No more apprentices. The robots are coming for your jobs...


'Help! Help! My son the doctor is drowning" or "You got an Ology? You're a scientist!" will definitely be Jewish jokes of the past if Richard and Daniel Susskind are right.

In future, they say, no one will become a solicitor, surgeon, architect or management consultant any more. It's a prediction bound to horrify Jewish grandmothers of the Maureen Lipman "Beattie" variety, and presents a headache for the many Jewish partners of law firms, dental practices, or heads of tax.

Professor Richard Susskind, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England, and his son Daniel, an Oxford economics lecturer, believe the professions as we know them will become redundant and their prestigious jobs largely replaced by machines. Their provocative new book, The Future of the Professions - How technology will transform the work of human experts, will light a touch paper under discussions that have circled for years about whether the professions are fit for the 21st century. Among many theories of the future of work in an increasingly outsourced, DIY, web-enabled world, this claims to be the first to challenge the professions' continued usefulness.

"Our professions are unaffordable, under-exploiting technology, disempowering, ethically challengeable, under-performing and inscrutable," the Susskinds say in the book. Nonetheless, they expect professionals' likely response to this broadside to be that computers "could never do their jobs as well as they can", and to carry on much as before.

The Susskinds are prepared for controversy, calling for a public debate about what society wants from increasingly intelligent machines. Countless examples in the book suggest the professions cannot afford to be complacent, if for no other reason than because technology is already here and outrunning them.

We just don’t know what the jobs of the future will be

Last year in the US, 48 million people used software to prepare their tax returns rather than hire a traditional accountant; 60 million eBay disputes are resolved annually by online mediation rather than lawyers; and more people watched Khan Academy tutorials on YouTube than attend school in the entire UK, they say.

"There are two futures for the professions," Daniel says in a joint interview with his father in a bustling café near the legal heart of London. "The first future is reassuringly familiar, a more efficient version of what professionals do today - they just use technology to streamline their old way of working. In the second future, what we call increasingly capable systems and machines actively displace the work of traditional professions. In the long run, we think that second future will dominate."

Media discussion is already depicting such a future as plausibly near. With TV fiction like Channel Four's Humans putting a robot "Synth" in every home, the Susskinds are on trend. They uncompromisingly posit a future when machines will kick human experts out of courtrooms, operating theatres, off drawing boards and even pulpits.

This vision is presented with academic brio in writing and in person with the friendly sparring of a family dinner table. Sounding markedly Scottish despite long living in London, Rich cues his son for details, then presses back in with his own examples.

In the 1980s, Richard built an early commercial expert system that transposed a leading lawyer's practical knowledge to computers; he has been thinking about lawyers' relationship with technology ever since, sensing his views applied to other professions. Daniel contributed experience from working at the 10 Downing Street Policy Unit and used a year as a Harvard Kennedy Scholar to seek evidence.

"It has been great fun and such a privilege to work as a father and son team," Richard says. They can no longer remember who first suggested they write a book together - a family affair five years in the making. Barrister son Jamie read the proofs; theology student daughter Alexandra and cognitive therapist wife Michelle offered reality checks from their respective fields.

To Jewish parents inclined to panic at losing a licence to kvell over their kids' careers, they urge patience. "My Son the Professor Doctor Robot QC" won't arrive tomorrow, Daniel smiles.

The Susskinds see traditional professional work declining because it is less and less affordable, uncompetitive and under pressure from technology. Audit and tax are areas particularly vulnerable to automation, they suggest.

Daniel takes the view that most professional work is standard process. If broken down into tasks, it can be delegated to less qualified colleagues, or done by a computer programme.

"Not everything that professionals do requires creativity, judgment and empathy. The routine work can be done very differently."

"Machines are increasingly really good at solving problems, offering advice, reasoning and drawing conclusions. More and more cognitive and emotional tasks will be taken on by machines."

Romping through dazzling advances in technology, they conclude that almost all human capacity traditionally applied by a person could be replaced.

Computers can range over vast quantities of data and analyse statistics; robotics can imitate the motor control of a vet or dentist, and systems are being built that can distinguish human expressions.

But they draw a line at humans handing over moral capacity.

"The idea of a machine making the decision to turn off a life support machine or to pass a life sentence - you'd like humans to be involved somewhere," Richard continues. He hopes the book will spark a public debate about the limits of technology, similar to one that followed the 1980s Warnock inquiry into assisted reproduction.

"As machines become more capable, we think there should be a public debate on limits. We still might say we don't want them to be involved in certain tasks."

The Susskinds welcome technology as a vast expansion on human capacity, offering stats like "92 per cent of legal problems in the United States go unresolved because people can not afford legal services" and "Doctors on average interrupt their patients within 18 seconds," ie they are not as good at listening or empathy, a key argument in relation to reserving these roles to humans, as we might think. With three billion internet users globally and two billion with smartphones, they argue online services do better than professionals ever could. The benefit of online dispute resolution is greater access to justice.

Jewish examples in the book illustrate our increasing comfort with technology - from an ultra Orthodox-sanctioned smartphone with limited browsing capability, to facial recognition technology that helped researchers find 1,000 new joins in fragments of the Cairo Genizah.

If any profession demonstrates the threat of technology, it is that of the clergy, traditional intermediaries between people and God. Now you can post a prayer on or @wall-prayers for others to print and stick in the Western Wall.

The Susskinds describe clergy of all faiths as in "turmoil" as a result of technology but engagingly describe discussions with their own rabbi who very nearly convinced them that the Shabbat prohibition against electricity means that there will always be jobs for rabbis.

"We are advancing into a post-professional society," they write. "Educators are unsure what they are training the next generation of professionals to become."

Meanwhile, people should head for jobs that still need human skills.

"There are new opportunities for people to break new ground and have interesting and prestigious jobs, probably greater than before. It just looks very different from the current professions," said Richard. "You can advise one client at a time. Or… develop a system that could help thousands."

New roles might include creators of systems deploying expert knowledge called process analysts, data scientists or systems engineers; moderators and designers who mediate people's interaction with them; and craftspeople, para-professionals and empathisers whose human touch gives them an edge over machines.

"You won't be doing what your parents did as a lawyer or doctor," acknowledges Richard. "But you might be improving access to justice or health in a way unimaginable in the past. "I'm sure one day mothers and grandmothers will be delighted to say 'My son the empathiser' or 'My daughter the knowledge engineer.'"

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