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Book reviews

20 February 17

Review of The Future of the Professions (Susskind and Susskind)

by David A Dickson

The Future of the Professions

Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind

PUBLISHER: OUP
ISBN: 978-0198713395
PRICE: £18.99; PAPERBACK £10.99

The legal profession is still recognisably the same one which I entered twenty-odd years ago, despite the rapid pace of societal and technological change during that period. Moreover, by many objective measures the profession in Scotland continues to thrive, with the number of qualified solicitors high by historical standards, and more trainees than ever before. But will that state of affairs continue indefinitely to be the case? Spoiler alert: not according to the authors of The Future of the Professions, it won’t. And it won’t just be lawyers who discover that machines are able to do their jobs; it’ll be doctors, accountants, teachers, and architects. The robots are coming for the professionals.

In this provocative and fascinating book Professor Richard Susskind, a longstanding expert on the use of technology in the law, is joined as co-author by his son Daniel, also an academic. The authors’ premise is that society’s “grand bargain” – under which the professions are granted exclusivity to provide services in a number of specialised and significant areas, in return for independence, respect, and payment commensurate with our training and ability – is coming apart. Genuine expertise is costly, possessed by a small number of professionals, and therefore not widely affordable or available. At the same time, advances in technology mean that more and more information and assistance is available to us, often without charge, at the touch of a screen or the click of a button.

For example, most of the people reading this will, I guess, have tried at some point over the past few years to have diagnosed an illness by accessing online information, or will have used a piece of software to complete a tax return. As identified by the authors, professionals are generally capable of identifying deficiencies in professions other than their own – many of us would, perhaps, take little prompting to make a pungent remark or two about, say, medicine or accountancy – while remaining defiantly unwilling to offer similar criticisms of their own colleagues.

So the transformation has already started, and in addition it would plainly be foolish to assume that, in the future, computers will never be able to take over in areas which today are thought to require human intervention. To quote the authors, “our systems and machines are becoming increasingly capable”, and will “in due course be capable of generating bodies of practical expertise that can resolve the sort of problems that used to be the sole province of human experts in the professions”.

Whether computers need to achieve something which might be described as artificial intelligence is, to the authors, missing the point. The real question is, simply, whether machines can do the job – not necessarily by replicating human thought patterns, but doing the work more quickly, more efficiently, and to an acceptable standard. It might be suggested that only humans will be able to offer soft skills such as empathy, but in doing so we perhaps underestimate the pace of development in computers. And possibly overestimate our own client care skills, and the willingness of lay people to pay for them, at the same time.

Do, then, the professions have any sort of future at all? Understandably, the authors hedge their bets a little. Their tentative conclusion is that fewer people will, in the future, be employed as “professionals” in the present meaning of the word. They only touch on the wider issue of what that might mean for society, but if they are right, and the hollowing-out of opportunities for skilled but repetitive manual work is matched by similar developments in the professions – and the authors are clear that it will – then the basis on which our society has been ordered for the past century or more will no longer exist.

In short, the work won’t be there. (For example, self-driving vehicles offer many opportunities, but perhaps not for those who make a living from driving.) And not just work, but jobs: professional and non-professional jobs which are reasonably secure and well-paid – the sort of jobs which allow people to buy homes and cars and holidays, and maybe raise a family. How we might address that is outwith the scope of the book, and of this review, but it might be one of the most pressing issues facing Western liberal democracies. In the meantime, anyone with an interest in the future of our professions should read this engrossing and persuasive book.

David A Dickson
 

 

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