There has been a lot of talk about how ‘blockchain’, ‘machine learning’, and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) will ‘disrupt’ everything. How it will automate jobs, challenge existing business models, and overhaul the legal industry. But there haven’t been a lot of tangible examples of how this will occur.
This article aims to provide a snapshot of some of the technologies that are being developed, their practical applications, and the implications for businesses and legal advisers.
Automating Contract Administration
At a recent BIM (Building Information Modelling) seminar for Engineers Australia, Daniel Kalnins of Ridley demonstrated the fruits of a hackathon between Ridley and Google company Flux. The system allowed users to document the progress of work on site with mobile phones and tablets. This was then automatically processed and presented for project controls staff in an easy to follow dashboard.
This technology has tremendous promise, automating the leg work of reporting and allowing for tighter management of projects. Building on this functionality, additional capabilities could be readily added, such as:
Automatically generating chronologies of the actual progress of the project, which would link to the data used to produce the chronologies (to assist with continual improvement and dispute resolution);
Use of algorithms to detect when the risk of schedule slip reaches a certain level, and automatically identify the source of those risks;
Faster generation of payment claims and payment schedules;
Cutting the cost and delay of dispute resolution by functioning as an automatically generated ‘agreed bundle’ for the mediator/arbitrator/judge;
Automatically alerting users when notification requirements are triggered by events in the project. This would be assisted if these requirements were written in pseudo code in the contract, which would allow a computer to reliably scan contracts and automatically set up the alerts;
Electronic scoring of work by site inspectors where payments are a function of factors such as quality of materials and workmanship.
Automating Copyright Infringement Detection
Samuel Brooks of Sydney-based company, Veredictum, is solving the problem of copyright infringement where videos are copied without consent and shared on social media.
The service embeds an artist’s video with a unique marker which Veredictum searches for when users pay it to look for any infringing copies of the video. The task of searching such a large space is divided up by Veredictum and automatically outsourced to private computers. Veredictum then uses the Ethereum blockchain to record and verify the correctness of the search results. When infringements are detected the system generates infringement notices which can then be sent to the owner of the site that is hosting the infringing copies of the videos. It also employs a ‘Minority Report’ style procedure to resolve disputes – for example, when three computers search the same block of data but only one asserts that it detected an infringement.
Veredictum demonstrates how decentralised computing can be used to tackle huge repetitive tasks that are simply too time-consuming and expensive to do manually. Services like this are critical for maintaining the value copyrighted works in the social media age.
This technology could also potentially be employed to search social media sites for any comments made by a claimant relevant to their claim – a useful tool for plaintiff and defendant firms alike.
Property and Security Registries
The core function of blockchain technology is to serve as a reliable registry to record changes in the state of something (e.g. ownership of property). for instance, the Bitcoin blockchain records the changes in ownership, and issuing, of bitcoins.
The Ethereum blockchain is the next generation, it allows users to write ‘smart contracts’ so that more sophisticated transactions can be recorded on a blockchain. Smart contracts allow us to customise the attributes of the object to be tracked on the blockchain, the conditions and constraints on who can make changes to the attributes of that object, and what the effect of those changes will be. For example, smart contracts can be used to record interests in property, establish private carbon trading schemes, or issue vouchers and gift cards for retailers.
The problem that blockchain solves can be explained by reference to the old system for tracking ownership and interests in land. The risks of fraud, lost records, and subsequent discovery of third-party interests led to the necessity of establishing the Torrens system. Similarly, blockchain performs this roll of a common registry that can reliably track the changing ownership and interests in an object. However, the cost is reduced by having computers administrate the registry, and data preservation is improved by decentralised storage of the registry.
The next step is the development of contracts that are increasingly self-executing. For example, sensors (e.g. temperature, accelerometers, humidity etc) can be installed to measure the status of freight or buildings, that data can be transmitted to the cloud using low-power wide-area (LPWA) IoT communications technology, then fed into a smart contract via Oracalize or processed on an IoT platform like IBM Watson IoT. Australian businesses like Wisen are already offering IoT solutions that could be integrated with smart contracts.
We are also seeing other Australian IoT businesses, such as Wirefree and Blue IoT, offering IoT solutions for homes and offices. This makes the ‘infrastructure as a service’ business model available to the commercial and residential market, and in turn enables payment to be a function of on-going performance (e.g. running costs, maintenance costs, air temperature and humidity thresholds etc etc).
As the sophistication of these business models develops, it will become necessary to express the basis for calculating performance payments in code and demonstrate it to avoid disagreements (starting out, this could be done in an Excel document, or a smart contract stored on the blockchain).
Another foreseeable application would be in the construction industry. Project bank accounts might be administered using smart contracts. Or sub-contractors could receive an alert if the head contractor or employer’s account drops below a certain level, they might then be entitled to stop work until there are sufficient funds in the account to cover the rest of the work.
Wills as Smart Contracts
Imagine a world where wills were self-interpreting (i.e. enter in the facts and it tells you the division of assets and interests) and could not be misplaced?
It is foreseeable that a will could be converted into a smart contract and stored on the blockchain. Converting a will into code would also allow for it to be tested in advance to ensure that it divided up the assets as intended. This would allow lawyers to demonstrate the will for their clients, applying the various scenarios, and to confirm that it functions in accordance with their wishes. Concerns over bugs etc could be addressed with proper commenting of the code, and storage of the final version of the code using IPFS.
Machine Learning as an Assistant
The other major area of change will be where services and systems employ machine learning to cut down the leg work of traditionally time-intensive activities such as tender evaluations, contract analysis, discovery, and progress reporting. Computers can be trained to do a first pass over a large volume of documents and flag parts of those documents for risks, relevance, or general importance to the decisions the user needs to make.
This could also be applied in personal injury matters to reduce the work of evidence gathering. For example, the client enters in the details of their health care providers and the program automatically fills out the record requests to be sent out.
The future is uncertain, but that just makes it interesting
What all this means is that the game is changing:
Advisers need to be able to understand how these innovations work so that they can anticipate and deal with the issues that will arise, as established business models are threatened and legislators struggle to keep up. (i.e. ‘you can’t manage what you don’t understand’).
And the role of computer scientists and engineers as expert witnesses will likely increase, where questions arise as to the cause of unexpected results from autonomous systems and smart contracts.
If you’re working with smart contracts, IoT, or autonomous systems, Contact Us, we want to work with you. We can help with advice, dispute resolution, and assist with the development of hybrid legal instruments.