future professionals technology

How will tech affect the future of the professions?

Pete Marcus

05 Feb 2016

Last night at Second Home its co-founder Rohan Silva moderated a discussion with authors Daniel and Richard Susskind about their new book, The Future of the Professions.

The book looks at the impact technology is having on professions like medicine, law, teaching and accountancy. Here are three things we took away from the conversation…

  1. Greater efficiency vs new ways of doing things

There are two standard scenarios for how tech will affect professions. It either helps optimise and streamline the work they’re already doing. Or it invents totally new ways to solve problems that the professions were originally designed to tackle (thereby making them largely or wholly redundant).

There’s some evidence this latter scenario is occurring right now. Daniel Susskind pointed out that last year 60m disputes on eBay were resolved online without the need for lawyers to get involved. And the US Food & Drug Administration estimates that, by 2018, 1.5bn people will have at least one medical app on their phone, potentially by-passing doctors.

Of course, there is the risk that new gatekeepers emerge even as the old gatekeepers are disintermediated. Powerful tech companies can be just as protective of their privileges as bewigged lawyers or doctors in white coats ever were.

But overall the Susskinds painted a positive picture of the tech revolution about to hit the professions. In their view tech won’t invent new versions of things that already exist, but whole new things that we can’t even envisage yet.

  1. Think about “tasks”, not “jobs”

In the Susskinds’ view, professions are by nature opaque and, from a global perspective, relatively few of us have access to high-quality professional services like lawyers or tax accountants.

Technology could remedy that by demystifying professions and breaking them down into smaller chunks. The Susskinds summarised this by asking us to stop thinking about a “job” and instead thinking about the “tasks” that make up that job.

Once you break a job – such as being a doctor or accountant – into tasks, they argue, you quickly discover that lots of these tasks can be done by non-experts or even by a machine. Fewer of these tasks truly require the human qualities of creativity, empathy and judgement than we would like to believe.

This process of “decomposition” will, the Susskinds believe, democratise the professions by making them cheaper, giving many more of us access to the kinds of services that are currently out of our reach.

  1. Don’t hold machines to a higher standard than humans

One thing holding back the rise of the machines is our fear about them making mistakes. This is particularly the case for sensitive jobs in the professions, such as medicine or law, where the consequences can be very serious. But the Susskinds argue we often hold machines to higher standards than humans and need to recalibrate our expectations.

Daniel Susskind gave the example of a robotic pharmacist at the University of San Francisco which has dispensed six million prescriptions so far and made one mistake. Of course, one mistaken prescription could be a matter of life or death. But the typical human pharmacist makes a mistake 1% of the time, which would equate to 60,000 wrong prescriptions compared to the robot’s one.

So we need to be realistic about how perfect any machine can be. And a significant reduction in the level of human error isn’t to be sniffed at.