Susskind  

Above: Richard Susskind, visiting professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, and Daniel Susskind, lecturer at Balliol, co-authored the book

By Richard Susskind (Balliol, 1983) Daniel Susskind (Balliol, 2006) 

Our main claim is that we are on the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change in the way that the expertise of specialists is made available in society. Technology will be the main driver of this change. And, in the long run, we will neither need nor want professionals to work in the way that they did in the twentieth century and before.
 
SusskindThere is growing evidence that a transformation is already under way. More people signed up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year, for example, than have attended the actual university in its 377 years of existence. In the same spirit, there are a greater number of unique visits each month to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all the doctors working in the United States. In the legal world, three times as many disagreements each year amongst eBay traders are resolved using ‘online dispute resolution’ than there are lawsuits filed in the entire US court system. On its sixth birthday, the Huffington Post had more unique monthly visitors than the website of the New York Times, which is almost 164 years of age. The British tax authorities use a fraud-detection system that holds more data than the British Library (which has copies of every book ever published in the UK). In 2014 the US tax authorities received electronic tax returns from almost 48 million people who had used online tax preparation software rather than a tax professional to help them.
 
At WikiHouse, an online community designed a house that could be ‘printed’ and assembled for less than £50,000 (built successfully in London during September 2014).The architectural firm Gramazio & Kohler used a group of autonomous flying robots to assemble a structure out of 1,500 bricks.  The consulting firm Accenture has 750 hospital nurses on its staff, while Deloitte, founded as an audit practice 170 years ago, now has over 200,000 professionals and its own full-scale university set in a 700,000 square-foot campus in Texas. Meanwhile, the Pope has 19.3 million followers on Twitter; the Dalai Lama has a modest 10.4 million.
 
We believe that these developments are connected. They are early indicators of a transformation that we have been studying together since 2010. At that time, our main preoccupation was with the work of our current professions. However, as our research and thinking progressed, we concluded that a more basic and important question also had to be addressed—how do we share expertise in society? In what we term a ‘print-based industrial society’, the professions have played a central role in the sharing of expertise. They have been the main channel through which individuals and organizations have gained access to certain kinds of knowledge and experience. However, in a ‘technology-based Internet society’, we predict that increasingly capable machines, operating on their own or with non-specialist users, will take on many of the tasks that have been the historic preserve of the professions.We anticipate an ‘incremental transformation’ in the way that we produce and distribute expertise in society. This will lead eventually to a dismantling of the traditional professions.
NY Times 
Above: The New York Times, a 164-year-old newspaper, is being overtaken by young internet rivals
 
For the current recipients and beneficiaries of the work of the professions, we bring the possibility of good tidings—of a world in which expertise is more accessible and affordable than ever before. For professional providers, although our thesis may seem threatening, we anticipate that a range of new opportunities will emerge. These are our hopes. But we also recognise that the new systems for sharing expertise could be misused, and we are troubled by this possibility. In any event, increasingly capable systems will bring transformations to professional work that will resemble the impact of industrialisation on traditional craftsmanship.
Oxford 
Above: Will personal interactions such as tutorials be fundamentally changed by computers?
 
To sceptics, consider this: in the mid-1990s, when we predicted (in retrospect, rather unambitiously) that electronic mail would become the dominant way in which clients and lawyers would communicate, senior officials at the Law Society of England and Wales said that we should not be allowed to speak in public, that we failed to understand confidentiality, and that we were bringing the legal profession into disrepute. We recall this anecdote now in order to invite those who feel an intuitive distaste for our arguments to suspend disbelief for a short while and give serious contemplation to the notion that the future may look nothing at all like the past. Although some of the developments we anticipate in this book may seem outlandish today, none is more improbable than the idea of e-mail between lawyers and clients seemed in the mid-1990s.

ebay

Above: Three times as many disagreements each year amongst eBay traders are resolved using ‘online dispute resolution’ than there are lawsuits filed in the entire US court system.

Professionals play such a central role in our lives that we can barely imagine different ways of tackling the problems that they sort out for us. But the professions are not immutable. They are an artefact that we have built to meet a particular set of needs in a print-based industrial society. As we progress into a technology-based internet society, however, we claim that the professions in their current form will no longer be the best answer to those needs. To pick out a few of their shortcomings—we cannot afford them, they are often antiquated, the expertise of the best is enjoyed only by a few, and their workings are not transparent. For these and other reasons, we believe today’s professions should and will be displaced by feasible alternatives.

Why study the professions as one phenomenon? Although they draw on different bodies of knowledge, their jargon varies, and their working practices can be quite diverse, we suggest that the professions have many features in common. Chief amongst these is that all professions, in analogous ways, are a solution to the same problem—that none of us has sufficient specialist knowledge to cope with all of our daily challenges. Human beings have limited understanding, and so we look to doctors, teachers, lawyers, and other professionals because they have expertise that we need to make progress in life. Professionals have knowledge, experience, skills, and know-how that those they help do not.

Oxford

The book predicts the decline of experts as we know them, as the rise in new technologies transforms the way that practical know-how is shared in society 

There are also practical reasons for considering a collection of professions together in one sweep. First of all, we believe that professions have much to learn from one another. Many have become increasingly introspective, driven into greater specialisation, so that practitioners within a given profession often have a limited view of the work and achievements of their own colleagues, still less of the activities and progress in other disciplines. Our discussions with a wide range of professionals suggest that they find it enlightening and exciting to learn of advances in other fields, even if they are not immediate neighbours. They can draw analogies from the work of others and carry lessons learned into their own areas.

More than this, professionals frequently see the potential and need for fundamental change in others more clearly than in themselves. Very often, after we give talks on our ideas, we are approached by individuals who argue that what we say applies right across the professions except in one field—their own. Lawyers, for example, tend to be quick to argue for a shake-up in our health and education services, but find it less apparent that legal services would benefit from major overhaul. In tackling a range of professions, our intention is to encourage practitioners from many fields to think more widely and strategically, and to be tolerant of the possibility of change in their own disciplines— a view of widened horizons elsewhere should broaden their perspective at home. 

Images © OUP and Shutterstock

Comments

By Allan Leroy
on

I can see that professional intervention in problem solving is becoming unnecessary as the global knowledge base expands but the ability to access a useful answer to a question depends on the skill and persistence of the questioner in dealing with the IT interface. Emotional lability affects us all at times and will be a factor in trying to seek an answer from what is essentially a machine. The distraught litigant or the frightened patient needs the comfort of human sympathy and understanding. The experienced practitioner in whatever field can give guidance and reassurance which have the imprint of authority based on experience. Future generations will use new techniques to seek out knowledge and the most skilled will benefit greatly from ever expanding possibilities but faced with fear and helplessness, which we will all feel sometimes, being human we will always need someone to help us through the maze.

By David Rattenbury
on

You hit the nail squarely on the head!
To sell a house at a good price, I need eHarmony to find a like minded couple to buy - not a realtor.
Now if you could find a way to replace professional politicians, that would be a win for us all.

By John Hudson
on

Professions defined by expertise may disappear but the original purpose of a profession was to uphold ethical standards - something that most modern professions have signalled failed to do. There will still need to be groups who work to ethical standards - something which most free and open source programmers do anyway.

The most effective way of learning is from a model who explains what they do - hence, the historic importance of guru-student relationships. This will not change however much technology is able to convey what was originally conveyed in lectures.

By Brad Morrow
on

I agree with your findings and conclusions. The shift will need to plan for a redirection of efforts by those professionals or aspiring professionals to redeploy into needed areas such as oversight and audit on government proceedings, distribution and efficiency of taxes and its results in successfully meeting budget allotments and the projects funded and completed, hopefully, within timely allowances and with a high success margin for quality. In the USA we are facing the largest infrastructure needs since 1890-1915.

I had a less than satisfactory experience in 1986. I am a merchant banker by training and my institution with two others were chosen to research the internal processes and external markets and competition of the then world's largest automaker. My portion included analyzing the structure, costs and systems concepts supporting the manufacturing process. My research showed that 43% of manufacturing expenditures were spent on the administration of offering 150+ variations of essentially the same five car bodies and the quality of materials used had been downgraded to keep certain margins in historical line. What had made this manufacturer the purveyor of American tastes in the 1950s & 1960s had blinded them to a shift in both attitudes and age groups. One Japanese automaker had 5 car choices and its operating margins were five times better than the American automaker. The quality was substantially better and it's maintenance costs were the lowest in the industry. It was easy to project the continuation of basic trends and our reports from all three major institutions agreed that proceeding in the same fashion would lead to bankruptcy in 2006. We undershot our target date by two months.

Executive management was not capable of accepting any scenario where it did not maintain market share superiority in North America. Its internal culture was so ingrained that our suggestions for modifications were declined in toto. It was sadly frustrating and as an American businessman a lesson in the time it takes for established businesses to accept the risk of change. Technology advances, like the Industrial Revolution before it, charts its own course and feeds off of inefficiency in a vacuum until the top 80% has been retooled.

Thank you for your article. It does not have to be a doom and gloom so ituation if professionals can be deployed to assist in changes and improvements.

Regards,

Brad Morrow

By Janet STEVENS
on

Somewhere in the ether, the spirit of Ivan Illich is smiling..... I understand that he was not a total fan of the WWW but there is no doubt that it is already bringing to fulfilment his vision of knowledge shared and no longer the property of the "conspiracy against the laity".

By Maurice Herson
on

Like in many things, there's the pendulum effect that will redress the movement here too, I suspect. Take travel agents - more below on 'professions' - who went into almost terminal decline with online booking by travellers. However a great number of us neither enjoy nor are very good at spending many hours on frustrating websites to book our own travel. My guess is not that online travel-booking will wither and die, but that there will also be a resurgence of travel agents - people who can navigate that online world for us, save us the time, the effort and the aggravation. They may look different and operate differently from the agents of thirty years ago, but that expertise is of enough marginal value that they will reshape their niche rather than abandon it. They may even return to the high-street, as small shops are doing - have you noticed how the supermarkets that made the small shops all but redundant are now returning to our localities with mini-markets? The pendulum swung too far and will swing back. So I suspect with many 'professions'.

We need not just some measure of expertise (and experts) in navigating parts of the world - whether that be sectors of knowledge or tools like the internet - but for guidance in making judgements, as a previous comment said, for training, even for putting into the online libraries what non-professionals want to access. So, the niche may shrink for a while and it will change, but my guess is that in many fields, the pendulum will swing back somewhat.

And then there's the 'professionals' issue. This is a rather middle-class argument here. We will need decorators and plumbers, cooks, shop-keepers and many others. Not all that exist now, just as the need for farriers is limited now and many previous crafts have totally disappeared, or been replaced by analogous ones (plumbers no longer generally deal with lead). We are a long way from automated transport that doesn't need bus-drivers (who have also acquired the old role of conductors - adapted the niche), and so on. I think the observations of the authors are interesting and appear astute, but extrapolated too far.

By Graham Cooper
on

Re: Your last paragraph on lawyers. I agree.
BBC news had an article this week about it, concluding that the law seems archaic, chaotic & slow.
However, I am pleased to say that British citizens can DIY in the formerly restricted fields of marriage & divorce, buying & selling real property, financial trading, wills and probate.
Progress is being made by those of us willing to do the reading, research & forms.
It does help to have a good education.

By Jerry Rhodes
on

I believe the two Susskinds are really on to something in finding commonalities in all professions. The main difference between professions is in their different knowledge and experience. What they share is the need for the skills of interpretation, judgment and imagination. What they need is the language to recognise the kinds of thinking they are using from one time to another, the thinking they should be mustering for a particular task, and the skill to steer their thinking intentions. Surprising though it is, most professions do not yet share such a meta-level language, yet this may be the simplest way they can be brought together.

What’s obviously special in each profession is their field of knowledge and experience. They choose from seemingly exponential masses of data the knowledge that matters and the (process) questions that will reach for it without being obscured and drowned out by noise. When it comes to sharing their expertise, their workings may not be transparent, partly to protect their own exclusive powers, and partly because they are unable to communicate their workings, as they have no sound model of thought in common with other professions or those they are trying to help.

Worse still, specialism increases the tendency of professionals of all kinds to treat other specialisms as rivals and to withdraw into their own defensive ‘silos’, making joined up thinking unwelcome.

There surely are those exciting and enlightening possibilities to learn from advances in other fields. Our research shows that sadly these are kept at bay by the signal difficulty many otherwise able people have to exploit their imagination to recognise analogies and act on them.

Even clever people do not all rise to ‘Effective Intelligence’.

Add new comment