ILTACON Europe highlights – plus ILTA announces strategy review

ILTACON Europe last week saw organisers adopt a new formula for the London-based one-day event, at which president Ginevra Saylor announced that ILTA is undertaking a strategy review and encouraged members to get involved.

This year the conference content was led by its two chairs – Andrew Powell, CIO of Macfarlanes, and Damien Behan, IT director at Brodies.

Hosted by Allen & Overy, the conference was a breakaway from the legal IT specific content of previous years and smaller than before. Kicking off the conference, Powell said that he and Behan had organised content that they would like to hear, commenting: “If you don’t like it, we are squarely to blame, but if you do like it, we have been helped by a cast of many who we’d like to thank.”

The first two sessions were particular conversation starters. Dr Hannah Fry, professor of mathematics of cities at UCL (as well as some time TV personality) talked about the trouble with automating law. Used to inspiring her university students, Dr Fry was utterly engaging, kicking the session off by asking the audience to take part in a turing-esque ‘robot v machine’ test in which we had to guess which word was generated by someone in the audience v a machine – could we distinguish? When it came GDPR v November, the crowd was surprised (and amused) to find that it was a member of the audience that had selected November. But across countless experiments, Fry said, there are differences, and the purpose of the exercise, aside from ensuring everyone was awake, was to show that we cannot blindly rely on automation.

Dr Fry reminded us of a few hilarious examples of how humans in many instances have relied on machines in the face of entirely contradictory evidence, believing simply that the machine must be right. From Japanese tourists who nearly drove across the sea to an island in Australia because Sat Nav told them to, to a robot that directed entirely compliant people away from fire exits into a dark room when the building was filling up with smoke, as humans we appear to be wired to believe machines over our natural instincts.

Dr Fry looked at the example of algorithms that have been used to decide the way criminal proceedings go, from bail to sentencing. Nineteen-year-old Christopher Drew Brooks was convicted in 2018 of the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl who was his girlfriend at the time. During the trial, the algorithm assessed that if he could commit rape at 19, he had a lifetime of crime ahead of him. Had he been 36 – when the crime would in real life have been much worse – the sentence would have been lower. “Unfortunately, in this case, the sentence was increased on the say-so of the algorithm,” said Dr Fry. She added: “You could say ‘just do more data and the algorithm will do better’ and there was a time when I thought that was the case. But I don’t think we will ever get to the stage where algorithms can make decisions well – there is an irreducible randomness in the world and it doesn’t matter how far you go, there will always be things you can’t predict.”

While Dr Fry is a strong believer in the potential of AI to bring about radical change, her point was that algorithms are not to be relied on unquestioningly and without human supervision, which is an important reminder as we increasingly adopt analytics in everything from judges decision making, to what clients are likely to require in the future. While I’d guess that Dr Fry didn’t tell the audience an awful lot they didn’t know, her talk was thought provoking and entertaining.

The second talk of the day was from Stephen Carver, senior lecturer in project and programme management at Cranfield University, who talked about successful change management projects, using the aircraft industry and travel as an analogy.

With some hilarious visuals and videos, Carver asked the audience whether the last time they flew, they wanted to fly, or to arrive at their destination. I paraphrase, but Carver pointed out that you battle your way to the airport, queue and hope you remembered your passport, and eventually make it onto a thin metal tube filled with highly flammable fuel armed with only a life jacket that is more likely to kill you than save you. “But don’t worry,” said Carver, “you have a whistle!”

The aeroplane is a three wheeled tricycle that speeds up to 130 miles an hour on take off and then in the sky reaches speeds of 550 miles an hour in air so thin and cold that if it depressurises, your lungs will freeze, “so you will not be able to blow your whistle!” crowed Carver. “In the case of a water landing, ladies are advised to take off their high heeled shoes, but you’re going to die anyway so you might as well die in style!”

Carver asked how many times people had been on a flight where the pilot, while welcoming passengers, had indicated that they had no training. “But I see multi-million-pound transformation budgets being run by people with no formal training,” he said, adding: “I worked for a big corporation where they had chosen ‘John’ for the role because he had nothing better to do at the time.”

Whereas pilots have to go through simulations of things like bird strikes, change managers are often completely unprepared. When a US Airways plane got hit by Canada Geese and lost both engines, ultimately landing in the Hudson, Chesley B Sullenberger III (‘Sully’) was utterly calm to the last. Carver played a recording of the control tower conversation that took place with Sully before the landing. The control tower offered different options to help, and Sully remained calm and professional – leveraging all his training – despite the unfolding catastrophe.

Planes don’t fly in two dimensions they fly in three and that is the same with projects, said Carver, concluding: “Any fool can start a project, it’s the landing that counts.”

The remaining sessions were around the future of the workplace; cybersecurity and the political landscape; and performing under pressure, which all speak to the very real challenges facing IT leaders – albeit not legal tech – on a day-to-day basis.

The conference was excellent for networking and it was a senior group of delegates in attendance, although to be frank next year I expect that vendors will ask for better positioning for their booths, which were tucked away out of sight.

Saylor – who it was great to see in London alongside other US-based ILTA leaders – announced during the day that ILTA is conducting a strategy review is welcoming contributions from members on its future direction and what they get from ILTA. This is an excellent opportunity to engage and ensure that ILTA will be as relevant in the years to come as it is now. Contact to take part from the UK. I’ll be bringing you more details on the strategy review shortly.