The Metaphorical Glass Jaw

As I get older (maybe not necessarily wiser), I feel that as a society, we are becoming far less tolerant and yet far more sensitive – something of a paradox, possibly linked to a decline in personal resilience and a lack of quality and robustness in public discourse. And for a country that is both a secular state and a liberal democracy (and definitely not a theocracy), there has been a surprising amount of debate in Australia recently, about the need for a new or revised “freedom of religion“.

John Stuart Mill – Image sourced from Wikimedia

Much of the commentary has been prompted by the thoughtless and potentially harmful remarks by a professional sports player, who espouses a particularly fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Because the very public expression of his personal beliefs led to the termination of his employment, this has been interpreted as a curtailment of the player’s freedom of religion.

Without getting too legalistic (and there is an administrative review pending), the player’s public statements were out of line with the social values and civil rights espoused by his employer – to the extent that they could bring this particular sporting code into disrepute. It was also a repeat incident. At the very least, these comments could have led to a reduction in the employer’s revenue from sponsors or spectators. (And let’s consider that his comments drew so much attention because he had the privilege of a public platform, one which came as a result of his employment status and his professional profile.)

According to this player’s particular creed, his human-constructed belief system permits, condones and even encourages the use of language that bullies and belittles people who don’t adhere to his own views on sexuality, lifestyle choices or even “belief” itself. While much has been said about the homophobic nature of the said player’s tweet, let’s not forget he also targeted atheists in the same context, simply because they are non-believers.

As I frequently tell customer call centres, who often like to blame the “system” for their own organisation’s failings, a system is only as reliable as the people who design and run it. So, if being an adherent to a particular belief system means you have to hold and profess abhorrent views, especially those that are out of step with civil society, then clearly there is something at fault at the heart of that mechanism.

I recently heard a speech by a retired judge on human rights and civil liberties. He referred to an aphorism attributed to John Stuart Mill, in connection with his treatise “On Liberty”, and the harm principle:

“Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins”

In other words, you may be free to say what you like, but Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative freedom means that (despite Voltaire’s standpoint in defence of free speech) even your verbal punches are not permitted to interfere with or harm someone else’s rights – yet alone instill in them a fear for their personal safety and human dignity.

Nowadays, some might say that too many people are prone to having a metaphorical glass jaw – that they take offence too easily, and seek to find malicious intent in any views or comments that they find objectionable or that do not accord with their own world view. Equally, people can (metaphorically) stick their jaw out, seeking to provoke a reaction by drawing attention to themselves, so that they can claim “foul” when they bang up against a countervailing fist. The boundary between personal rights and freedom of expression is becoming increasingly blurred.

When it comes to calls for the special protection (and even promotion) of religious freedoms, I have something of a problem. Quite apart from the entrenched social prejudices inherent in many organised religions, it seems incongruous that such institutions can claim tax benefits as charitable bodies, and receive public funding while enjoying exemptions from certain anti-discrimination laws.

Although we don’t have a law against heresy in Australia, we still have blasphemy laws in most States. Even though they are rarely invoked, the fact that they exist reinforces the notion that far from needing a “freedom of religion”, religious beliefs are somehow already seen to be above the law. Surely, in a multi-cultural, secular and pluralistic society, religious beliefs will have to take their chances alongside (and rub up against) the rest of human constructs and natural systems – science, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, sociology.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Health Tech & Med Tech Pitch Night

 

 

 

 

Separating the Truth from the Facts

There was almost a look of horror on Rudy Giuliani‘s face when he realised what he had done in saying “Truth isn’t truth”. His reputation as New York Mayor at its most challenging time, not to say his career as a lawyer, may have been completely undone by this latest pronouncement on behalf of an administration that has increasing difficulty in separating facts from fiction (or “real fakes” from mere “fabrication”?).

“Doh!” Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

In our post-truth age, one where we have had to accommodate “alternative facts” and “fake news”, language, if not the truth, is usually the first casualty in this war of, and on words themselves.

If one was being charitable, it could be argued that the struggle between “facts” and “truth” is like the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism: so, in the former, words have a finite meaning when used in a particular way or structure; whereas in the latter, the same words can have different meanings depending on the context of the audience.

But rather than critical theory, I think we are actually dealing with a phenomenon I first encountered about 20 years ago, while working in China. A report in the China Daily regarding a constitutional matter that was before the courts said that in order to fully understand the issue, it was “important to separate the truth from the facts…”.

Next week: The party’s over

 

Startup Vic’s Professional Services Pitch Night

For the first of Startup Vic’s monthly pitch nights for 2018, professional services were put under the spotlight. There is a public dialogue on the types and numbers of roles that will disappear due to automation (the professions are no different) and here were four startups seeking to engage in that conversation. Assuming that every industry and every occupation is vulnerable to disruption (and should be alert to the potential opportunities that presents), why should accountants and lawyers feel left out?

Image sourced from Startup Vic Meetup page

Myaccountant

With the promise of enabling users to lodge their BAS return from a smart phone, this app is aimed at micro businesses that struggle with bookkeeping and accounting tasks. Since accounting software packages do not support direct BAS lodgement (although expect this to change…), the app charges $39 per BAS, with no bookkeeping or accounting fees, and shares the fee with the accountants who do the lodgement.

The app is able to extract data from vendor APIs such as Expert360, Airtasker, Uber, etc., and connect to users’ bank accounts. Since launching in January, the app has generated 200 sign ups, with very little direct marketing or paid acquisition so far. The app is also aiming to achieve ISO 27000 (information security).

The panel of judges would have liked to have heard more about the acquisition strategy, and how the app deals with income and expense categorisation, different tax rates, zero rated items, and export sales etc. They also wondered about the competition, and overseas markets

Contractprobe

Developed by Neural Contract, this product uses machine learning to review contracts in 60 seconds. Using a scoring model, it rates documents according to established best practice and bench-marking, suggest sample text for missing clauses, and identifies problems found.

The service is available for ad hoc use, under a monthly subscription, or as custom packages.

According to the founders, the service can save 40% of the time usually spent on contract reviews. It offers a high level of privacy – the uploaded contract, report and transaction ID is deleted upon completion (although it wasn’t clear what records are retained for the purposes of clause analysis, data and analytics – including client profiling and user context.)

To reassure any lawyers in the audience, the product stills relies on human input to apply judgment to the choice of clauses, for example. However, a clear value of the review process is ensuring that phrases and key words are properly defined in the contract.

The judges wondered where this product fits in with open source documentation and pre-drafted documents, whether there are specific verticals more suited to this service, and what trust and liability issues might arise. Is it more of a “clause-spotter” rather than an expert system? How does it address statutory clauses, and the question of whether clauses are actually enforceable?

The service has about 40 clients, including law firms, and is now moving into corporate clients.

Businest

This product is designed to help with cashflow management, which the founders describe as an “iceberg” issue. They point to data that suggests 87% of SMEs have issues with cashflow.

Claiming to use AI to coach SMEs and accountants, the goal is to allow business owners to focus on what they do best, and move accountants from “compliance to advisory”. Applying its own algorithm to cashflow analysis, the service also provides training content to advisors.

Offering both SME and advisor pricing models, the founders have launched a pilot with MYOB. They also point to market research and commentary (CEDR, AFR, CPA, CA…) that indicates the market wants it.

The judges felt that the banks won’t rush to endorse the service (although under the open banking data protocol, they won’t be able to prevent customers linking their accounts) because they are used to the interest they charge on overdraft facilities and credit cards.

Brandollo

This is a marketing tech start-up, aimed at SMEs that struggle to access tailored advice. Targeting B2B clients, in the professional services sector,  with less than 80 staff.

Briefly referring to the use of AI and ML, the service claims to reduce marketing costs by 80%. It offers a brand gap analysis and makes recommendations, that can be implemented without external help. The process looks at execution issues, content requirements, and actual solutions.

Aiming for 200,000 clients in 5 years (currently standing at 200+), the main competitor is Benchmarketing. Brandello offers a freemium model, with a 3-tier paid-for service. They can connect clients to experts, provide a quote to execute and then take a commission on the resulting solution.

 

Based on the judges’ verdict, the winner was Myaccountant. While the people’s choice was a tie between Myaccountant and Contractprobe.

Next week: The General Taxonomy for Cryptographic Assets

Law and Technology – when AI meets Smart Contracts…

Among the various ‘X’-Tech start-up themes (e.g., FinTech, EdTech, MedTech, InsurTech) one of the really interesting areas is LegTech (aka LawTech), and its close cousin, RegTech. While it’s probably some time before we see a fully automated justice system, where cases are decided by AI and judgments are delivered by robots, there are signs that legal technology is finally coming into its own. Here’s a very personal perspective on law and technology:

Photo by Lonpicman via Wikimedia Commons

1. Why are lawyers often seen as technophobes or laggards, yet in the 1980s and 1990s, they were at the vanguard of new technology adoption?

In the 1970s, law firms invested in Telex and document exchange (remember DX?) to communicate and to share information peer-to-peer. Then came the first online legal research databases (Lexis and Westlaw) which later gave rise to “public access” platforms such as AustLII and its international counterparts.

Lawyers were also among the first professional service firms to invest in Word Processing (for managing and drafting precedents) and e-mail (for productivity). Digitization meant that huge print libraries of reference materials (statutes and case-law) could be reduced to a single CD-ROM. Law firms were early adopters of case, practise, document and knowledge management tools – e.g., virtual document discovery rooms, precedent banks, drafting tools.

2. But, conversely, why did the legal profession seem to adopt less-optimal technology?

The trouble with being early adopters can mean you don’t make the right choices. For example, law firms in the 80s and 90s seemed to demonstrate a preference for Lotus Notes (not Outlook), Wang Computers and WordStar (not IBM machines or MS Office Word), and DOS-based interfaces (rather than GUIs).

Some of the first CD-ROM publications for lawyers were hampered by the need to render bound volumes as exact facsimiles of the printed texts (partly so lawyers and judges could refer to the same page/paragraph in open court). There was a missed opportunity to use the technology to its full potential.

3. On the plus side, legal technology is having a significant a role to play…

…in law creation (e.g., parliamentary drafting and statute consolidation), the administration of law (delivery of justice, court room evidence platforms, live transcripts, etc.), legal practice (practice management tools) and legal education (research, teaching, assessment, accreditation). Plus, decision support systems combining rules-based logic, precedent and machine learning, especially in the application of alternative dispute resolution.

4. Where next?

In recent years, we have seen a growing number of “virtual” law firms, that use low-cost operating models to deliver custom legal advice through a mix of freelance, part-time and remote lawyers who mainly engage with their clients online.

Blockchain solutions are being designed to register and track assets for the purposes of wills and trusts, linked to crypto-currency tokens and ID management for streamlining the transfer of title. Governments and local authorities are exploring the use of distributed ledger technology to manage land title registration, vehicle and driver registration, fishing permits and the notion of “digital citizenship”.

We are seeing the use of smart contracts powered by oracles on the Ethereum blockchain to run a range of decision-making, transactional, financial, and micro-payment applications. (Although as one of my colleagues likes to quip, “smart contracts are neither smart nor legal”.)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being explored to “test” legal cases before they come to trial, and more knowledge management and collaboration tools will continue to lower the cost of legal advice (although I doubt we will see lawyers being totally disintermediated by robots, but their role will certainly change).

There is further opportunity to take some of the friction and costs out of the legal system to improve access to justice.

Finally, and this feels both exciting and scary, is the notion of “crowd-sourcing policy“; some governments are already experimenting with hackathons to develop policy-making models, and even the policies themselves. But this does sound like we would be moving closer and closer to government by mini-plebiscites, rather than by parliamentary democracy.

Next week: Digital currencies are the new portals