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What will happen when artificial intelligence and the internet meet the professions?

By ucyow3c, on 2 November 2015

pencil-iconWritten by Cathryn Evans (UCL Laws)

susskind-event-photoOn Thursday 22 October, UCL Honorary Professor, Richard Susskind OBE and his son Daniel Susskind, a lecturer in economics at Oxford, launched their new book, ‘The Future of the Professions’ which examines how technology is transforming the work of human experts.

The Susskinds believe that there are two possible futures for the professions: a reassuringly familiar one, with professionals utilising technology such as Skype or design software to work more efficiently, or a pessimistic future, where computers actively displace the work of people. They conclude that these two futures will run in parallel for some time, but that the second will dominate eventually and traditional professions will be dismantled.

“Why have the professions?” asked Daniel. In a print-based, industrial society, each profession curates and guards its own body of specialist knowledge, but this is no longer possible in a technology-based, Internet society where the traditional ‘gatekeeper’ role is dying out.

Citing examples from Harvard, where more people signed up in one year for its online courses than had actually attended the university in its nearly 300-year history, and Ebay, where 60 million disputes are resolved every year without the use of lawyers, Daniel explored whether, eventually, there will be any jobs left for the professions, referencing the recent Economist review of the Future of the Professions, which asked whether “Professor Dr Robot QC” would replace professionals before long.

The Susskinds’ conclusion is that as machines become more capable they will take on more and more human tasks. New tasks will no doubt emerge, but it’s likely that machines will take on these too, and in the long run there will be less of a need for human professionals

Richard Susskind spoke of the “end of an era”, of old ways of work coming to an end. He examined what he termed the “AI fallacy”, the mistaken assumption that the only way that machines can develop is by replicating humans.

When new data gathering and data analytic techniques are being developed that means a computer can beat the world’s greatest chess player through mathematical calculation, rather than skill, we have to accept that “there are lots of ways of being smart that aren’t smart like us.”

What a professional offers is judgement when faced with uncertainty. A computer utilising ‘big data’ is increasingly able to do the same taking into account factors humans have not considered. A computer cannot be creative or empathetic, but it can exercise judgement – not by copying humans but by doing things just as well in non-human ways.

Moving to the panel debate, chaired by Professor Anthony Finkelstein, UCL Professor of Software Systems Engineering. Lord Justice Briggs mused that it was no surprise that when “professionals are sent to the guillotine, the lawyer is at the front of the queue”, but acknowledged that he welcomed technology, particularly the possibilities it brings for improving access to justice.

However, he thought that technology could never replace lawyers entirely, asking if a person had a dispute, would they want a computer’s encyclopaedic knowledge of earlier cases and black letter law or human who would apply “basic principles of justice held in the heart at much in the mind?” to provide judgement?

Managing Partner of Innovation at Deloitte, Vimi Grewal-Carr, discussed the impact of technology on future generations and asked whether today’s three year olds will ever need a driving license in the world of self-driving cars?

Professor John Naughton, VP of Wolfson College Cambridge, wondered whether the Future of the Professions had gone far enough. What was happening was disruption, not just innovation and automation, which “could tear apart out economic system.”

Professor David Lomas, UCL Vice-Provost for Health said that as a Trekkie, he had always wanted a tricorder that could make an instant diagnosis; but he thought that doctors were not doomed yet! He felt that technology could help develop funding models to shift patient care from hospitals into the community and will help people help themselves. Already 50% of smart phone users have a health app on their device, and technology will help monitoring patients in the community.

The Susskinds concluded by arguing that the professions do not have a sense of how rapidly technology is progressing and the disruption and transformation over the next coupe of decades will be greater than last couple of centuries. Only time will tell whether the optimists or pessimists were correct.

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