The Future of the Professions

A review

These days I takes a book to make me stop and think.

Anyone who’s old enough will have seen the disruption caused by technological change all before – my 126 grandfather saw it all, his father, born in 1867 felt it more severely: off the land, groom, head groom, trained as mechanic and chauffeur, put out of work, started his own taxi business – in Consett, where there were mines and a steel mill. 

On a technological level, born in the early 1960s, I’ve lived through it as an early adopter with my Amstrad and then Apple Classic producing spreadsheets and production schedules in TV and the desktop computer doing secretarial and personal assistance. 

I can reflect on my own background in video production, where multiple levels of skills were taught and where now one person can do everything. Has tech replaced the technician through automating cameras and microphones, even hugely simplifying editing.  Will what has happened to the TV crew – down from seven going out on a unionised ‘outside report’ in the early 1980s to a lone journalist with a bodycam and a handheld microphone, happen elsewhere? Tech has been automated, simplified, miniaturised and made far cheaper. – that’s replacing tech with tech – that pattern is easy to see. But what about brain power? Computing power was the first win for computers but know we have knowledge going the same way. You don’t need the lawyer who has had ten years specialising in IP law when a database will do the searches for you. Houses are offered to you based on some search criteria, so good by estate agents – with holiday agents going the same way (neither assisted by a global pandemic).

Anyone old enough to have experienced the last 20 years will have a feel for the before and after of social media, Amazon, Wikipedia, Google Search and Maps. 

Reading like a briefing to an amiable and popular Prime Minister, The Future of Professions by father and son economists and Oxford academics Richard and Daniel Susskind makes for a compelling, smart and balanced review. Though from economists,  the word and stories serve over elegant theories and charts. Like anthropologists the Susskinds hypothesize that a range of ‘overlapping and crisscrossing’ similarities lead to certain professions being related. (p.15) They suggest that professional know-how is historically bound by common values, certification and regulations which hinders disruption. 

My observation when it comes to education is two-fold, that some are selling the institution and its teachers, rather than a specific young person on the way to a meaningful life of gainful employment for them, and that edtech like JamBoard, Nearpod and even Google Meet or Zoom are variations on the drill, when the focus, however nebulous it may be, should be on the quality and nature of the multilayered, complex and interleaved knowledge gained by the student. The pedagogy comes first – learning design that marries resources and opportunities, rather than doing things in a certain way ‘because that is how they have always been done’. 

I wonder too, as the Susskinds do, if more effort should be made to enable and encourage students to acquire more of the knowledge they require ‘outside the workshop and away from the sports facility, lab or classroom’ … (p.37) that they need to ‘enquire’ around the subject in their own way rather than thinking the college can ‘spoon feed’ the answers. 

The authors introduce us to the idea of the ‘Four Phases Model’. p.147) This suggests that societies have been dependent respectively on periods dominated by orality, script, print and now digital. 

At each of these phases what we humans could do collectively was improved by advancing our means to communicate, keep and share information and knowledge.

Beginning with the spoken word knowledge was passed on through stories, song and some surviving cave art. This was followed by the written word – albeit cut onto pieces of wood or stamped into pieces of clay before evolving onto walls as hieroglyphs, as symbols forming sentences on papyrus and hand written and richly illustrated manuscripts and books. 

In the evolution of human communications, the printed word is recent. The printing press spread the word and began the democratisation of communicable knowledge. Type writers – even the dictaphone made us servants to the printed page, printers, photocopiers and the fax machine.  All means to get more words recorded efficiently and shared and stored.

The fourth phase – digital, has barely begun. Four hundred years ago university libraries such as the Bodleian, Oxford thought they contained the sum of all human knowledge. A number of copyright libraries around the world have tried, collectively, to stack and share everything ever printed (access limited to their students of course) – a thankless and perhaps pointless task since digitisation. 

It took 400 years to swamp the world in unnecessary print matter, it has taken less than a decade to generate a digital overload. The authors describe ‘Information overload’ as a product of the flux between print and I.T. (p.151) 

There are over 5 billion online. In 2005 25% of stored information was digital, by 

in 2015 it had reached 98%. 

This explains how our lives are now scrambled by communications coming at us from every direction all the time – until we turn off that device. I do not know how to turn my iPhone off! My children worry that I should even ask. Why would I want to turn it off?!

Digital has been as disruptive in a decade, as railways were in a century, motor vehicles print was over several centuries 

‘The next quarter century will see more change in higher education that the last three centuries combined’ (93) New York Times 20 Jan 2012 

To explain how AI works the authors consider how a person can outrun a Cheetah, not by growing four legs and using Terminator style bionics, but by getting on a motorbike with two wheels. The same applies to understanding ‘heavier than air’ –  you don’t make a suit with feathers on it but you create an aeroplane. The same applies to a computer beating the TV game Jeopardy with a computer that can scan instantly 200 million pages of documents. (p.276) Compared to cheetahs and birds regarding travelling fast or flying.

The authors introduce us to the idea of the AI Fallacy –  the mistaken view that the only way to develop systems that perform tasks at the level of the experts or higher somehow is to replicate processes of human specialists. (p.165) 

In order to understand who our thinking can be wrong headed the give the story of a sales team at a tradeshow showing off a sophisticated new power drill – as if it is the drill, and the act of picking the right one, that matters to clients, when in fact it is the resulting hole the people want. The next way to deliver the hole might be a non-contact laser drill or water power jet – or some such achieving the same result quicker and with greater precision. 

If AI can tailor a virtual treatment program for people with social anxiety, without external human intervention – then AI teachers can devise personalised language, maths and other virtual learning programs without external human intervention.

It’s nice to know that the Susskinds consider there will be a need for human beings (p.277)

  1. Cognitive capability – the ability to think, understand, analyse, reason, solve problems and reflect.
  2. Effective capability – the capacity to have feelings and emotions, both introspective and in response to others.
  3. Manual capability – physical and psychomotor aptitude
  4. Moral capability – to distinguish right from wrong

BOX 6.1 Future Roles (p.264)

Crafts People

Assistants

Para-Professionals

Emphathisers

R&D workers

Knowledge engineers

Process analysts

Designers

System providers

Data scientists

System engineers 

The authors explain how the training of professions will change. 

‘Most recipients of professional work, if offered the option, would select lower-cost worth and guidance from an institution that has to redesign its training over a higher-price service from an institution that is unwilling to revisit its methods of education’ (p.259)

> para-professionalism

> knowledge engineering

> communities of experience

> machine-generated expertise

In conclusion, their concerns:

  1. Loss of trustworth institutions
  2. Loss of moral character of the professions
  3. Loss of craft skills
  4. Loss of the personal touch and face to face
  5. Empathy
  6. What’s left?
  7. How do we people learn if the professionals along the way have been replaced?
  8. What will professionals do or become?

The authors suggest that professionals show a  ‘profound reluctance’ … ‘to share and reuse their knowledge’. The answer is that like tenured academics, these professionals (lawyers, architects), should – for a salary, make their knowledge available openly for others to build upon.

Utopian? Something has to change.

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