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My father, a retired priest, listens in wonder when my medical student son tells him about the latest research he’s seeing – and wonders what his own father, a surgeon who died before I was born, would have made of it all. The pace of change is astonishing, even with an underlying subject that hasn’t changed in millennia.

So it’s not surprising that the father and son team of Richard and Daniel Susskind have taken the thinking Susskind senior first applied 20 years ago in The Future of Law, and related it more broadly across the professions. But medicine has a universality that the practice of law doesn’t. Consulting,tax and audit, architecture, teaching, journalism and the priesthood stretch the concept further (the last two almost beyond breaking point).

Their conclusions? Increasingly capable machines will transform work, giving rise to new ways of sharing practical expertise. In the end, the traditional professions will be dismantled, leaving most (but not all) professionals to be replaced by less-expert people and high-performing systems.

To get us there, the authors take us on a detailed journey, from the sociological basis of the ‘Grand Bargain’ that accords privileged status (why are we trusted to sign off passport photos?), through the history of print-based society, to the economic impact of technology on work (Daniel’s specialism).

We’re accompanied on our journey by an army of academics. But the book and its arguments are so clearly structured and signposted that a lay reader is guided smoothly. Sure, the most colourful language in the book is reserved for describing the coffee-making craft of a barista, and the majority of the writing would be more recognisable to a barrister as a tightly crafted skeleton argument.

For me, though, this book excels when it’s bravely predicting the future while flagging questions we face as a result.

Society does need an open debate about the idea of machines taking decisions instead of humans. Should a life-support machine be switched off or a village bombed by a robot?

But how can that debate take place in an environment where change is already happening incrementally (and invisibly)? Will we be too late to pause and reflect?

And should practical expertise – the ‘assets’ marketed by the professions – continue to have monetary value in a technologically enabled world that shares that knowledge on a commons basis?

What, even, is the future of paid work if capable machines carry out tasks that currently constitute most people’s economic contribution to society?

Those questions go far beyond whether we need human lawyers, architects, journalists – or doctors. And, like my father, I will be fascinated to try to understand, in years to come, how on earth my grandchildren make a living out of their changing skills and knowledge.

First published in Briefing, Better Behaviours, March 2016

18 Mar 2016

 

 


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