Faced with the claim that AI and robots are poised to replace most of today's workforce, most mainstream professionals — doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so on — believe they will emerge largely unscathed. During our consulting work and at conferences, we regularly hear practitioners concede that routine work can be taken on by machines, but they maintain that human experts will always be needed for the tricky stuff that calls for judgment, creativity, and empathy.
Our research and analysis challenges the idea that these professionals will be spared. We expect that within decades the traditional professions will be dismantled, leaving most, but not all, professionals to be replaced by less-expert people, new types of experts, and high-performing systems.
We conducted around 100 interviews, not with mainstream professionals but with leaders and new providers in eight professional fields: health, law, education, audit, tax, consulting, journalism, architecture, and divinity. Our focus was on what has actually been achieved at the cutting edge. We also immersed ourselves in over 800 related sources — published books, internal reports, and online systems. We found plenty of evidence that radical change in professional work is already under way.
There are more monthly visits to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all the doctors in the United States. Annually, in the world of disputes, 60 million disagreements among eBay traders are resolved using "online dispute resolution" rather than lawyers and judges — this is three times the number of lawsuits filed each year in the entire U.S. court system. The U.S. tax authorities in 2014 received electronic tax returns from almost 50 million people who had relied on online tax-preparation software rather than human tax professionals. At WikiHouse, an online community designed a house that could be "printed" and assembled for less than £50,000. In 2011 the Vatican granted the first digital imprimatur to an app called "Confession" which helps people prepare for confession.
We believe these are but a few early indicators of a fundamental shift in professional service. Within professional organizations (firms, schools, hospitals), we are seeing a move away from tailored, unique solutions for each client or patient towards the standardization of service. Increasingly, doctors are using checklists, lawyers rely on precedents, and consultants work with methodologies. More recently, there has been a shift to systematization, the use of technology to automate and sometimes transform the way that professional work is done — from workflow systems through to AI-based problem-solving. More fundamentally, once professional knowledge and expertise is systematized, it will then be made available online, often as a chargeable service, sometimes at no cost, and occasionally but increasingly on a commons basis, in the spirit of the open source movement. There are already many examples of online professional service.
The claim that the professions are immune to displacement by technology is usually based on two assumptions: that computers are incapable of exercising judgment or being creative or empathetic, and that these capabilities are indispensable in the delivery of professional service. The first problem with this position is empirical. As our research shows, when professional work is broken down into component parts, many of the tasks involved turn out to be routine and process-based. They do not in fact call for judgment, creativity, or empathy.
The second problem is conceptual. Insistence that the outcomes of professional advisers can only be achieved by sentient beings who are creative and empathetic usually rests on what we call the "AI fallacy" — the view that the only way to get machines to outperform the best human professionals will be to copy the way that these professionals work. The error here is not recognizing that human professionals are already being outgunned by a combination of brute processing power, big data, and remarkable algorithms. These systems do not replicate human reasoning and thinking. When systems beat the best humans at difficult games, when they predict the likely decisions of courts more accurately than lawyers, or when the probable outcomes of epidemics can be better gauged on the strength of past medical data than on medical science, we are witnessing the work of high-performing, unthinking machines.
Our inclination is to be sympathetic to this transformative use of technology, not least because today's professions, as currently organized, are creaking. They are increasingly unaffordable, opaque, and inefficient, and they fail to deliver value evenly across our communities. In most advanced economies, there is concern about the spiraling costs of health care, the lack of access to justice, the inadequacy of current educational systems, and the failure of auditors to recognize and stop various financial scandals. The professions need to change. Technology may force them to.
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