Once regarded as safe havens, the professions are now in the eye of the storm

Date: 17-10-2015
Source: The Economist: Schumpeter
Subject: Professor Dr Robot QC

IN 1933, as the Depression ground on, two British sociologists, Alexander Carr-Saunders and Paul Wilson, wrote a book celebrating the professions. They describe them as “stable elements” in a turbulent world, which “inherit, preserve and hand on a tradition.” They act as “centres of resistance to crude forces which threaten steady and peaceful evolution”.

Professions resist these “crude forces” through high barriers to entry. They routinely limit their recruitment to people with degrees. Some, such as medicine or law, require professional licences and sometimes membership in professional bodies. Others demand long periods of apprenticeship: although anybody can call themselves a management consultant, elite firms such as McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group provide their recruits with extensive training and only promote a minority to partnerships. The oldest professions also emphasise the importance of tradition: professors dress up in medieval gowns on ceremonial occasions and British barristers wear wigs.

But today these islands of security are being battered as never before. Professional-services firms are becoming more business-minded: Accenture now contracts lots of work to people in the emerging world and has abandoned the partnership model to become a public company. Customers are getting fussier: big firms will no longer put up with consultancies that woo them with partners and then send in a team of juniors. But the most important source of instability is information technology, argues “The Future of the Professions”, a new book by Richard Susskind, a consultant, and Daniel Susskind, an Oxford don (a father-and-son combo).

Machines are challenging the professions’ two most important claims to being special: their ability to advance the frontiers of knowledge and their exclusive licence to apply their expertise to an unordained laity. IBM and the Bayor College of Medicine have developed a system called KnIT (“knowledge integration toolkit”) that scans the medical literature and generates new hypotheses for research problems. Computer scientists in Tel Aviv University have invented an algorithm that, using facial-recognition software, is solving a puzzle that has kept Torah scholars busy for decades: piecing together 300,000 ancient Jewish manuscripts that were found, many torn and tattered, in the attic of an old Cairo synagogue. Various bits of software regularly outperform legal experts in predicting the outcome of court decisions from patent disputes to America’s Supreme Court.

New technology is enabling machines and para-professionals to take over many routine tasks. Programs developed by Kensho, a startup, provide answers to financial questions such as what happens to technology stocks when there is a privacy scare. Nurses and “physician associates”, equipped with computers and diagnostic tools, are doing more and more of the work once reserved for doctors.

Online services and smartphone apps allow the laity to dispense with some professionals entirely, or at the very least to take them down from their pedestals. Every month 190m visit WebMD—more than visit regular doctors in America. Educational apps are the second-most popular category in Apple’s app store after games, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) are attracting millions of students. Judges and lawyers are increasingly resolving small claims through “e-adjudication”. It is one of the techniques employed by eBay to settle the more than 60m disagreements among its users each year.

How far will this revolution go? Messrs Susskind and Susskind predict that it will go all the way to “a dismantling of the traditional professions”. These jobs, they argue, are a solution to the problem that ordinary people have “limited understanding” of specific areas of expertise. But technology is making it easier for them to get the understanding they need when they need it.

The authors deal deftly with some objections to their position. One counter-argument cites complexity: people hand their tax forms over to professionals because they are too complicated to bother with. The authors reply that machines have a bigger capacity for coping with complexity than humans. Another criticism invokes emotion: people would rather be told about death or bankruptcy by a human being. The authors note that expertise and empathy rarely come in the same package. Bad news is better delivered by people who excel in sympathy rather than expertise.

Still, Messrs Susskind and Susskind probably take their case too far. They ignore the fact that, as people get richer, they choose to spend their surplus wealth on the human touch. Students, for instance, compete to get into elite colleges with high teacher-student ratios (and rich parents hire more and more personal tutors for their children to increase their chances of so doing). But the authors are undoubtedly right that the professions will change more in the next quarter-century than they have in the previous three. New sub-disciplines will emerge, such as “knowledge engineers” who encode professional wisdom into software and various groups of para-professionals who work out ways of applying this knowledge.

Professionals of the world, unite!
The gathering storm has profound social implications. The professions represent a big slice of modern society. New occupations such as social work aspire to join them. Professionals are accustomed to wealth and privilege: in 2011 57% of British undergraduates accepted to medical school came from the top three socio-economic groups. There is no doubt that these professionals will have to abandon the idea that, in the words of Messrs Carr-Saunders and Wilson, “nothing is to be achieved in their own sphere by destruction or revolution.” The big question is whether the re-ordering of such a vital and stable group will threaten the “steady and peaceful evolution” of society.

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