2018: Will AI and automation meet a Concorde moment?

And why this may matter to the GC.

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Bruce Macmillan on 09/02/18

Fifteen years ago, when the Concorde passenger jet was retired, in some eyes the World got slower. The idea that a certain form of transport technology was good, exciting - even magical - receded and the World consciously chose to do less and more slowly than it was technically capable of.  Of course, in some other eyes, a needlessly expensive, inefficient and environmentally unfriendly piece of technology had been rendered obsolete by a changing societal view about what is right and appropriate for our current and future times. 

As ever, society limits, through law and through social pressure, some of the things that it is capable of but where the benefits/consequences ratios change over time. And, as bitcoin might now be showing, we can vary from irrationally exuberant to excessively cautious very rapidly. 

Many of these things, explicitly or implicitly end up shaping companies business plans and longer term contractual and regulatory commitments. Which is why the good General Counsel is aware of and reflective about these issues. Being reactive is not good but being under informed and proactive can be equally dangerous. our knowledge area has its "wider relevant business knowledge" section precisely for this reason. And we would welcome further suggestions for content!

This need has led good GC to have a lot of complex, often very grey and long term impactful things that they should be thinking about. Particularly where those GC have any exposure directly or indirectly to: European personal data flows; how Blockchain and GDPR appear to mismatch; MIFID impacted financial services companies; or to trading in or with the UK with Brexit - to name but a few current challenges. 

With the immediacy of many issues like whether and, if at all, on what basis, personal data, services, goods and people will be able to cross the English Channel and the Irish Border fourteen months from now (or after a transition period if one proves to be negotiable); it is easy to miss or to lose sight of other important longer term issues and trends that shape regulations, contracts, business strategies and the environment in which the performance of these things have to be carried out.

But it is worth trying to keep a focus on these other areas too as there is really fast change occurring in many of them at present including in tech (and medicine) where things are becoming possible now that will affect the contracts, regulations and business plans that we are helping to shape now and which will also be increasingly impactful over the balance of our working, professional and adequately pension funded (?) lengthening retired lives.

Political changes globally towards more entrenched, nationally focused agendas in the last few years illustrate just how rapidly and substantially established assumptions among business and political leaders and stakeholders can be changed because of a failure of the establishment properly to understand a building change in popular sentiment and the ability of certain key individuals and campaigning (rather than reporting) media to tap into this successfully. Is that ten year internationally vertically integrated supply chain contract with the break clauses negotiated out for a price discount really such a good idea?

And some of these changes may result in us not going as far with technology as we are technically able because, as with Concorde, society may choose quite suddenly to change track from what had seemed to be an apparently logical and economically rational path of technological advancement to another path.  

We should be aware of these in our thinking and in our business risk appetites – even if we simply understand the risk in a decision differently but still take the decision. 

Illustratively here are a few observations about things that might merit further reflection – these comments are not intended to make you change or to suggest changes to personal or business plans – simply to encourage/reinforce the value of making time to consciously research and think through the changes that we face rather than simply being swept along by the flow (even if we then do still go with the flow):

Cyber proof and bug/crash/battery failure free automated transport? So the ignition (or battery controller) the steering, the gearbox, the brakes, the ventilation system, the windows and the doors are all totally electronically controlled... - read articles here: Telegraph; The Verge;  Mono.

"DONs" Deliberately Off Nets? not everything needs to be connected. So is the value in the gain/risk worthwhile of being wired up always in favour of being wired up? Networkworld. Illustratively, I heard a suggestion last week that some security organisations might be reverting to detachable floppy disks for storing the most critical data. 

Cloud burst? It is easy to forget that the "cloud"
runs on physical infrastructure which has its own costs and vulnerabilities which are additional to and separate from the purely cyber variety. But which can also have a major impact both in business and in environmental terms. The latter point being graphically demonstrated by the Chinese state last month when it apparently decided to control bitcoin mining in the state by throttling down the power supply to the bit coin mines. (Bloomberg)

When you understand how the cloud (and the power supply to use it) gets to your office (or house or to navigate your car), via street cables, transmission masts, undersea cables, and satellites and you then think just briefly about street works, storms, trawler nets, meteor showers and ash clouds respectively… then you may want to understand them further as you consciously consider your risk appetite and the resilience of your business solutions. I had a trivial but salutary reminder of last summer when my sat nav dropped out on a diversion over Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. I had no map book in the car and a practical joker had moved one of the road diversion signs… but at least it was only 15 mins of my life lost literally going around in circles!

The "reverse nuclear" issue? A documentary last year asserted that one of the key problems with nuclear power was that, in the early stages of nuclear power, the proposed solution for decommissioning was that .. future generations would be more technologically advanced and could solve the problem. It sometimes feels in the tech sector – that the reverse assumption applies as a default i.e. that future generations will be no brighter and no more technically able than us, and so our secure solutions will remain secure (Business Insider) – or at least patchable more quickly than the hackers can find vulnerabilities and exploit them. Yet, as the news in January has so graphically illustrated, (ITV news) this is not always the case. 

Data's thermal copy paper problem? In the 1990s and early 2000s many companies were surprised and disappointed to discover that their paper copy records had become un-intelligible because the copies had been made on thermal copy paper and subsequent accidental heat treatment of the paper in storage had caused the images to fade away. As technology speeds up old programming languages, unsupported software, cloud provision services or companies that fail (leaving your data where?) and the physical deterioration of the hardware on which older data are stored may become ever more of a problem. 

Whether it be accessing old records for litigation or tax purposes or trying to keep the 20 year old electronic in the air-conditioning in your building working – it is worth understanding the state generally of the technology on which your business depends. Perhaps the lessons learned to avoid with the Millennium Bug risk twenty years ago still have something to teach us?

An Ethical Standards Code for BOTS? As BOT service becomes increasingly ubiquitous and seamlessly interleaved into our online interactions do we need to develop, as was suggested at the Tomorrow's Company forum last year, a code of conduct for BOT programmers akin to the Advertising Standards codes to ensure that the next wave of mis-selling or defective helpdesk advice is not an automated one?

"People Better Roles?"/"Petters"?
Automation and AI can remove a lot of jobs – sometimes, but not always, new jobs will be created in their place. But not necessarily ones within the trainable competences of the newly unemployed. While the concept of a "living income" has been heard more and more over the past couple of years (including in a public vote in Switzerland), it is far from clear that a societal balance where ever more people are born into a lifetime of structural un-employability would actually be deemed socially desirable. 

So it should at least be contemplated that, especially where there is strongly unionised activity, society might move towards being deliberately sub-optimal in the efficiency of the conduct of certain activities in order to retain employment or for other "softer"/less directly optimal reasons of wider social utility – illustratively we could buy our coffee from a hole in the wall but we prefer our coffee, if not our cash, with a smile and human contact.

Just a few suggestions to prompt thinking. What extra thoughts on these topics do you have?  Contact us!
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