Book Review: The Future of the Professions

October 15, 2015

The latest book from Richard Susskind is different from what has gone before – that’s not surprising as it is written in collaboration with his son, Daniel Susskind. It may well be my favourite among the Susskind works. It is not completely different – there is a reference to Black & Decker selling holes not drills, commoditisation rears its head and the Latent Damage Expert System still gets more name checks than Lionel Messi during a Barcelona game. But that’s pretty much where the resemblance ends. This is not an evangelical book. This is not a manual on how to adopt or adapt to technology. This book is not full of doom for the old ways (though there is some). Above all, this is a thinking person’s book. It has certainly made me think and, given that I rather resent the effort, that’s no mean achievement.

I don’t want to suggest that Richard’s previous work was devoid of thoughtful content but there was always a message to be made clear – a job to be done. This book has a greater rigour and, at times, an engaging uncertainty. I assume that the change in tone is the obvious product of the collaboration with Daniel Susskind, who is clearly an intellectual heavyweight in his own right. It meant that I no longer heard Richard’s voice when reading the book; perhaps, I had heard him speak on these topics too often but I actually found this book an easier read. (Though it would have been an easier read still as an ebook – I had just a hardback, like old times and something of an irony.)

The main change from previous works beyond joint authorship is of course that this book is not about lawyers and technology but looks at a range of professions. On my reading, the lawyer was still centre stage in a cast of many professions; I am not sure if that reflects my background or that of one of the authors’ (perhaps a bit of both). Suffice it to say that I shall not be recommending the book to the vicar of Derry Hill and Studley for its insights on the future of the clergy – accountants, management consultants and lawyers play the leads with medical professionals as co-stars; architects, teachers and journalists seem to have bit parts. But the strange thing is that what should be a dilution of focus on the legal profession has exactly the opposite effect – considering the effect that technology may have across professional boundaries throws the likely impact on the legal profession into starker relief. I suspect that a similar effect is felt by those allied to each profession covered – failings of others are readily recognised and illuminate the failings within one’s own profession.

The basic message of the book can be simply stated: machines will transform the work of professionals. That much is a given and only a fool would argue with it. The big questions which the book covers concern the extent of that transformation, its nature, the time-line for it, who will benefit and how to deal with the transformation’s effect on wider society. I have read the endorsements of the famous that appear on the cover and, while I get the references to ‘social revolution’ and the demolishing of ‘each profession’s faith in its immutable uniqueness’, in other respects I read a different book because this is certainly not a ‘manifesto’ or ‘practical blueprint for the leaders of every professional firm’. The publisher’s introduction more fairly describes it as a book that ‘raises important practical and moral questions’; the book offers answers but it is a selection of possible answers rather than a fixed option. While this book is far-sighted, it is the far-sightedness that leaves one uncertain of whether that is sea or sky, cloud or snow-topped mountain. I liked that quality. The other things that I liked include having machine empathy and Karl Marx in the same chapter, a readiness to confront objections (very fairly, I thought) and a grounding in background concepts and reasoning pitched at just the right level. For example, this was my first proper grasp of machine intelligence (since it seems that I was previously wedded to the AI fallacy) and the material on ‘trust’ struck me as particularly well directed.

I hope I am wrong but I suspect that the authors’ hopes for the future of the availability of expertise once technology transforms the professions are optimistic. I look at the trends in artistic copyright, for example, and I do not see a positive outlook for the opening up of expertise when it falls into the hands of a few new gatekeepers (the scenario outlined by the authors which I see as most likely).

On another front, they may be unduly pessimistic for the future of some professionals at least. It was always one of my criticisms of Richard Susskind’s work that he did not know enough stupid and venal people; given that the authors are confused by people cheating at Solitaire, I am not sure that Daniel has brought much greater expertise in that area. Their assumption is that people want the best advice but, just as I dread the day that I am stuck behind a driverless car sticking rigidly to the speed limit, many consult their lawyers, accountants and other experts for options that are not quite the ‘best’ as likely to be defined by a machine. I recall many years ago that a solicitor refused to ask the local council to remove graffiti that described him, entirely inappropriately, as ‘bent’ because he had never had so much business. Most of my friends running small businesses have received tax advice along the lines of ‘you must not do X, even though that would save you £500 and nobody is likely to notice’. Being fine and upstanding people, all immediately took the hint. So, the expert on what you can get away with might have a future (although the AI-enhanced enforcement machines of the future might well give him or her a hard time).

One area that is covered but might have been more widely discussed is the shrinking effect that has already seen much of the role of experts disappear. I am thinking of nurse-prescribers, para-legals, the expansion of the pharmacists’ role, the claims adviser and so on. I see so much of this effect already, much of it technology assisted, that I wonder if the ‘fork in the road’ that the authors’ see for the future is not already passed. I suspect that the professions as we know them will end not with a bang but a whimper – and quite soon.

And yet, while I accept the irrefutable central theme of the book that the professions must change massively as technology improves and expands its expert capacity, there are three lurking doubts. First, forty-odd years on from my days as a law student, we still have a divided legal profession – who would have bet on that in 1970? Secondly, the profession’s ‘charge-list’ outlined by the authors on p 37 might well have been endorsed by Dickens (at greater length) and yet the professions survive. Thirdly, the Christian clergy are still around notwithstanding the fact that for hundreds of years in what the Susskinds describe as the print-based society those funding them have had ready access to all of the (not especially complex but much complicated) rules that are their area of expertise. They may have had a scare in the early 17th century and most are no longer especially well rewarded but they still make a living telling people not to do things that those people already know full well they are not supposed to do. Professions don’t crush easy.

Finally, two personal hat-tips. One to the copy-editor of this book because it really is a top-notch job (I assume that he’s not responsible for the seven months from sign-off to publication, which means that we are short on 2015 examples). The second is to Daniel for the fact of collaboration between father and son. As the father of clever children, I know that there is a perverse satisfaction in being corrected by them from their superior knowledge – my son even manages to do it with some grace and with a clear hope that I might learn (my daughter seems less optimistic). But I don’t recall any matching satisfaction when being corrected by my father – which is why all the credit must go to Daniel.

The Future of the Professions was published on 22 October by OUP. ISBN 978-0-19-871339-5. Hardback £18.95.