Robots will force experts to find other routes to the top

Robots will force experts to find other routes to the top
By Andrew Hill February 8, 2016 11:42 am

If grunt work of professions is automated, an important way that juniors hone skills will be lost

There is a point in any talk about the automated future of the professions when the audience visibly relaxes.

It comes when futurists concede that a few expert lawyers, consultants or accountants will still be needed, even after cheaper, more efficient computer systems have taken over many of their juniors’ tasks.

It happened last week at a lecture by Richard and Daniel Susskind, which the organisers claimed was the largest ever gathering of senior managers in UK professional services firms.

The father-and-son authors of The Future of the Professions predicted radical change in the sector. But the tense scepticism in the room dissipated as each senior partner or director quietly acknowledged he or she would be a survivor, even if algorithms and artificial intelligence swept away the consultant or solicitor in the next seat.

This cohort may well reach retirement unscathed — and without much incentive to alter how they work. As Richard Susskind told me afterwards, “it’s hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they have got their model wrong”. But change is coming. The main difference of opinion is over its pace and extent.

You can already ask Kim, a legal “virtual assistant” launched by Riverview Law, for help managing your caseload, or get Ross, IBM Watson’s “super intelligent attorney”, to research the entire body of law in seconds. But a crystal-ball-gazing report by The Law Society, the trade body for solicitors in England and Wales, expects the impact of this type of automation to level off by 2020.

The society’s Stephen Denyer told last week’s gathering that clients were not only looking for practical counsel, but for “negotiating skills, judgment, ethical standards, and reassurance about the direction they’re taking”.

Fine. But how will the senior partners of the future achieve that level of wisdom when machines are doing the tasks that allow them to build and hone their expertise?

Take financial journalism. I spent three years as a trainee building confidence and skill by churning out news about corporate earnings. This is precisely the type of report that, quite rightly, Associated Press now produces automatically, in partnership with a company called — ominously for all columnists — Automated Insights.

Another parallel is aviation, where crashes often trigger fears that autopilots are undermining human skills. Interviewed last year about the 2009 Air France crash, Delmar Fadden, Boeing’s former chief of cockpit technology, told Vanity Fair that, having automated 98 per cent of pilots’ routine work, “we really worry about the tasks we ask them to do just occasionally”.

The answer is not to halt the march of the robots. Indeed, technology is part of the solution. Novice astronauts are not trained by sending them on repeated costly moonshots. They practise the tasks and challenges they will face in carefully designed simulations, until they are finally ready for the launch pad.

As Prof Susskind points out, law students at the University of Strathclyde play out real-world legal problems in a fictional virtual community called “Ardcalloch”.

In the real world, professionals must recognise much of the work they hand to juniors is repetitive servitude, often imposed on the tacit assumption that, if they had to do it, so should the new generation. Clients may still prefer dealing with human experts but they do not much like paying for their juniors’ billable training.

Knowledge can be imparted in other ways, including simply by working closely, apprentice-style, with senior colleagues. I still value the guidance I received as a beginner from experienced editors and writers but I am not sure I needed to write five similar corporate earnings stories a day to achieve mastery. Newbies can acquire specific skills through working, under close supervision, on a sample of the basic tasks they once spent years slogging through.

Meanwhile, new roles will evolve. The Susskinds suggest that one could be the “empathiser”. A sympathetic human may eventually act as assistant to Kim or Ross or their more cognitively capable descendants.

This prospect causes conniptions among some consultants and accountants. It may not happen at the top for years — or ever, in complex lawsuits or tax audits. But aspiring partners should start honing their listening skills, just in case.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016.


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