The Top Five Tech Trends
From a lawyer’s perspective.
There is so much going on in the world of tech at the moment that it is difficult to focus on any one thing and to separate the noise from what is really worth listening to.
With the established tech companies such as Apple, Google and Tesla all announcing new products each and every day it is often easy to miss those things that the big companies have little or no involvement with and which may well come to dominate our lives over the next few decades.
When you think about the humble Casio watch (which plenty of my friends still wear) and the Sony Walkman, wearable tech is hardly a new thing. It has been a part of our lives for decades and so it may seem strange to start a modern tech list by mentioning it.
Wearable tech is, however, being reborn. The Apple Watch allows you to leave the house with you needing little more than a phone in your pocket (which soon you won’t need either). You can make payments using it, listen to music through it, and it will even act as stamp sized sat nav! There is even an implantable chip that can be put into your hand to allow you to open doors and pay for food – something that is beyond the traditional “wearable”.
But it is not just the consumer market that is seeing major change. Wearable tech is now becoming a huge part of the workplace. A study by Zebra Technologies found that one-half of 1,100 surveyed ‘decision makers’ in the manufacturing industry planned to deploy wearable tech with their employees by 2022.
One of the major elements (and commercial benefits) of wearable tech is its ability to collect even more data about us. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Health insurance that provides us with free coffees and cinema tickets, because of steps logged through a Fitbit or Apple Watch, is definitely welcomed by me. But, with the biggest overhaul to data protection law in twenty years underway in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation companies are going to have to get smarter about the way in which they collect that data, whether they have the correct consent, and then what they do with it.
Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)
AR and VR are not just about wearing silly looking, oversized headwear (although it is a large part of it)! Nor is it likely to be just another fad that fades away, in the same way that 3D TVs appear to be.
But what is the difference between the two of them? Put simply, AR places computer-generated enhancements over the top of reality while VR allows you to enter an entirely different world. So, with AR, when you look through your phone or put on special glasses, it changes the environment that you see around you or puts things on top of it. This could mean that you see directions appearing on the road as you ride your bike or it could mean seeing your favourite Pokémon dancing in front of you. This is opposed to VR, where, when you put on a headset or glasses, you are effectively looking at screens that will react to you – whether it be through moving your head or even as your heart rate changes. With VR you can enter video games or your favourite movie and feel like you are really there as the action unfolds.
But AR and VR are not just about providing entertainment for the home. They both have real world applications and are slowly becoming more mainstream. AR can allow designers to view their creations as they progress through development. It can allow stores to show how certain items would look in your home. VR can provide a property developer with how a building or room may look once finished or be used to help combat mental health problems.
But who owns virtual spaces? A recent collaboration between Snapchat and sculptor Jeff Koons saw the “installation” of virtual sculptures throughout Central Park which could be viewed in augmented reality through your phone. Graffiti artist Sebastian Errazuriz objected to this, arguing that “The virtual public space belongs to us, we should charge them rent.” He then created his own app, allowing you to view the virtual sculptures, but covered in graffiti.
This may seem like a ridiculous thing to argue over but there are many legal pitfalls that could arise in virtual spaces. Should firms declare product placement within VR and AR spaces? Could Snapchat or Jeff Koons object to Sebastian’s use and defacing of their virtual sculptures? As is often the case with tech, the law is lagging behind and so only time will tell as to how these questions will be answered.
With an aging population and longer lifer spans, assisted living tech is going to become more and more important.
You may well have seen attempts by candidates on the BBC’s The Apprentice to create a robot that could help with reciting recipes and reminding you to take your pills, but the real assisted living tech is far more sophisticated.
Sensors placed in a bed can track respirations, heart rate and the number of times someone gets out of bed in the night. This can help with detecting health issues at an early stage. Be My Eyes is an app which allows people from around the world to provide sight for those that are visually impaired, which can help with telling a person the expiry date on a product or finding a lost item.
With the arrival of the Internet of Things and Smart Homes, a lot of the innovations that we enjoy at home, such as smart speakers, lights and locks, are also providing huge benefits to those who need care at home. One centre in Missouri, USA, found that sensor-enabled monitoring nearly doubled the length of time residents were staying in independent living.
Who becomes responsible for the risk of injury or death where there is reliance on assisted living tech? As families and care providers begin to use tech more, there will be the inevitable progression toward less face-to-face contact. What then happens when a heart rate sensor fails or a smart lock won’t open when a home is on fire? Companies will obviously owe a certain level of care in relation to their products but there is also a level of care owed by those that run care homes or independent living centres towards their residents. When there are failures that could have been avoided by more regular human presence a judges is unlikely to be sympathetic with a carer putting blame on the failed tech.
Right now, no tech list could exist without mentioning cryptocurrencies.
The common perception is that cryptocurrency is part of the more sinister side of the internet, specifically the Dark Web, but it is in fact becoming more and more mainstream with all kinds of people investing and trading in it.
Cryptocurrency has two sides to it. Firstly there are the likes of Bitcoin and Litecoin, which are equivalent to the pound or the dollar. They are intended as a form of currency to be used to buy and sell products and services. At the moment though there are few places where they are accepted and so their value is based more on potential future utility than actual current use.
The second side to cryptocurrency is that of initial coin offerings (ICOs). This is a way for companies to raise funds, similar to crowdfunding, by offering a digital currency instead of shares. There are hundreds of these kinds of coins out there and more are appearing all the time. These range from the well known multi-million dollar Ethereum to Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah’s recently co-founded cryptocurrency called Cream (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”) Dividends.
With new currencies appearing all the time it is going to be a while before we have a true idea of what cryptocurrencies mean for the world. Governments are scrabbling to understand how they will fit into the wider economy and, importantly, how to regulate them, but their continuing growth and popularity would suggest that they are here to stay.
Cryptocurrencies are a legal minefield. They are heavily unregulated and prone to fraud and scams, but they could well be the future.
ICOs are proving to be a popular way to raise funds for companies, without the usual constraints of national company law. Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, decentralise the control of currencies and have the potential to revolutionise the way we hold our hard earned cash and how we spend, send and receive it.
Governments are slowly coming round to regulating but at the moment it is very piecemeal. It may be that laws are brought in which prevent cryptocurrencies but hopefully we will see more innovative law making that will allow them to grow in a safer environment for the consumer.
Behind cryptocurrencies there is blockchain and tech commentators are arguably more excited about this then they are about cryptocurrency. Blockchain is a way to track and organise transactions and this can be in relation to the tangible (houses and cars) and the intangible (currency and patents).
A simple way to understand blockchain is to think about the way we currently trade items. When you buy a car, you go to a dealer who has a list of all the cars that they have bought and sold. Similarly the manufacturer has a list of the all the cars it has sold to the dealer. When the car moves from one party to the other, however, the party that has transferred the car no longer has any interest in where it has gone. The information on the car is just stored on their particular ledger for the point in time in which they possess it.
With blockchain, the information relating to the car and its journey is stored in multiple places across a network that allows you to see where it is now and where it has been in the past. It makes it easier to keep track of products and to understand its lifecycle. Because the information is stored on multiple ledgers (as opposed to just the one owned by the car dealer), it can make data far more secure and a lot harder to alter.
There were more than 26,000 new blockchain projects last year, but only 8% are still active. This shouldn’t, however, be seen as a failure in blockchain but instead indicates the level of interest and how much potential for growth there is.
Law itself is one of the areas that could be revolutionised by blockchain. The use of smart contracts, contracts that can self execute upon the completion of certain requirements (such as the payment of the deposit for a lease and confirmation that an environmental report has been completed), could vastly speed up the way that we agree terms. Where terms are non-negotiable, such as signing up for Sky (they use DocuSign) or when hiring a car, smart contracts can be used to quickly speed up the way in which we get from agreeing to pay for a service and then being able to access it.
Will this mean the end of lawyers?! I hope not but it could definitely see a change in the way that we operate and practice.