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The Future of the Professions

Authors: Richard Susskind and David Susskind

Reviewed by: Robin Jackson

The main claim of the authors is that we are on the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change in the way that the expertise of the professions is made available in society; the main driver of this change being technology. 

The authors argue that our professions are failing in six ways: economically, technologically, psychologically, morally, qualitatively and in terms of their scrutability. In economic terms, most people and organisations cannot afford the services of first-rate professionals. It is clear that it is not the expertise itself that is in short supply; it is the experts who are thin on the ground. The economic problem is not primarily a concern over the quality of the services delivered by the professionals, it is an issue of reach, in that relatively few people can afford to secure the services on offer.

The authors’ second objection to the professions is that by and large the arrangement presupposes a model of work, especially advisory work that rests on increasingly antiquated techniques for creating and sharing knowledge. The professions claim to exclusivity and special treatment rests, in part, on assumptions about the recipients of their work being unable to advise themselves because they lack the expertise, skills, know-how and experience or crucially, they lack the intellectual wherewithal or facilities to acquire this knowledge for themselves. The authors’ view is that there is nothing so special or unique about professionals’ knowledge to suggest that some of it cannot be made more easily accessible and understandable on an on-line basis.

The third shortcoming to which the authors draw attention is of a psychological nature. It can often be empowering for human beings to solve their problems by using their own knowledge or with insight that they may acquire through research and enquiry. The corollary here is also significant. Excluding people from understanding their problems and from engaging in their resolution can be disempowering. When professionals discourage the recipients of services from investigating their problems for themselves, they are, consciously or unconsciously, preserving a balance of power.

The authors’ fourth criticism is a moral one. The professions are responsible for many of the most important functions and services in society – yet affordable access to their work is woefully low. However in a technology-based Internet society there will be a wide range of new ways to create and share knowledge that are more affordable and accessible.

The fifth problem with the professions is that they underperform. The authors are not suggesting that the professions invariably achieve low levels of attainment. Rather they maintain that in most situations in which professional help is sought, what is made available may be adequate, good or even great, but rarely is it world class. Leading professional firms often claim that they strive to bring the best of their knowledge and experience to all of their clients. In practice, this is rarely achieved.

The final problem in the authors’ opinion is that the professions are unacceptably inscrutable. Recipients of professional services, often by the nature of the arrangement, are able neither to evaluate the substance of the guidance they receive nor to judge whether a given profession is best placed to undertake the work.

The authors are suggesting that by and large, our professions are unaffordable, under-exploiting technology, disempowering, ethically challengeable, underperforming and inscrutable.

Technology-related bias

Three biases with respect to technology are identified by the authors. The first is what they term irrational rejectionism. This is defined as the dogmatic dismissal of a system with which the sceptic has had no direct personal experience. The second technology-based bias is what the authors call ‘technological myopia’. This is the tendency to underestimate the potential of tomorrow’s applications by evaluating them in terms of today’s enabling technologies. This reflects the inability of a sceptic, because of the shortcomings of current technology, to concede that future systems may be radically more powerful than those of today.

The authors note that they are writing at a time when there is renewed interest in artificial intelligence. With this comes a third technology-related bias that they term the ‘AI fallacy’. This is the mistaken supposition that the only way to develop systems that perform tasks at a level of experts or higher is to replicate the thinking processes of human specialists. This anthropocentric view of ‘intelligent’ systems is limiting. It encourages professionals to leap to the unwarranted conclusion that systems cannot undertake tasks at a higher standard than human beings. It is pointed out that the systems of today are increasingly out-performing human experts, not by copying high-performing people but by exploiting the distinctive capabilities of new technologies, such as massive data-storage capacity and brute force processing.

The inevitability of change

When the arguments and predictions of their book are brought together, especially those relating to the rapid advances of technology and ongoing economic pressures it seems that the least likely future of all is that nothing much will change. And yet this is frequently the assumption of practitioners and policy makers – the strategic place of many professional bodies and firms anticipate little more than streamlining of 20th century working practices.

According to the authors the computerisation of the work of professionals began in earnest in the late 1970s with information retrieval systems. Then, in the 1980s, there were the first generation AI systems in the professions, when most focus was on expert systems technologies. In the next decade, the 1990s, there was a shift towards the field of knowledge management, when the professionals started to store and retrieve not just source materials but know-how and working practices. In the 2000s, Google came to dominate the research habits of many professionals, and grew to become the indispensable tool of practitioners searching for materials, if not for solutions. The authors expect the current decade, the 2010s, to be characterised by major progress with Big Data, where extremely large data sets can be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions. Into the 2020s and beyond, the authors predict the emergence and adoption of a second wave of AI systems in the professions.

Objections and anxieties

The authors explore and respond to what they take to be the most important objections and anxieties. Some of these apply to specific professions and others extend more widely. The emphasis is on concerns or regrets about abandoning aspects of the traditional professions. Eight concerns are addressed by the authors.

  1. With the loss of trustworthy institutions and without the professions, how can we protect ourselves from exploitation by unscrupulous quacks?
  2. There is an anxiety about the loss of the moral character of the professions. If liberalisation sweeps away the professions, are we comfortable with the market and market values playing a larger role?
  3. There is a worry about losing the old way of doing things. Do we not want to protect traditional professional crafts and skills?
  4. There is uneasiness over the loss of the personal touch. Is it important to preserve face-to-face interaction?
  5. There are concerns over the question of empathy. Can machines ever empathise with whom they are offering help?
  6. There are misgivings concerning the nature of the work that will remain. Will meaningful and fulfilling work be possible in the future?
  7. There is the objection that the new models outlined will cut the pipeline of experts. How do people learn their trade when machines are undertaking the routine work?
  8. The final concern is about future roles. What work will tomorrow’s professions do, and what are we training them to become?

Three common mistakes

Each of the eight objections in different ways challenges the wisdom of allowing our professions to fade from society. From looking across the objections, three broad classes of underlying mistakes can be detected. The first is a tendency, as time passes, to confuse the means with the ends. In a technology-based Internet society, where there are more effective ways to produce and distribute practical expertise that makes less use of personal interaction, the error is to let this veneration for tradition inhibit important change. There are a myriad other opportunities in life for human beings to enjoy face-to-face interaction with one another. There is no obvious reason why our apparent need for interpersonal contact should have to be satisfied by our accountants and doctors.

The second mistake is a failure to strike the best balance between competing values. The professions are responsible for many of the most important functions and services in society. Yet levels of access and affordability to the practical expertise that the professions provide are woefully low. The authors stress again that the combination of these two reasons – the importance of what they provide and the current inadequacy of provision – must invariably trump the case to protect the present set-up.

The third mistake is to expect more of our machines than we expect of ourselves. Those who object often demand that the people and the systems that replace the professionals should attain a level of moral virtuosity or a degree of empathy that outstrips those who currently work in the professions. The authors argue that the question that should be asked of a proposed new system or service is not how it compares to traditional service but whether it would be better than nothing at all.

Commentary 

This is a very well researched book written with commendable clarity and persuasive logic. The authors’ central argument is profoundly important not least in pointing to the fact that knowledge and expertise is no longer the privileged and exclusive domain of any one profession. The authors are not arguing here that the professions will disappear but rather that their character and function will undergo a profound transformation. One implication flowing from the authors’ analysis but not addressed is the future character and shape of professional training. It could be argued that the current lengthy and highly expensive training offered for different professional groups could be significantly reduced given that much of what was previously privileged knowledge and know-how is now accessible and in the public domain. There is then a sense in which the growing accessibility and affordability of knowledge and expertise can be represented as a form of democratisation hopefully leading to the creation of a fairer and more open society. One potential benefit of the creation of a better informed society is the opportunity that that affords to challenge ill-conceived policies and practices based on ideological beliefs lacking empirical support.

The authors concede that they cannot predict with any certainty the impact of technology in the decades ahead given the exponential growth of different forms of artificial intelligence. Already there are machines that not only can think like human beings but, crucially, can outthink them! If one is not vigilant a society may be created which is no longer open and fair and where crucial decisions concerning the health, welfare and security of citizens are determined by algorithms - complex problem-solving formulae - and not human beings. At that point - what opportunities will citizens have to challenge such decisions?

The strength of this book lies in the fact that the authors present their case with forensic clarity and compelling logic eschewing the temptation to oversimplify or exaggerate. This insightful assessment of the future of the professions should be read not only by members of all professional groups but also by those - most of us - who may at some time need to seek recourse to professional help.


The publisher is Oxford University Press.

The Future of the Professions © Richard Susskind and David Susskind 2015.

Review: The Future of the Professions © Robin Jackson 2016.

All rights reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.