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Technology and the converging digital world

The advances in technology are inexorable and they are shaping our lives. Technology however should not be perceived as an exogenous force upon which we cannot have any control, but as an invitation to reflect on our role in this world, a digital world which is converging around us.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution now upon us, we are living in a new digital world which according to Thomas Friedman has; (a) integrated circuits on microchips, (b) memory units to store information, (c) networks that help to enhance communication, (d) software applications that provide a direct link to consumers’ needs, and (e) sensor capacity that allows artificial intelligence to analyse most things which were previously only accessible to the human mind.

This revolution is the result of ‘technological convergence’, which can be described as the concept of merging, blending, integrating and transforming independent and previously unrelated technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain and Virtual Reality (VR). Joined together, a completely new technology is created, integrating the physical, digital and virtual worlds. Converged technologies possess three characteristics; multiple functions, data collection and use, and ubiquitous access.

The IoT is a system of devices that are connected to a network and each other, exchanging data without necessarily requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. In other words, IoT is a collection of electronic devices that can share information among themselves (e.g., smart home devices). The IoT possess all three characteristics of converged technologies: multiple functions, data collection and use, and ubiquitous access. Various categories of IoT include industrial internet of things, internet of medical things, smart city infrastructures, and smart home devices.

Emerging technologies, particularly AI, blockchain and the IoT are expected to play key roles. However, such interplay of technologies will rely on another important component, being, big data. Data is the lifeblood of any business, and those that leverage its use will have a competitive edge over their competitors. In today’s world we have a digital persona interacting online as well as all kinds of sensors such as cameras, software, mobiles and IoT sensors that collect and transfer all sorts of data to the digital world. Moreover, the digital world provides ways for this data to be accessed and then utilised as well in the analogue world. VR takes things to the next level, allowing us to step into this digital world, interact with it as well as learn from it.

The ultimate technology breakthrough can be experienced when we leverage the integration of IoT, AI, fog computing, machine learning blockchain and big data. For instance, consider an autonomous car. With distributed and increasingly cost-effective AI engines, the vehicle can make decisions based on the massive amounts of high integrity, immutable on-chain data that is processed by fog nodes. Such technology envisages the possibility of an autonomous car that can intelligently and safely navigate with little to no human intervention, a feat that would not be possible with traditional data analysis and traditional computer and networking solutions.  Technological convergence is so far reaching that it would be hard to find a business or human activity that is not considered as a target for AI in future years and decades.

Technological convergence however may also spark several issues. Amongst these, converged technology may pose technical, social, legal as well as regulatory challenges. Initially, the standards and oversight policies for a specific technology were established independently. Interestingly, EU lawmakers foresaw the emergence of technological convergence from as early as 2002, demanding for convergence-aware regulatory treatment of telecoms, broadcasting, and information society services. In this instance regulators still maintained the one to one relationship with the regulated entity and the regulated services adopting principles like technology neutrality and functional equivalence.

Regulating a converging technology, which is a result of blending or integrating multiple technologies, can however be more challenging. This is because (1) the one-to-one relationship between a converging technology and a regulatory entity is no longer clear, and (2) a converging technology may create a new sector where a regulatory entity has not been identified.

The fusion of the digital and physical worlds will undoubtedly bring about new risks, forcing us to redefine and change many of our laws and policies to mitigate such risks and foster the safe functioning of the new digital economy.

In this converging new world, certain characteristics still have a ubiquitous scope. Firstly, certain software exists across a wide spectrum of devices, resulting in a modern society that largely relies on functions and features nascent from software across different sectors, and this in turn can be its Achilles heel. Secondly, whilst it is undeniable that technological transformation and innovation bring new features and functions nascent from merging technologies, the human brain and workmanship still underpin such functions and features. Moreover, even the end users of such technologies are ultimately human. Thus, even in such new converged technologies, any elements of ubiquitous software containing perennial security issues will ultimately impact humans as the end users. With such a dependence on the ubiquitous software elements, the regulatory focus should not focus exclusively on the new converged technologies, but also consider carefully the software used in sensitive cases, which effects human rights, and which can affect the social fabric of our society.

Regulation must adapt in order to avoid functional equivalence fallacies and inapplicable regulatory silos.  To ensure technological transparency, safety critical areas of operations like health sectors, energy or where any technology can be autonomous and its output functions can have negative effects on our rights and alter the fabric of our society, need to be clearly defined. Coders and developers creating software falling in these safety critical categories need to be warranted or licensed like other professionals in society. Software together with its functions and features will also need to be audited with means to identify and rectify fault, tested and certified. It is also imperative that any input data used by software including big data is ascertained and trustworthy. The regulatory mindset here needs to evolve, and we must install proper governance structures with accountability and transparency obligations into a sector which is currently very opaque. This in turn will lead us to rethink and apply new and effective ways to tackle legal responsibility and liability in this new converged environment, thus installing more certainty around us.  The trust element in a converged digital world must start from here and technology will need to be trustworthy by design.

Ian Gauci is the Managing partner at GTG Advocates, Afilexion Alliance & Caledo Group. He lectures on Legal Futures and Technology at the University of Malta.

This publication is provided for your convenience and does not constitute legal advice.

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