Career16:The future of professions

By Adam Gifford

Doctors, lawyers and other professionals' jobs are likely to change as automation increases.
Doctors, lawyers and other professionals' jobs are likely to change as automation increases.

The latest William Gibson novel hinges on time travel from a dystopian but recognisable future about 10 years hence to a future near the end of the century that looks a lot different.

The difference is the impact of Moore's Law -- the observation by former Intel executive Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a silicon chip doubled every two years while the price halved.

Richard Susskind admits to not having read The Peripheral, but the new book he wrote with his son, Daniel, uses another William Gibson quote: "The future has arrived. It's just not evenly distributed yet."

The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts will challenge the smugness felt by doctors, lawyers and other professionals who think their jobs are safe from automation.

Richard Susskind's career has combined law and technology, and he has written and lectured extensively on the future of the legal profession.

Daniel Susskind is an economist who worked at 10 Downing St on health and justice policies for prime ministers Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

"We're not futurists but we are looking at prevalent trends," Richard Susskind says.

Like Gibson, the Susskinds contemplate two futures.

"In the near term, the next 10 years or so, a lot of the emphasis on technology is simply on computerising what we already do, streamlining and optimising our current ways of working," Richard Susskind says.

"People get that. A doctor may see a patient by Skype, a teacher may use online resources, an architect may use computer aided design.

"In the longer term as Moore's Law clicks in, processing power becomes massively greater, the quantities of data we have at our fingertips and our ability to manage it changes radically, bandwidth increases hugely, machines become increasingly capable, human beings become increasingly connected, it seems to us that more and more of the tasks we used to think required human beings will be done, often in different ways, by systems."

"Different ways" is at the core to their argument, as illustrated by a 1997 chess game.

"One of the biggest points in the book is the artificial intelligence fallacy, the supposition that computers get to be intelligent by copying us.

"When [IBM supercomputer] Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997 it was because it could see 300 million moves in a second. It didn't have any of Kasparov's genius or insight or creativity but brute force computing with massive amounts of data outperforms human beings.

"This is the fascinating issue, that so much of what we think is uniquely human irreducibly for professionals to do, computers can do," Susskind says.

"If you want to find whether a lesion on your skin is cancerous, rather than going to a dermatologist you do a partial pattern match of an image of your lesion with a database of 10 million past images. That system knows nothing about dermatology or pathology, it will just be crunching the images, so it's fascinating and for some people disconcerting that these machines are outperforming human beings and doing so in unhuman ways."

In the law, a firm called Lex Machina will give you statistical predictions about the behaviour of courts. Forget the finer legal points, are you asking the judge for bail before or after lunch

Generally the reaction of professionals is that their work is different to manual drudgery.

Susskind says that special pleading is driven by a bundle of biases. "There is technical myopia, people's inability to project ahead even 10 years from where we have got today. They evaluate our thesis in terms of the technology we have around us today.

"If you talk about video conferencing, they want to talk about how they tried to speak to their grandchild across the world and the connection kept falling, rather than seeing the obvious, that in 10 years desktop to desktop high definition video conferencing will be pervasive."

The increase in processing power is hard to grasp. Another example of exponential growth is what happens when you fold a piece of paper. If you had one large enough, by the time you folded it 103 times it would be 93 billion light-years thick, larger than the observable universe.

Susskind cites a presentation at Black & Decker where a slide was put up of its power drill and its executives were asked "Is this what we sell?"

"They all said yes and the presenter put up another slide of a hole in a piece of wood and said 'No, this is what we really sell, this is what the customer wants'.

"Professionals have to ask the same question. To what problems are the professions solutions?"

He dismisses empathy. Given a choice between talking to a psychotherapist and sharing their problem with a machine, people will opt for the anonymity of a machine.

"The reason we go to doctors is often for reassurance and the idea someone is empathising with us, but if machines are clearly outperforming them, that will trump the empathy argument because in the end people want accurate diagnosis, accurate assessment of tax liability, accurate legal advice."

That doesn't mean today's tools like WebMD or LegalZoom -- it's what those tools will look like in 10 or 20 years.

So what does that mean for a young person considering studying law or medicine?

"If you want to be a hospital doctor or involved in primary care medicine as it is currently conducted, I'd be hesitant. If your interest is in improving the health and well-being of people in society, join the medical profession, it is going to change radically

"If you want to appear in court or draft contracts, the law is not for you. If you are interested in improving access to justice, the law is for you."

The least likely future is it will look the same.

While new jobs are likely to be created over the next couple of decades, or the bundle of tasks that make up a job will change, eventually jobs will go and "in the long term we find it hard to avoid the conclusion there will be much less for humans to do".

"It seems to us on a daily basis you are seeing new apps, new technologies that are taking on tasks we used to do manually.

"Where it leads over the next 10 to 15 years is changing the jobs people have, redeployment rather than unemployment, and beyond that society needs to rethink what the role and relevance of employment is, and we also need to raise fundamental issues of how we can have some equitable distribution of the benefits of these systems so it is not only held in the hands of a few."

- NZ Herald

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