With the rise of Industry 4.0, emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) have permeated into many aspects of business activities across different sectors, transforming the way we live and work, disrupting traditional business models and impacting the field of law. As technology becomes more intertwined with our daily lives, the intersections between technology and law have become more prevalent and complex.
To illustrate a growing industry need for talent who can navigate legal and regulatory uncertainties in an increasingly tech-driven world, Singapore Management University (SMU) Assistant Professor of Law and Information Systems (Practice) Lim How Khang gives two real-world scenarios that industry partners are already experiencing.
Scenario 1: A start-up is planning to launch a new tech product that makes use of artificial intelligence (AI) to personalise the customer experience. But the developers and the company's legal advisors are at loggerheads in the meeting room, struggling to understand each other's concerns related to the launch. Will the new tech product infringe data protection laws? How would compliance with legal, ethical and regulatory matters affect the project timeline? What are the risks of using AI in this manner?
Scenario 2: A law firm is excited to onboard a new client - a global technology giant - looking to expand in the region, but its lawyers are unfamiliar with the new technology and the corresponding legal, ethical and regulatory issues concerning such innovations. How would the law firm be able to help the client meet business goals while ensuring that the tech company does not overstep fundamental ethical, legal and regulatory boundaries in different jurisdictions?
In both scenarios, the need for trained specialists who are able to see things from both sides cannot be overemphasised.
"A couple of years ago, regular conversations with our industry partners revealed that there is a growing need to align the use of emerging new technologies with a legal and regulatory environment that is still reacting to some of these developments," Prof Lim says. "An interdisciplinary expert capable of understanding both areas well would be equipped to offer precisely the sort of guidance needed in the industry wherever there is lack of certainty."
With Singapore's unique position as an international hub for legal services and one of Asia's leading tech hubs, the demand for talent proficient in both technology and law will only increase, Prof Lim explains.
A specialist programme
Come August this year, SMU will be accepting its first batch of students for its Computing and Law undergraduate programme. The new degree is the first of its kind in Singapore.
"We realised that this industry gap for a hybrid computing and law specialist could be readily filled by SMU because of our strong focus on interdisciplinary research and the fact that we have a reputable School of Law and a highly-regarded School of Information Systems within close proximity on campus that enables a high degree of collaboration," explains Prof Lim.
He highlights that the degree aims to nurture graduates from the ground up: Students are required to take all the foundational courses required to become proficient in both computing and law. This means prospective students who do not have a background in computing, programming or law are allowed to apply for this degree.
Core courses for this new course are the same as those taken by law degree and computing degree students as part of their undergraduate studies. The courses include contract law, criminal law, intellectual property law, introduction to programming, and software product management.
Crucially, the compulsory internship and third-year project are some of the ways that SMU ensures that students are able to apply the lessons learnt in school to present-day, real-world issues. The project - typically done from Year 3 to Year 4 - allows students to use their interdisciplinary skills to either work on a technology to improve the delivery of legal services, or work on the governance, risks and ethics of technology.
While the new Bachelor of Science (Computing and Law) course might be seen as a combination of two existing degrees, Prof Lim emphasises that the interdisciplinary programme is certainly no less than its singular law and computing degree counterparts. Rather, graduates will be indispensable additions to the future workforce.
"Graduates from this programme will be trained specialists in the tech and legal realms who are able to plug into organisations directly and fulfil the industry need for both expertise," he says. "They will be able bridge that gap right away and help their organisations deal with complex issues arising from such intersections between tech and law efficiently and effectively."
He adds that Singapore's unique proposition as a tech and legal hub with pro-law and pro-tech policies gives Singapore an advantage to reach out to all the other countries around the region. Therefore, for students and graduates based here, there will be opportunities to work in businesses around the region, as well as technology for the legal sector within the region.
Career prospects also extend beyond law firms or tech start-ups, says Prof Lim. Part of what the school hopes to do is to nurture thought leaders who understand the governance and risk issues of technology, and be able to assist governments in policy-making as well.
The future of education
The cross-disciplinary nature of the undergraduate programmes at SMU also means that students have the option to combine this major in computing and law with a second major such as computing studies in AI or cybersecurity, or technology for business solutions in business analytics or financial technology, to maximise career opportunities. Students from the new Computing and Law degree are also given the option to fast-track to the SMU Juris Doctor Programme offered by SMU School of Law (subject to approval).
Ultimately, the Bachelor of Science (Computing and Law) is a flexible degree that opens up multiple career options and opportunities for students to play to their interests and strengths as they develop through the programme.
According to Prof Lim, this flexibility and multi-disciplinary nature of the programme is aimed at equipping students with essential skills for the future.
"The world is changing increasingly faster, and what you learn in university will eventually become outdated," he says. "The skills and knowledge you need to gather is an ongoing process, and SMU is equipped to support students and graduates through their lifelong learning."
Prof Lim shares that interdisciplinary thinking is a unique skill set involving the ability to convert one mode of thinking into another - the ability to solve problems in one domain in another domain: "Can the computer help me solve my legal problem? In what ways can I do it?"
Students of the new Computing and Law programme are equipped not only with the legal analytical skill sets of solid grounding and sensitivity to rule of law issues such as fairness and justice, but also computing skill sets of logic and precision.
This ability to think in an interdisciplinary manner will become increasingly valuable and important, says Prof Lim. As the world becomes more inter-connected, there will be more intersections between different fields. An education like that offered by SMU's Bachelor of Science (Computing and Law) will equip graduates with the tools to ask the right questions to tackle the complex problems of tomorrow.