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The Future of the Professions

Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind

(London Times)

According to the authors of this provocative book, the traditional professions have had it. In the knowledge revolution, computers will do for professionals what machines did for manual workers in the industrial revolution: make them redundant. In both senses of the word. That is an alarming thesis if you are a professional, but not a particularly startling one. The more interesting and pugnacious idea is that professionals have had it coming.

The book is co-written by a father and son team: Richard Susskind is a specialist in computers and the law and acts as IT adviser to the lord chief justice; Daniel lectures in economics at Oxford University and used to work in the prime minister's strategy unit. They call the professions 'unaffordable, underexploiting technology, disempowering, ethically challengeable, underperforming and inscrutable'. They 'discourage self-help, self-discovery and self-reliance', operating as 'gatekeepers' to knowledge - and not, of course, in a good way. As George Bernard Shaw said of doctors, the professions are 'conspiracies against the laity'.

The angel of creative destruction, for the Susskinds, is technology. The 'document assembly systems' that initially helped lawyers cut costs are now being used by lay people, while online dispute resolution is cutting out lawyers - Cybersettle has resolved almost $2bn of personal-injury and insurance claims to date.

In medicine, robots are right at the cutting edge. Google's research facility Google X is said to be developing swallowable nanobots that will destroy cells at close quarters, implying that one day no cancer sufferer need go under an actual surgeon's knife. One percent of prescriptions made by human pharmacists are wrong, according to US data. The solution? The single pharmacist at the University of California is now a robot, which has supposedly never made a mistake in its 2m prescriptions to date.

Even the bedside manner is being invaded by 'affective computing'. There are Japanese hospital rooms with robot nurses, present not just for 'the heavy lifting' but also 'to offer company for each patient'. As early as 2004, a 'therapeutic robotic baby seal' was made available to patients in need of calming down.

Some of the energy destroying the professions comes not so much from technology itself as IT's exploitation of human knowledge. Who needs a bespoke architect's drawing or a legal contract when you can download one free from the internet? Docracy is an open collection of legal agreements. SketchUp's 3D Warehouse has several million designs.

If you thought that education was relatively safe because it requires the personal touch, consider 'intelligent tutoring systems', which now purport to replicate the advantages of one-to-one tuition. More people signed up for Harvard's Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), in one year than have attended the actual institution in the past 377.

Even religious professionals are apparently at risk. As evidence, the Susskinds offer the Pope's 19.3m Twitter followers, religious dating sites such as ChristianMingle and JDate, and the software that pieced together fragments of ancient Jewish manuscripts. Their underlying argument is not that computers can be priests but that different kinds of tech can do different kinds of priestly task as well as or better than a priest can.

Technology will not copy how professionals work, they insist, but work 'by exploiting the distinctive capabilities of new technologies'. Meanwhile, the human side of the job will be done by para-professionals 'with less formal training, but empowered by new technologies to carry out tasks once reserved for the professions': cheaply, in other words.

The Susskinds do at least offer 12 possible future roles for your dumbed-down children. As well as 'para-professionals' there will be a rump of 'craftspeople' who do the few things machines still can't, working with managerial assistants. 'Empathisers' will specialise in the touchy-feely stuff. Then there will be all the people working, presumably, in the giant technology corporations that will have devoured the individual professions: R&D workers, knowledge engineers, etc.

There is one obvious objection, which is that people might prefer people to machines. Some would regard a robot baby seal as being therapeutic only insofar as it affords an opportunity for therapeutic clubbing. They might not want a specialist empathiser, they might want to speak to the actual surgeon. As Shaw put it, in a passage the Susskinds do not quote: 'When your child is ill or your wife dying ...what you want is comfort, reassurance, something to clutch at, were it but a straw. This the doctor brings you.'

The Susskinds regard this as nostalgic and 'too high a price to pay', without explaining how or why the professions are apparently less affordable than they once were. Ultimately, they take a sternly transactional view of the professions that probably owes much to their own legal and economic backgrounds. The professions exist, they say, because 'none of us has sufficient knowledge to cope with all of our daily challenges'. And computers do knowledge best. But defining something reductively, so as to destroy it, is the very definition of a straw-man argument.

So much for the thesis. As for the book, it is dry, repetitive and disappointing in its lack of weird examples of the robot-seal kind. It feels like a report offered by a business consultancy eager to exploit professional anxieties about being left behind by technology. The professions will undoubtedly change, but I wouldn’t write them off yet.

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