Laurence Eastham reflects on the SCL Annual Conference 2018, which had keynotes, panels, a conversation and flash talks
I have been to a few SCL Conferences. This one was different. Dual focus and quadruple-barrelled, it ranged widely in both subject-matter and tone – and even geography. From the shores of Bermuda to the spirits in the sky, from a poetic spiral around the cloud to the bread and butter of legal document automation. It was packed and flew past.
I am not going to go through it speaker by speaker but will just pick out a few personal highlights and reactions. You can get a fuller idea of the whole content from the excellent ‘Moments’ compilation of relevant tweets which David Chaplin has prepared and from his tweets on the day (for which see the foot of this piece).
The main message from Nilema Bhakta-Jones on ‘The Power of Creative Abrasion’ was familiar to me from our exchanges that led to a teaser article that ran in the August/September issue of Computers & Law. But the presentation on the day added considerable depth and entertained too.
We had Batman and Misery (the film not the feeling) and a very convincing argument for input into strategic law firm decisions that doesn’t just endorse the in-built prejudices of the management regime but allows for conflicting views. Law firms have to consider the possibility that not everything currently done is top-notch and that what clients want might be different from what the law firm thinks they want. Otherwise they risk developing a ‘Ferrari with flat tyres’ and floating with the tide as a ‘dead fish’.
Two phrases that stuck with me are ‘quality of advice is a given’ (so more than that is expected) and ‘buying software is simply success theatre’.
The various flash talks – 15-minute presentation on a wide-range of topics – were a big hit for me. Rebecca Keating’s flash session on quantum computing was the first and my favourite (despite strong competition). I had really struggled to get my head round the concepts that underpin quantum computing but Rebecca’s carefully pitched presentation left me with a real understanding of the concept and potential applications.
The unfortunate side-effect of a long day and mammoth journey home was that almost all of this understanding had evaporated by the next day. I will have to hope that mentioning cubits and the ‘quantum chandelier’ and intoning ‘it’s like a spinning coin’ will get me through should I be unwise enough to claim any expertise in the area. The great thing is that I clearly recall her 15-year time-frame for implementation and it coincides precisely with my life expectancy so I needn’t worry too much. I still worried a bit though in light of a reaction to the suggestion that quantum computing might lead to the end of civilisation as we know it; apparently, it is ‘quite concerning’. But, taking a leaf out of the Brexit believers book, I choose to assume that civilisation as we know it will be replaced by something better, probably involving animatronic unicorns.
Pierre Far’s embrace of the impossible – explaining the adtech ecosystems in less than 20 minutes – was the highlight of a session on adtech issues that dealt with a plethora of compliance issues. Pierre went through the ad buying experience and shed light on the dizzying speed and complexity of the largely automated processes involved (‘automated’ rather understates it).
It is a fascinating area and I hope that the distinguished panel can be persuaded to contribute articles in the near future. If ever one needs an example of how important it is for lawyers to understand the tech in order to advise on compliance then adtech is there in a spotlight. Guarding against inappropriate juxtapositioning is especially complex. Bearing in mind that print media have not got a spotless record on that after years of trying, that is not too surprising.
Sacha Wilson leads the discussion on adtech
A few comments stayed with me.
The spirit moved us
The flash talk from Adrian Aronsson-Storrier, with its engaging history and clever magic trick, was a real joy. What’s more, judging from the lunchtime chat, everyone actually applied themselves to the intellectual teasers that flowed from it as well as admitting to being dazzled by the performance.
Adrian’s essential thesis is that the approach taken by judges to spirit writing might be usefully applied to works that are the product of the machine. It is a thesis that might be flawed in that the various judges in differing jurisdictions have not taken a consistent approach. The examples given, ranging from ancient scripts to newly created ‘Rembrandts’ left me hoping that the entire copyright regime might crumble under the weight of the works that might be created by machines. We might then end up with a regime that actually incentivises innovation but does not exploit. Some hope!
Blockchain and crypto
I am so laden with scepticism about the blockchain and cryptocurrencies that the unrelenting positivity of the speakers at the focused session was a bit of a shock. II am not sure I can ever be as ‘bullish’ as Daniel Gabriel from Accenture – I associate another ‘bull’ word with blockchain – but I did find myself wavering a little.
The association of blockchain with identity solutions is downright terrifying and mentions of its use in elections sends a shiver down the spine (though even Arianne King had her doubts about that one). But the fact that the Swiss are taking it seriously does make you wonder – they rarely seem to back a wrong horse and one can see clear applications. Whether benefits always justify the work required is another matter. And so often the applications seem to rely on an initial verification that is crucial and still traditional – applications relating to food and diamonds spring to mind in this context.
I am not sure that Alex Potts QC will be flattered when I say that, while his presentation was very impressive (‘Bermuda finds regulatory solutions to other people’s problems’), I was left wondering whether to move to Bermuda rather than whether to move to the blockchain.
The post-lunch session on online courts featured a conversation between Professor Richard Susskind OBE and Lord Briggs, the Supreme Court Justice.
I loved this session and hope that it can be a template for future exchanges. It felt like I was a guest at the sort of dinner party where serious questions are addressed and solutions to grand problems might be aired for the first time. The sort of dinner party other people go to. It was a compliment to the format that I was constantly resisting the urge to interrupt and add my two-penny-worth.
The exchange was also a cause for optimism. A commitment to revise the rules to make them accessible for techies is vital if online courts are to work properly and that seemed well understood. While I remain concerned about the potential for online justice to excuse legal aid cuts and about its potential to be hijacked as a luxury for the educated middle-classes, the participants’ grasp of the numerous issues was firm and their discussion, even in areas where there was apparent disagreement, was illuminating.
The conversation was followed by two contrasting flash talks. Lorraine Chimbga’s very carefully reasoned address on the rule of law in the digital age was challenging and probably deserves a more careful consideration than was possible in the context of a full-day conference. It might well make a good topic for one of the forthcoming mini-lectures that SCL plans. I am less convinced than Lorraine about lawyers retaining trust as gatekeepers but I would hope that they can be positive and contribute to effective solutions for the digital age.
Loarraine Chimbiga delivers a rallying cry to techlawyers
Miriam Khalaf Fine whipped through some of the lessons that had emerged since the implementation of the GDPR. It is no surprise that the volume of complaints to the ICO has increased an increase in SARs from senior execs looking to improve their remuneration packages. Miriam observed that the great benefit of the GDPR fuss is that people know their rights – whether they will use them, and how long they will care, is another matter.
I had read the report of the All Party Group on AI, for which the session chair Lord Tim Clement-Jones was partly responsible, and the government response – at least most of it - so some of the session on AI in the UK was familiar. Professor Marina Jirotka was good on the need for responsible innovation but the most interesting elements for me came from Duncan Card, with his Canadian perspective.
While Duncan suggested that the UK was ahead in a thought-leadership role, he seemed very well versed in many of the practicalities of AI or, perhaps more accurately, AI-like solutions. Prisons with 1,000 inmates run by 5 officers, corporations walking away from AI solutions because of the high risks (the bigger the solution, the bigger the risk) and the innovations he was seeing in the allocation of liability under contracts were all topics covered.
I liked Matthew Lavy’s phrase about understanding how the black box works being a touchstone of legality and the consensus that AI regulation when it came had to target outcomes not means. I think it is one area where the GDPR has shown a bit of forward—thinking but that data protection element of AI regulation is just one aspect..
Holly Pearsall’s poetic contribution to the Conference is published in full here. It was very well received by the Conference but it was less well received by my niece, who works for the Wordsworth Trust. One of her associates suggested that my place in hell was ensured merely by having a part in its publication so I fear for Holly’s eternal soul.
Catherine Bamford’s flash talk on legal document automation 10 years on was more prosaic and none the worse for that. There was an occasional hint of despair over the continuing hype and the failure to monitor post-deal completion but there was much hope too. Lawyers are realising that document assembly tools can actually make their lives easier and the chorus from those granting its place in every specialism but their own is getting weaker.
There was a barnstorming closing session from Daniel Pollick. I am going to skip over it in the hope of a full interview-style article that can do his points justice. I shall certainly be borrowing his neat challenge to the assumption that Apple is the paradigmatic innovator – and I suspect I will not be the only one to steal that slide. In a whirlwind tour of every type of tech known to legal man, he identified the very few ‘silver bullets’ and the odd dud. He made the point that a lot of valuable products are hiding in plain sight document automation included. A key lesson is that the higher the behavioural demand you put on change, the less you will get in return. Anything that requires a minimum of change is likely to be adopted; anything that requires radical change may well be neglected.
Laurence Eastham edits Computers & Law.
A round up tweets from ourselves and others at the event
?? “The Society for Computers in Law Annual Conference 2018” A round-up of highlights (in roughly chronological order) from yesterday's groundbreaking conference. Thanks to all those who tweeted and, of course, all the speakers #SCLConf18https://t.co/Vd7zb6FInd— SCL feed (@computersandlaw) 28 September 2018