw threads and facts together in unexpected ways, a talent that many doubt AI has, certainly at present and perhaps never will. They also have the power to encapsulate and humanise a concept, often bringing technical details to life.

This power of the narrative provided a thread throughout last week’s Annual Conference. It was the 50th anniversary one if that had escaped your notice which, as opening keynote speakers Richard Susskind and Mark O’Conor noted, is a tale in itself. 

The event began with a captivating display of visual storytelling. A brief yet impactful video illuminated the core values that have defined and permeated the Society throughout its 50-year history: collaboration, diversity, community, openness and expertise, unparalleled training, thought-leadership, tracking emerging technologies and advocating for technology law. All of this unfolded to the invigorating beats of Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now,” setting the stage for the day ahead.

Conference Co-Chairs Patricia Shaw and Sue McLean welcomed delegates, both online and in the room, and set the scene with a look back at the past 50 years, a celebration of the present and a look ahead to what comes next, all in the form of a poem!

The aforementioned Opening Keynote speakers, Richard Susskind and Mark O’Conor, then reflected on the history of the Society, the milestones of technology it has embraced and the evolution from mainly lawtech to mainly tech law but Mark also mentioned the narrative around Y2K without which that particular issue may never have attained the mythical status it now assumes in the public consciousness.

With this theme in mind then, what follows is an attempt to impart a flavour of the day in six short tales.

Edward Scissorhands: the insurer’s cut  
Jacob Haddad’s novel take on the ambiguities of what, if any, cyber risks are covered in insurance policies was told through the lens of Edward Scissorshands. Johnny Depp’s character in the film is a morass of ambiguities – how does the world react to a man with potential weapons for hands? Similar uncertainties can be seen in cyber insurance, especially as insurers rush to limit liability wherever they can. One example: a claim arising from a fraudster manipulating a paper form may be covered but the same fraudster manipulating a pdf is not.   

The most expensive pizza in history?
The ‘flash’ talks by members of the SESG group included one on the growing use of DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organizations managed on a blockchain if you need a prompt). Lisa McCrory recounted the origins of the Pizza DAO which celebrates Bitcoin Pizza Day each year on May 22nd, the day when an enthusiast of the newly fangled cryptocurrency bought two pizzas for 10,000 BTC, equivalent to $20m at today’s rates. More importantly, Lisa highlighted how these groups are challenging existing legal norms. For example the Law Commission is examining whether they are partnerships or and hinted at their use as a vehicle for data trusts. 

Dog bites witness
In keeping with the 50th anniversary reflections, a panel reviewed the seminal cases over that period. Alongside the inevitable discussion of St Albans, software and tangibility, Lynne McCafferty KC felt it churlish not to mention the dog. BSkyB v EDS will go down in history for the unveiling of Mr Galloway’s dodgy MBA, one that Lulu, the pet dog of counsel for BSkyB, had managed to obtain for a small fee. Later the panel, through Westley Walker, pondered liability in the age of AI: no significant cases have emerged so far (possibly being settled) but when they do, foreseeability will be a crucial ingredient. 

BBQ (data) for sale
Josh Joshi, who works for an edge infrastructure company, loves a BBQ. So when he gets shown adverts for the latest in BBQ technology after an online ad auction for his personal data, he sees that as success for the infrastructure behind it. But what is good enough for an ad auction – who cares if it takes half a second to load – may not be good enough for a self driving car. This insight led to a revelatory discussion about the sustainability of the industry in the face of the tsunami of compute coming our way on the back of AI. Josh told the audience that in his 20 years in the industry, he had been commissioned to build perhaps 250-350 megawatts of data centre capacity. In the past 90 days that figure sits at 1.3 gigawatts. So while data centres are essentially ‘glorified fridges’ this sudden explosion in demand may necessitate regulation. The Netherlands does not have enough electricity to house more data centres and by 2030 it is estimated the data processing will be second only to the automotive sector in its production of CO2. 

The racist policeman and the book loving boy
For storytelling though, the stand out was Vinod Bange. Chairing a session on the future of privacy and identity, he laid bare two intensely personal stories to a hushed, you-can-hear-a- pin-drop audience. The first was of his disturbing run in with a racist policeman who refused to believe a nine year old child of his background had been to the library to borrow, not steal, some books. The second was of a visit to the Ganges where distant relatives have been scattered for many generations. While there, he discovered an office which is responsible for recording the names of everyone who had been sent on their way, with records dating back to 1350. His data protection antennae perked up so he quizzed the clerk who replied safety is ensured by a higher authority than temporal laws. The purpose of his tales was to hammer home the importance of protecting highly sensitive personal data while seeking the benefits such as personalised medicine promised as AI gets into its stride. 

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then Let us Begin…”
The Conference reached its denouement with a closing keynote from Christina Demetriades. In musing on “the next wave of technology change” she stressed the importance of being ready for the challenges and risks of next generation computing while embracing the opportunities and transformation offered across multiple sectors. It was an exhilarating and thought-provoking end to the day leaving us, in fine narrative tradition, on something of a cliffhanger. What and how should we regulate for the future? Will our digital twins be running the world? Was this all an AI hallucination?

Of course these were not the only yarns to emerge from the day so I have to apologise for omitting the roster of other speakers who tackled everything from human rights in tech law, the next wave of technology, contracting for AI to the future of Open Source to name a few. It was a day exemplifying the extraordinary range of knowledge tech lawyers now need to keep pace with. 

Yet strangely the overarching meta narrative, if you like, was one of an emerging unifying thread being woven between these diffuse issues. There is a link between human rights and the water required to cool a data centre and that link is AI. Professor Susskind professed in his opening address that his first sight of ChatGPT that November day last year felt like a seismic moment. Given almost every speaker and panellist at the conference eventually converged on AI and the impact it will have in the near future, Professor Susskind’s sense of wonder seems instinctively right. 

What of the dragon under the sofa though I hear you ask? Was it just clickbait? Well Elizabeth Denham, the former Information Commissioner broadcasting in the early hours from Canada, never really got to recount the fable in full because of time constraints though I assume it was to illustrate something about the Age Appropriate Design Code. 

But her granddaughter knows the dragon is there: perhaps living with an AI.  

‘The SCL Annual Conference is always great but in its 50th year SCL really excelled itself! There were a huge range of topics delivered by a mix of private practice and in house lawyers which all interlinked together beautifully providing a great insight into the challenges and opportunities facing today’s technology lawyers. There was a particular emphasis on AI and discussion surrounding a project the SCL AI group has been wording on – AI contractual clause. There was a great hubbub as technology lawyers mingled together to discuss the topics over drinks at the end. What a great time to be a technology lawyer!” Anne Rose, SCL Trustee, Managing Associate and co-lead of the Blockchain Group, Mishcon de Reya

“As always, the SCL Annual Conference was a fantastic event. The speakers were world class, and the program covered the breadth of issues facing today’s technology lawyers. As well as providing invaluable insight into those issues, the speakers also demonstrated how inevitably interlinked all those issues are! From Digital Media, Tech Disputes and Contracting for AI, to Open Source, Privacy and Regulating Digital Infrastructures, there was something for everyone.” Shelley Thomas, SCL Trustee, Associate General Counsel and Senior Vice President, Bank of America

If you missed this milestone event, you can purchase the recording at our website. Attendees receive automatic access to the webinar replay: