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As digital innovation continues to transform all aspects of our lives, Global Insight gets the views of tech experts around the world, predicting the ways we’ll be living, working, playing and communicating 15 years from now – and what the implications might be.
Technology has come a long way since Tim Berners-Lee premiered his World Wide Web in 1989. Not only has the internet paved the way for businesses such as Google, Amazon, IBM and Apple to revolutionise the way we work, shop and communicate, but the advent of social media has broken down geographical borders too. Facebook’s community, drawn from all corners of the globe, is so large that if it were a country it would be the biggest in the world.
None of this happened overnight. Mark Robinson, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills in Singapore, points out that massive investment over a period of at least 15 years was required to get to a stage where, according to Ericsson’s June 2015 Mobility Report, nine-tenths of the world’s population will soon be covered by a mobile broadband network, while 70 per cent of all people are expected to have access to a smartphone by 2020.
‘Billions were spent on 3G and more recently 4G mobile licences, and further billions on mobile networks and technology, going back 15 years or more,’ says Robinson. ‘So many internet business models have been tried and refined over that time.’
The way we were
Most people now rely on IT in some shape or form in order to get their jobs done.
While the Millennial generation may take technology for granted, it is not so long ago that computers themselves were the big innovation, with many professionals having no access to one at all at the start of their careers.
Baker & McKenzie global technology head Harry Small recalls that when he qualified as a technology lawyer in 1981, ‘computers were big enormous things that needed a special air-conditioned basement and no one had a clue how they worked’. Minicomputers, which Small says were seen as hugely innovative because they did not need their own room, followed, but even though they had started to give way to microprocessors by the mid-1980s computers were still far from a mainstream technology at that point.
Not only did this colour how people worked – as a trainee in the early 1990s, Bristows partner and IBA Technology Law Committee secretary-treasurer Chris Holder had responsibility for distributing the post to partners’ pigeonholes – but it affected what they were working on too.
Stefan Weidart, who heads the IP practice at German firm Gleiss Lutz and co-chairs the IBA Technology Law Committee, found working on domain names at the beginning of his career a challenge because there was no precedent for how they should be dealt with.
‘What I remember vividly is that I was involved in one of the first domain-name cases in 1996 and I still bash myself for not buying all the generic domain names available at that time,’ he says. ‘No one knew what they were, what purpose they served or how to get them.’
Rob Shooter, a partner at Fieldfisher in London, had a similar experience, having to piece together how the law could relate to technology because there was no specific legislation in place. ‘We had to take property law or construction law and see how we could apply it to technology,’ he says.
Although the internet has completely changed how most people live and work, Holder at Bristows notes that it took around a decade for email and computers on desks to become ubiquitous. Some areas of technology have taken even longer to develop.
Takanori Abe of Osaka-based Abe & Partners, who also chairs the User Generated Content Subcommittee of the IBA Technology Law Committee, notes that it took decades for anyone to better Thomas Edison’s light-source technology. The invention of blue LEDs in the 1990s, which led to the creation of white light from LEDs for the first time – winning its Japanese inventors the Nobel Prize for Physics in the process – represented the first major leap since Edison patented his light bulb in the late 1800s.
The development of the internet and computer technology may have been much faster, but Joost Linnemann, a partner at Dutch firm Kennedy Van Der Laan and chair of the Disputes and Rights Subcommittee of the IBA Technology Law Committee, says the disruption they caused actually took longer to occur than many people now believe. ‘[In the 1990s] there were all kinds of reports about how [the internet] would change commerce and society forever. It took a long time for that to happen, but now it has,' he says. 'While people then were talking about a revolution, if you look back at it, it actually happened more step-by-step.’
Viewed in that context, driverless cars and smart fridges by 2030 may not be such a leap after all.
Such high levels of connectivity and the willingness of the younger generation to share many aspects of their lives online are driving the latest technological innovations, with the ability for computers to collect, collate and make decisions based on human data expected to be an everyday occurrence by 2030.
John Delaney, a partner at Morrison & Foerster in New York, notes that ‘more data was collected in 2012 and 2013 than in the entire history of the universe’, with the ability to manipulate that data sitting at the heart of all technological innovations.
‘If you look at all of today’s hot technologies and tech matters, such as social media, mobile applications, wearable computers or big data, they have this fundamental connection: they involve collecting more and more data from us,’ Delaney says. ‘Think about all the information people put on Facebook that in the past they would never have shared. Now they’re posting it and giving it to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. That’s a lot of information about your likes and dislikes, movies, what kind of articles you like to read.’
Robots with attitude
The way that data is currently used could be more sophisticated, but Chris Holder, a partner at Bristows in London and secretary-treasurer of the IBA Technology Law Committee, predicts that the internet of things will be so pervasive by 2030 that technology will be able to make decisions on things like the frequency of rubbish collections or the need for all-night street lighting without the requirement of human intervention.
It’s entirely possible that within our lifetimes it will be the exception rather than the rule for human beings to be controlling automobiles
Orrick, San Francisco
‘Cognitive technologies like IBM Watson and Google DeepMind have the ability to look at unstructured data and come up with answers or opinions,’ he says. ‘A typical computer today has software that does stuff, but it doesn’t have the ability to provide you with opinions and outcomes. As that develops with the kind of data being collected from sensors on streetlights and garbage trucks, the kind of data that will be analysed will create a big wave of technological developments that will automate things. It will be more automatic without us knowing about it. The way we’ll interact with robots will be as we interact with PCs now; it will be as ubiquitous as smartphones are today.’
While this will lead to efficiencies in the way everything from big businesses to healthcare providers or municipal authorities operate, it will also allow technology to make decisions for people as they go about their everyday lives. Smartphones or wearable computers will link up with networks both inside and outside individuals’ homes, prompting consumers to stock up on their favoured products while also directing them to the best place to purchase them.
Rob Shooter, a partner at Fieldfisher in London, says: ‘The use of data will be so sophisticated that everything will be targeted towards us. We’ll go into a shop and a discount voucher will be sent to us as we walk around.’
Gregor Pryor, a partner at Reed Smith in London, agrees. ‘Everything that could be connected will be connected and will deliver data,’ he says. ‘There’s been a lot of talk about fridges, but they will know when certain foods are not in them and will tell us when to order certain things. Smartphones collect a lot of data – where you are, what you’re often doing at that time. They will know that you perhaps always get a Starbucks between 7am and 9am every day, so could tell Costa to give you a free coffee every morning for a week.’
While this will drive how businesses operate, with the most tech-savvy likely to prosper, the disruptive effects technology can have on the high street are already being seen in the banking sector, with the rise first of internet banking and now of mobile payments having an impact.
Joost Linnemann, partner at Kennedy Van Der Laan in the Netherlands and chair of the Disputes and Rights Subcommittee of the IBA Technology Law Committee, says that the traditional role of banks, especially in the retail space, will ‘more or less disappear’. Online payment systems such as Bitcoin, for example, are testing the waters on peer-to-peer transactions, which could ultimately render the bank’s role as an intermediary redundant.
‘Banks will have severe competition from IT companies, which offer cheaper and more user-friendly alternatives to the traditional payment systems of the banks,’ says Linnemann. ‘The idea of the bank as a central trusted entity in the middle of a payment scheme is disappearing. Technology will make it possible to have trustworthy payment systems without needing multiple institutions.’
The way we’ll interact with robots will be as we interact with PCs now; it will be as ubiquitous as smartphones are today
IBA Technology Law Committee
Mobile payments are yet to truly hit the mainstream in the Western world, with Apple Pay only launching in the US in 2014 and in the UK, Canada and Australia in 2015. In parts of Africa, however, services such as M-Pesa have been the norm for the best part of a decade, with Vodafone and South Africa’s MTN Group teaming up last year to allow cross-border and cross-network payments for the first time. Parts of Africa may not have had a mature banking sector to begin with, but nevertheless, to some degree, the disruptive effects of mobile payment technology are already being felt on the continent
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One innovation that has the potential to be far more disruptive, changing the face not just of high streets, but entire cities, is automated cars. Fredrik Roos, a partner at Setterwalls in Sweden, suggests that it will be at least ten to 15 years before the technology for driverless cars is at the stage of eliminating all safety fears. However, Stefan Weidart, a partner at Gleiss Lutz in Germany and co-chair of the IBA Technology Law Committee, says that automated driving ‘is on the way to becoming one of the hottest things’. ‘It combines the internet of things with mobility and will be a very disruptive technology,’ he adds.
Global technologies with national characteristics
Technology may, as Kennedy Van Der Laan partner Joost Linnemann says, turn out to be the world’s ‘big equaliser’, but there will be differences in the way it is used in different parts if the world.
Part of this is down to connectivity, with Reed Smith London partner Gregor Pryor noting that despite the US being home to tech giants such as Google and IBM, the country is in some ways being held back by the underdeveloped state of its internet infrastructure.
‘The US is actually behind Asia in many ways because it’s got really bad networks, while Sweden is really far ahead in technology because it’s got incredible bandwidth,’ Pryor says.
Cultural differences will also play a part. Doil Son, a partner at Yulchon in South Korea and Chair of the Intrusive Technologies Subcommittee of the IBA Technology Law Committee, says this much is obvious in that identical searches on South Korea’s Naver and Google throw up totally different results.
Similarly, John Delaney, a partner at Morrison & Foerster in New York, points out that CDs remain far more popular than streaming in Japan, which, despite being an early adopter of most technologies, culturally still favours ownership of physical items.
In Africa, meanwhile, mobile payments are more advanced than they are in the Western world: the lack of traditional banking infrastructure as well as increased connectivity has allowed its nations to skip straight to the latest technologies without worrying about the possible impact on existing banking systems.
Despite these nuances, driverless cars, the internet of things and wearable technologies will be rolled out on a global basis, with the big differentiator being how countries choose to regulate them.
‘In Europe laws are far more burdensome around collecting data,’ says Delaney at Morrison & Foerster. ‘To what degree do consumers have control over how their personal information is collected and used? That degree of control will vary from country to country. Because technology businesses are global, they’ll have to be aware of all the laws governing their business. You can’t export the law of the country that’s most favourable. Even though technology is global and doesn’t recognise borders, it doesn’t mean that borders don’t still exist.’
The impact on traditional modes of transport such as trains or buses is obvious, with people being able to work or socialise while travelling without being constrained by driving or timetables. However, driverless cars could ultimately completely change the nature of car ownership too.
Weidart points out that automated cars would not necessarily need to be parked near an individual’s home, with the technology allowing the vehicle to take itself from an out-of-town location to the user’s door in time for the morning commute. Linnemann at Kennedy Van Der Laan adds that in itself this would make ownership less important. ‘If it’s not outside your door, who cares if it’s your car or just a car that takes you from A to B,’ he says.
As more data is gathered the cars would also be able to increase efficiencies automatically by analysing journey times, speeds and distances, while greater connectivity could allow for car pooling, with vehicles being able to recognise when more than one person was making the same journey on a regular basis. Not only would this give rise to a positive environmental impact, but potentially a social one too.
Banks will have severe competition from IT companies, which offer cheaper and more user-friendly alternatives to the traditional payment systems of the banks
Kennedy Van Der Laan, Netherlands
IBA Technology Law Committee
The idea may seem like science fiction to many, and Takanori Abe, name partner at Abe & Partners in Osaka and chair of the User Generated Content Subcommittee of the IBA Technology Law Committee, feels that the type of fuel rather than the type of driver could ultimately determine how automotive technology is developed. ‘If hydrogen or electric cars can be as good as gasoline cars that could significantly affect human life by improving the environment and taking away the need to worry about the lack of gasoline,’ he says.
However, Mike Sullivan, a partner at Orrick in San Francisco, believes self-driving cars have the potential to become as ubiquitous as mobile phones in not too dissimilar a timeframe.
‘It’s entirely possible that within our lifetimes it will be the exception rather than the rule for human beings to be controlling automobiles,’ he says. ‘Combine that with [taxi app] Uber and [peer-to-peer carsharing app] Lyft and similar companies pushing on innovation in getting people and things from one place to another, and you have the potential for huge disruption.’
Of course, the one thing that all these technologies require to become truly successful is access to data – and not everyone is happy about providing that.
Harry Small, head of the global technology practice at Baker & McKenzie, says that general attitudes towards privacy may change as the younger generation becomes the older generation. ‘Young people have a totally different attitude towards sharing things online to people in their 50s and 60s because they’ve been exposed to it from birth when their parents posted photos of them on Facebook,’ he says. ‘This might, at least in the Anglo-Saxon countries, bring about a relaxation of people caring so much about the sharing of their lives online.’
Cyber security arms race
However, privacy in the broader sense is a major concern for tech companies and cyber security is, as Doil Son, a partner at Yulchon in South Korea and chair of the Intrusive Technologies Subcommittee of the IBA Technology Law Committee, says ‘the key part of the network era’.
Delaney at Morrison & Foerster notes that ‘there’s a huge movement to more and more tracking, more and more delivering of adverts for things we don’t even know we want, but at the same time there’s a growing backlash on the privacy side – your car used to be a private place, but now it’s being tracked and listening habits are being monitored’.
It is no surprise, then, that Derek Colla, an associate in Cooley’s Washington, DC office, says that much of the cash that is funding technological innovation is being targeted at developing cyber security.
It’s clear that all the money is chasing cyber security. There’s an arms race [between] both government and non-governmental bodies
Cooley, Washington, DC
‘I do a lot of work for early-stage companies and venture capitalists and right now it’s clear that all the money is chasing cyber security,’ he says. ‘There’s an arms race [between] both government and non-governmental bodies. There’s a push-pull of having the best security and also a backdoor to allow the monitoring of certain things, but if you need a backdoor for someone then anyone can exploit that. There’s no perfect solution, but there’s a lot of money going into it because it matters a lot – look at what happened to Sony [which was allegedly hacked by North Korea]. No one wants that to happen to them.’
However people or businesses view privacy or security, what seems clear is that technology is set to play an even greater role in everyone’s life, with all but the most reclusive of hermits being connected with the rest of the world in some shape or form. There may be areas of significant disruption, but the smaller changes that technology will bring to everyday life could be just as transformational on an individual level.
As Small says: ‘The idea of permanent connectivity will be with us – I can’t imagine there will be any blackspots, even on Dartmoor or up a hill on the Isle of Lewis. It will be an always-on culture and that means the concept of going to work and going home will be obsolescent. People’s lives will merge between work, home and the other interests they have. The BlackBerry started it, but smartphones and universal connectivity will finish it. The issue will be how the hell do you switch off?’
Margaret Taylor is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at email@example.com