News last week of the first driverless cars being tested on UK streets puts the spotlight on how technology, that was once the preserve of Scifi cinema, is now becoming an almost-mundane daily reality. The current pace of technological change is unlike any other that the business world has experienced. Today the digital revolution impacts not just how companies communicate with their stakeholders, or how their services are delivered, but in many instances is changing their very essence too.

As David Kirkpatrick famously said (technology journalist, Forbes contributor and author of The Facebook Effect) “Ford sells computers-on-wheels. Mckinsey hawks consulting-in-a-box. FedEx boasts a developer skunkworks. The era of separating traditions industries and technology industries is over – and those who fail to adapt right now will soon find themselves obsolete”.

The truth is that every business is becoming a tech company, software house or data repository. As companies rise to the challenge of keeping up with the pace of digital transformation, if companies are to survive and thrive, they need to be aware just how fundamentally this changes their opportunity/risk matrix. Legal risks are mutating in this changed environment. Businesses need to run very fast just to keep up.

Many of the developments we are talking about in this context may sound like concepts from a science fiction novel, worthy of I, Robot creator Isaac Asimov. But the truth is the future is right here, right now. And businesses miss this point at their peril.

We already have computers that can emulate human thought processes – in fact that can even program themselves (cognitive artificial intelligence such as Watson and DeepMind is already here); and we already have robots that can provide a better interface with the public than their human counterparts, the London Borough of Enfield’s ‘cognitive robot’ council worker Amelia being the iconic example, designed to make decisions and track human emotions - and being far more accurate in the information she disseminates to enquiring local residents.

Indeed this is a story that is not confined to any one sector; it applies to businesses across the board:

To start, let’s look at the simplest example: how driverless car technology is challenging automotive manufacturers with the conundrum of whose fault it is in law when something goes wrong. Is it the computer programmer’s? The manufacturer’s? At what point does a human driver have responsibility to wrest control back from the automaton when something goes wrong? At what point do they concede liability if they fail to do this?

Now let’s look at another sector: the use of drones in construction projects is becoming commonplace, the ‘drone’s eye view’ replacing the classic ‘bird’s eye view’ in construction parlance and greatly reducing the labour and time involved in producing accurate surveys; not to mention the use of virtual reality to enable potential property purchasers to view real estate without leaving their homes/desks, and to take a tour of a site the exact same time someone else is doing the same, negating the need to schedule separate appointments.

And another: the financial services sector is adapting to change by embracing “Fintech”. Examples include new encryption technologies around Bitcoin (a virtual currency to facilitate trading online) and Blockchain (in short a public ledger for transactions where each step is recorded in a separate ‘block’ that is validated and linked to the parties’ proven identifies to avoid fraud and provide a permanent, traceable record. This is driving a need amongst the major financial players to collaborate with newer more tech-savvy (non-traditional) partners. Whether through M&A activity (i.e. ‘buying in’ the new skill-sets they need); or through joint ventures; or via looser business collaborations; the reality is that the financial sector is having to open up to relationships with very unfamiliar entities. And of course with unfamiliarity, comes increased business risk. Is the commercial world ready?

In truth, ready or not the digital revolution is already under way and the pace of change will only accelerate. The question is whether businesses are going into it with their eyes wide open. The future is now. It’s not a matter of preparing for futuristic change coming down the line. The future is here. And businesses need to make sure they have all their bases covered.

This article was first published in The Times on 20 October 2016 -