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Legal Technology

Understanding Exponential Tech Growth and its Impact on the Legal System

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Failure to grasp the true nature of exponential technological change could have profound consequences for the legal system and all who participate in it

It has become axiomatic that we are in a period of rapidly accelerating technological change, and that technology itself has become a force of both disruption and innovation. What most people do not understand is that the type of change we are experiencing is exponential in nature, not linear, and is therefore accelerating at a much faster rate than most human beings can even begin to comprehend.

Failure to grasp the true nature of technological disruption has profound consequences for the legal system and all who participate in it. In the next ten years, the courts will be flooded with challenges arising from technologies that flout and circumvent existing law, and if the legal system itself fails to adapt and improve — if, that is, the resources required to address these challenges are insufficient — the stress on the system could be profoundly destabilizing.

And yes, even destructive.

What Is “Exponential” Growth?

One of the most useful evolutionary adaptations of the human mind is its ability to create mental shortcuts to facilitate quick judgments in situations where the available information is incomplete or overwhelming. Human beings experience time linearly, and these mental shortcuts have allowed us to out-maneuver other species and create a world in which quick thinking in linear time has thus far ensured our survival.

Unfortunately, one enormous downside to a daily deluge of mental shortcuts is the human mind’s inability to accurately conceptualize exponential growth. A few years ago, in order to illustrate this exponential blind spot, Mother Jones magazine published an article that calculated how long it would take to fill Lake Michigan on an exponential basis. The question posed was this: How long would it take to fill Lake Michigan if you started with an ounce of water and doubled it every 18 months?

The answer is that the lake would be completely filled after 85 years. But the interesting thing about it, from an exponential standpoint, is that almost all of the water volume expands in the last five years:

      •        60 years — the bottom on the lake is somewhat damp
      •        70 years — a few puddles
      •        80 years — forty feet of water
      •        85 years — completely full (roughly 500 feet in average depth)

In this example, the 85-year time frame was used because computer chips were invented in 1940, putting us at the 79-year mark of the evolution of digital technology. The 18-month time frame was chosen because that is the speed at which, according to Moore’s Law, computer chip speed doubles.

Implications for the Future

As you can see, if these calculations are even close to being correct, we are now on the cusp of an almost unfathomable explosion of technological power. From 2000 to 2015 (puddles), we saw the growth of smartphones, Wi-Fi, tablets, GPS, social media, and thousands of other technologies, all driven by faster components, more sophisticated communication networks, hyper-connectivity, and Big Data. Since 2015 (20-30 feet of water), rapid developments in machine-learning algorithms, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and “smart” technology have spawned yet another explosion of new technologies and innovations, all simultaneously co-evolving, converging, complementing, and competing with each other.

And the big fun hasn’t even started yet.

What this means for the legal system is that the rule of law is about to be challenged from thousands of different directions by a society that has yet to understand the unintended consequences of its love affair with technology.

Indeed, the cracks and fissures are already forming. Cybercriminals steal and sell personal information; social media holds massive sway over global politics; workers are displaced by automation; economic inequality is growing; data-privacy issues proliferate everywhere, as do criminal crypto-currencies; and we see ever more creative forms of electronic fraud and cyber espionage. These are all harbingers of legal entanglements to come.

New technologies beget new ethical questions and legal quandaries, and it is the law’s responsibility to respond, even if the resources at its disposal are not ideal. At the moment, America’s courts are trapped between the desire for technologically seamless systems and the practical challenges of implementing them.

So, while enthusiasm builds for the possibilities inherent in such technologies as artificial intelligence and blockchain, many court jurisdictions around the country are still working to digitize their paper records. Likewise, the technological backbone of most current city, county, and state court systems is still a vexing hodgepodge of legacy IT systems, incompatible software programs, inaccessible databases, and aging computers. The system continues to chug along, but the society it serves is reaching an inflection point that will require a much more responsive judiciary, one strengthened and supported by legal technologies that may not even exist yet.

That is of course the good news: exponentially hyper-accelerated technological change has the potential to solve a great many problems very quickly, including the legal system’s legendary intransigence. But it won’t happen soon enough unless legislators and court leaders respond to the era’s technological challenges with the appropriate sense of urgency.

Linear thinking won’t get us here; the necessary response will only grow out of an understanding of — and respect for — the transformational power of exponential tech growth, for both good and ill.

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