Tuesday, 16 February 2016

End of the road for doctors and lawyers?

Why are the ‘professions’ paid so much? Because they are worth it, of course. They have the knowledge that allows us to function in our complex modern world. Doctor’s maintain our health, lawyers settle our disputes and arrange contracts, teachers teach and so on. However, most of the professions are knowledge based and a recent book asserts that their days are numbered, as are their high salaries.

I listened to a panel of speakers discussing the book, The Future of the Professions, this week in Oxford. Both authors were present and both had the surname Susskind - at first I thought that they were brothers though they looked very different. Both handsome men, one of them reminded me of Frankie Vaughan and the other Freddy of the Dreamers, in other words very, very different. It was only when the thin, bearded one called the broad-featured one Dad that I got it.

Illustration by Norwegian cartoonist and illustrator, Kristian Hammerstad, from “Rise of the Robots,” a New York Times Sunday Book Review article, May 11, 2015.
Illustration by Norwegian cartoonist and illustrator, Kristian Hammerstad, from “Rise of the Robots,” a New York Times Sunday Book Review article, May 11, 2015. 
Their book was praised, criticised and analysed by three academics: one from the Internet world, another from the religious dimension and the third a sociologist. The latter was the most critical; she quoted the use of MOOCs, the free on-line courses where only 5% of those who started actually completed the courses. The authors’ response was that enrolment for one of Harvard’s MOOCs attracted more applicants than the total number of students of Harvard – ever. So 5% completion of a free course was pretty good.

The authors were both cogent and convincing, arguing that it is wrong to look only at jobs in the professions – the jobs should be broken down into tasks. They cited the example of the tasks that nurses now do that doctors previously did. But their main point is that technology is creating solutions that are superior to those offered by the professions and that this trend will continue. Expert systems could soon be better at diagnosis than the GP and could also be programmed to be empathetic. Similarly, lawyers cannot access and process the vast databases of trials and case law at the speeds and scope that a clever computer can. They cited a simple and existing example: millions of disputes about transaction on eBay are now settled via its resolution system with no lawyers involved.

I think that they are right, particularly where the tasks are simply knowledge based – as many professional tasks are. Progress in this direction will be spotty, but could be rapid. The NHS already has an online symptom checker. I’ve tried it. It is very basic and does not even link to the patient’s records, but when it does so, and when it incorporates AI and access to the massive amount of data on treatments, it is likely to exceed the competence of the average GP with his or her salary of £100,000 per annum.

There are problems of course: ownership of data being one and culpability in the event of incorrect diagnosis being another. But these problems exist for the existing doctors too and it is conceivable that future automated solutions may have greater access to data and hence provide superior diagnoses.

Sometimes a little voice in my head says to me, “haven’t we heard all this future gazing stuff before? Long before, perhaps in the 1970s, when the computer was going to take over almost everyone’s jobs and robots the remainder”. That did not happen, or at least not to the extent that some soothsayers then claimed. But in the meantime technology has made great strides: computers are so much more powerful and have the capability to learn; the Internet and Web provide an undreamed of degree of interconnectivity; and the means of sharing and intelligently mining vast databases has become feasible. So maybe we are on the brink of a great change which will revolutionise the professions.  Interesting isn’t it that this revolution will rock the well paid professionals, possibly leaving the artisans, creative artists, bricklayers and so on to carry on as before.

As I finished writing this I had need to approach a solicitor for advice  and was shocked by their charges – almost £300 per hour! Roll on automation and a more equitable world.