Richard Susskind is fond of a particular anecdote. In one of his earlier books, sometime around 1995, he made the prediction that lawyers would, in the future, primarily correspond with clients by email.
As he tells it, this announcement was met with consternation from some in the legal industry. The mere suggestion of this use of email was “bringing the profession into disrepute”. There were calls for Susskind to be prohibited from speaking in public.
Fast forward to 2015, and for a lawyer to receive their client’s queries by post is increasingly a rare event.
Susskind is back with a new book and more predictions: machines will increasingly make many professional roles obsolete.
Susskind, with his son Daniel, has just released The Future of the Professions, which will be keenly read to ascertain whether its insights into the future are similarly prescient.
Susskind snr’s primary concern to date has been with the changing nature of the practice of law. This book expands that remit to take an interest in other professionals such as accountants, architects and engineers.
The book attempts to paint, in broad strokes, an impression of an alternative to the professions. It lays out a framework for a different means of distribution to society of what is termed “practical expertise”.
The authors’ damning description of how the professions have failed society cannot fail to grab one’s attention.
“Our professions are unaffordable, under-exploiting technology, disempowering, ethically challengeable [in terms of public access to knowledge], underperforming and inscrutable,” they write.
The allegations are not pulled from the ether. The strength of the professions has emerged from the Dickensian era, and their remit arises from the print-based distribution of knowledge.
But we are now in the age of technology and the internet. Information is shared vastly differently to how it was shared a mere five years ago.
Machines will increasingly carry out legal and other professional tasks. This is already starting to take place and is expanding beyond the initial area of document review.
When machines can carry out routine tasks, the professionals are left to concentrate on the non-routine. Initially, this will be a solace to support the continued utility and existence of the professions. In time, however, machines will become more adept and start to encroach upon the non-routine.
In the future, what tasks will have to be carried out by humans? The conclusion the authors come to (spoiler alert) is that, as time goes by, there will be fewer and fewer professional tasks for humans.
The authors make an important point about the capabilities of machines. Many have been operating under the assumption that machines will have to learn to think like humans, more particularly professionals, in order to displace the professions. This is what the authors call the “AI [artificial intelligence] fallacy”.
Machines do not need to learn how to think like humans. Machines process information differently. They can process so much information that the result can be better than that reached when relying upon human judgment.
With the processing power of a computer, certainty of outcome may be increased to the extent that judgment is no longer required. Thus, judgment can be made redundant, just like those trained to use it to an expert level, the professions.
Of course, the process will not be painless, nor without its own difficulties and limitations.
The Susskinds put forward that there is an obligation to consider questions such as moral constraints on decision-making by machines and the question of who, if anyone, should be permitted to be the gatekeeper of practical expertise when the professions dissolve.
We could find ourselves in a society where the centralisation of computing power centralises practical expertise. The knowledge currently curated by the professionals could be in the hands of another bloc. A small number of corporations could control the entirety of the distribution of legal or other professional knowledge.
Call to action
The book closes with a call to action, not to merely watch this process happening, but to take an active part in it. There is an appeal for today’s professionals to be involved in shaping the circulation of practical knowledge and to “actively strive” for its affordable, empowering, ethical and transparent distribution.
Of course, one of the issues of most pressing concern to the professions is the timeline for the predicted changes. The authors are, understandably, a little vague on this point. We have been reading about the displacement caused by the processing power of machines since, at least, the 1940s. It is hard not to be sceptical.
With a project such as the "artificially intelligent attorney" Ross, powered by IBM Watson, reported to be "closer to commercial release than expected", there is a definite feeling that momentum is building.
The ground is moving beneath our feet. As the Susskinds put it, "the least likely future of all is that nothing much will change". Elizabeth Fitzgerald is a freelance solicitor. efitzgerald.ie