Deep Thought

March 22, 2011

In the book Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (essential reading in my opinion for all technology lawyers) there is a computer called Deep Thought which is designed by a race of hyper intelligent pan dimensional beings to calculate the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. It duly goes away – for seven and a half million years – and comes back with the answer forty two. It can’t however say what the question actually was in the first place and has to design another computer “whose operational parameters I am  not worthy to calculate” to do this. Sounds pretty typical of computer development.

Anyway the point I want to make here is that in the past few weeks there have been two events within SCL which have reminded me of our increasing exposure as IT lawyers and indeed as human beings to the exponential advance of technology.

The first was the excellent SCL Annual Lecture given by Doctor Mike Lynch OBE, CEO of Autonomy. He took us on a tour de force from the (for us humble lawyers) rather uncomfortable high ground of mathematical theory to the more usual plains and plateaux of electronic discovery and compliance, and the capacity of search engines. The one crucial thing I took away from this was the fact that we are standing on the brink of a move from computers searching vast amounts of data “blindly” looking for words that may or may not match, to sophisticated “intelligent” searching. We will increasingly be seeing computers “learn” like the IBM computer “Watson” which recently defeated two human contestants in the US quiz show Jeopardy. Answers will become far more relevant and meaningful – and we will rely even more on computers.

The second event was the acceptance by Professor Richard Susskind (also OBE) of the position of President of SCL in place of  Rt Hon the Lord Saville of Newdigate. We are very grateful for Lord Saville’s sterling service over more than ten years and we welcome Richard to his new role. Richard has of course been pursuing the theme of developing technology  for many years and I was privileged to review his book entitled “The End of Lawyers?”. He is one of the few people I am aware of who genuinely question the role of professionals in a world of exponentially increasing computing power. He cites a theory by Ray Kurzweil that by 2050 “one thousand dollars of computing will exceed the processing power of all human brains on Earth”.

To quote a rock lyric from Bachman-Turner Overdrive, it seems to me that “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. Social networking and cloud computing may be some of the technology trends of the moment, but this ongoing IT revolution, and the law which sometimes trails behind its comet-like progress is going to produce many more surprises which will drastically affect our social and working lives.