The Guardian: Robot Doctors, Online Lawyers and Automated Architects: The Future of the Professions?
Advances in technology have long been recognised as a threat to manual labour. Now highly skilled, knowledge-based jobs that were once regarded as safe could be at risk. How will they adapt to the digital age?
Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne have predicted computerisation could make nearly half of jobs redundant within 10 to 20 years. Office work and service roles, they wrote, were particularly at risk. But almost nothing is impervious to automation. It has swept through shop floors and factories, transformed businesses big and small, and is beginning to revolutionise the professions.
Knowledge-based jobs were supposed to be safe career choices, the years of study it takes to become a lawyer, say, or an architect or accountant, in theory guaranteeing a lifetime of lucrative employment. That is no longer the case. Now even doctors face the looming threat of possible obsolescence. Expert radiologists are routinely outperformed by pattern-recognition software, diagnosticians by simple computer questionnaires. In 2012, Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla predicted that algorithms and machines would replace 80% of doctors within a generation.
In their much-debated book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argued that we now face an intense period of creative destruction. "Technological progress," they warned, "is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead … there's never been a worse time to be a worker with only 'ordinary' skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate."
So where does that leave the professions, whose hard-won expertise is beginning to fall within the power of computers and artificial intelligence to emulate? The efficiency of computerisation seems likely to spell the end of the job security past generations sought in such careers. For many, what were once extraordinary skillsets will soon be rendered ordinary by the advance of the machines. What will it mean to be a professional then?
"We'll see what I call decomposition, the breaking down of professional work into its component parts," says leading legal futurist professor Richard Susskind. Susskind's forthcoming book Beyond the Professions, co-authored with his son Daniel Susskind, examines the transformations already underway across the sectors that once offered jobs for life. He predicts a process not unlike the division of labour that wiped out skilled artisans and craftsmen in the past: the dissolution of expertise into a dozen or more streamlined processes.
"Some of these parts will still require expert trusted advisers acting in traditional ways," he says. "But many other parts will be standardised or systematised or made available with online service." In a previous book Tomorrow's Lawyers, he predicts the creation of eight new legal roles at the intersection of software and law. Many of the job titles sound at home in IT companies: legal knowledge engineer, legal technologist, project manager, risk manager, process analyst.
"Many traditional lawyers will look at that and think: 'Yes, they might be jobs, but that's not what I went to law school for. And that's not what my parents' generation did as lawyers.'" That, says Susskind, is not his concern: whether we call these new positions lawyers or not, the legal sector will survive.
"What I often say is that the future of law is not Rumpole of the Bailey, and it's not John Grisham," explains Susskind. "It's not a version of what we have today slightly tweaked. It will be people working in the legal sector but offering legal services and legal help in new ways." It may be the end of the profession as immortalised in courtroom dramas, but as software eats the old jobs it will have to create new ones too.
Update: Frank Pasquale (Maryland), A More Nuanced View of Legal Automation