Father and son enter robot wars

Father and son enter robot wars

LONDON — At the moment, this article is being written by a journalist – a human one. But if the father-and-son British academics Richard and Daniel Susskind are correct, in the next 50 years technological changes will mean a transformation so that traditional professions – medicine, law, accountancy, architecture, and yes, even journalism – will be unrecognisable.

Depending on one’s perspective, the new book by Richard and Daniel Susskind, “The Future of the Professions,” is either deeply troubling, as the pair spell out in forensic detail how many of us will become obsolete, or greatly cheering, as they lay out opportunities for people to embrace new ways of improving life through technological advances.

But at least one beneficiary of the Susskinds’ thesis is the state of Israel, the original start-up nation. The family has long had an apartment in Tel Aviv and both men speak admiringly of the opportunities seized by Israeli companies to utilise new technology.

Oddly, says Richard Susskind, “It’s easier for Israel to do this because it has less of a legacy. It doesn’t need to say, this is the way we always did it, because it is such a young country.”

There aren’t too many books written by fathers and sons but the Susskinds’ venture has the merit, they say, of almost no distinction as to who wrote which part of their book.

Richard, who still retains the gravelly Scottish accent of his birthplace (Paisley, just outside Glasgow), calls himself “half a lawyer, half a technologist,” and even though he originally qualified as a lawyer, he has spent much of his career both writing about technological impact and advising other lawyers – including the Lord Chief Justice of England – on tech advances.

His son, Daniel, is an economist at Balliol College, Oxford, who previously worked at Downing Street and the British Cabinet Office before becoming a Kennedy scholar at Harvard University where he “stopped doing economics and studied philosophy and maths.” In Britain he had been part of two government teams, the Policy Unit and the Strategy Unit, advising Gordon Brown on various issues including economics, tax and health.

‘Really, the question I have spent the last 30-odd years trying to answer is, can computers offer legal advice?’
Richard’s imagination was first caught by the tech bug when still an undergraduate in Scotland, and his doctorate was on law and artificial intelligence. These days he is a visiting professor of law at University College, London, adviser to a variety of international law and accounting companies and to governments, as well as being president of the Society for Computer and Law.

“Really, the question I have spent the last 30-odd years trying to answer is, can computers offer legal advice?” The answer, Richard says, is “yes, to some extent, and as we say in the book, to an increasing extent, and not only in the law.”

Other lawyers don’t agree, insisting that only human beings retain the essential element of judgment, whatever the level of technological development.

But the genesis of the book, says Daniel, came about when both men noticed that after one of Richard’s lectures to lawyers about technology and the law, people in other professions, such as accountancy, architecture, or education, came up afterwards and asked about technological innovation in their worlds.

At the same time Daniel was working in Westminster and had an overview of what was happening throughout the UK. His move to Harvard provided him with an opportunity to look at technology in the US, and to carry out around 100 interviews which form the core of evidence in the book as to how professions are changing due to technology.

“We found,” says Daniel, “that so many professions had a common set of challenges. And so the book evolved.”

Technological ‘myopia’
The Susskinds are only too aware of the irony that given the built-in obsolescence of almost all the content of their work, that they have actually chosen to address these issues – in a book. But Richard believes the academic opinion-formers whom they are trying to influence will still seek out a book as their point of reference — although the Susskinds don’t rule out follow-ups in animated films or videos.

“It reflects the learning and reading habits of the constituency we are addressing,” they explain.

In fact, as both father and son acknowledge, the book’s title is slightly misleading. For what they are writing about is not so much the future of the professions, as the future of the human professionals within the professions.

Technology, the Susskinds say, will change radically the way in which law or medicine or accountancy is carried out, and they offer numerous examples of advances in each field.

Tellingly, even though there are passages devoted to the clergy, the one group which the Susskinds acknowledge is exempt from so many of these developments is the Orthodox rabbinate – since they will not enact technology designed to improve their “product” on Shabbat or holidays.

Overall they are concerned that critics are not getting their bigger message, and say, acknowledging that this is slightly disparaging, that some such critics are suffering from “technological myopia.”

“Just because someone has tried, for example, an online learning program and not found it very good,” says Richard, “doesn’t mean that there won’t be other developments down the line which will be better.”

I raise a story which appeared on the morning of our interview, about a woman in France who has developed a machine allowing domestic consumers to re-create haute cuisine meals in their homes, in much the same way as Nespresso machines, referred to by the Susskinds in their book, allow the user to produce the perfect cup of coffee, time after time.

“The real issue,” says Daniel, “is not about repetition but affordable access. Technology will allow you to consult a medical program or an accountancy program for significantly less than if you want to see the top doctor or accountant. It’s perhaps not whether the meal or the coffee is good enough, but whether the law or the architecture is good enough.”

Interestingly, many of the objections to the computerisation of society are to do with a loss of the personal contact. But Daniel points to a different kind of engagement, specifically due to technology: “Fifteen years ago a patient would go and see a doctor and say, what’s wrong with me? Now the patient goes and says, ‘Doctor, I think there’s three things wrong with me, which of them is it?’ Previously, people just delegated to the professionals.”

Nevertheless, the Susskinds acknowledge, there are question marks over whether a machine can make a decision on when or whether to turn off a life-support system, or if a machine can make a delicate judgment in law.

Anyone who is at the leading edge of their profession is more likely to be hungry for progress, say the Susskinds. “Very few of those kind of people will say ‘job done’ in terms of tech advance.”

But, though Daniel, as the economist of the pair, says much of what they are writing about is advances designed to make modern life affordable by using technology rather than human experts, they both have at the forefront of their minds the moral issues of use of robots and computers.

“Often,” they say, “it’s not whether a machine can do something. It’s whether it should.”

There will still, say the Susskinds, be some things that a machine cannot do, primarily in the creative fields. But their mantra, they say, is that of computer scientist Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

  • 19 November, 2015