In the lead up to the Future of Working Roundtable, our Head of Education and Employability, Lynette Harris is conducting a series of thought-provoking interviews with leading experts exploring the future impact of digital technologies and AI. Our first interview features Chief Futurist, Dr Simon Eassom who shares his insights on this topic.
1. The end of the professions has been predicted for some time; is AI now that final nail in the coffin?
Claims that the professions will become irrelevant sooner rather than later are premature and have largely focused on disruptive trends and how they will impact the demand for service from dedicated professionals. Accounting and law are easier to disrupt, in that regard, than (say) engineering. The main driver of that disruption has been the increase in software tools and applications that increase self-service capability. In addition, the growth in social media and user networks has meant greater dissemination of information that might previously have only been available via a professional consultation. For example, pet owners can and do seek information from members of their breed community before determining that a trip to the vet is necessary. Will AI accelerate that ‘self-service’ capability and further take business away from professionals? The rise of ChatGPT certainly gives us food for thought but comes with caveats around the trust-worthiness of what open AI tells us. Whilst AI tools are able to trawl huge volumes of data from multiple and disparate sources and do our research for us, the outputs of those investigations are only as good as the information available via the internet. Much professional information isn’t digitised and publicly available. Meanwhile, AI will be an invaluable aid to professionals, giving them increased efficiencies and faster access to information (eg, legal clerks accessing case law and tort). The question of whether AI bots and virtual agents will replace professionals will ultimately come down to matters of trust: the majority of customers still see a professional is a trusted source and somebody able to translate complex information into actionable advice and directions.
2. How much of the talk about AI impacting the professions is hype and how much is reality?
There is no doubt that the reality of AI is here now and previous claims about the capability of AI might have been over-hyped but things move fast in the technology space; exponentially fast. The capability of AI tools will only grow. The impact on the professions will depend on two things: (1) the adoption of AI and specific APIs by professionals themselves to focus on providing greater, faster, cheaper service to clients; and therefore (2) the drive to disrupt the professions from within. That is, there will be commercial imperatives for some professionals to adapt and transform their services that will come at the expense of other professionals who don’t keep up with technological change. Ultimately, this might transform the profession itself. Meanwhile, this is no longer hype. Reality is here.
3. If AI makes us all “experts”, what does that mean for professional expertise?
The question of expertise is an interesting one. We defer to experts because of their extensive understanding of a topic gained through knowledge acquisition (study and qualifications), research, and experience with the area in question in large part because gaining such expert knowledge is not feasible for all of us and requires dedication to that specific realm or domain. AI will certainly transform knowledge work as access to knowledge will no longer remain solely with the professional. But does access to knowledge make us experts? Experience plays an irreplaceable role in expertise and exposure to and familiarity with specific issues is difficult to replace. However, where diagnosis and determination can be made based on data-driven insight then machines can replicate expert decisions very effectively and, in some cases, better than human experts (eg, scanning x-rays to look for signs of injury or damage). The net result of such advances in AI will undoubtedly require us to re-think the service professional experts provide. Analytical modelling based on pattern identification successfully predicted that Donald Trump would win the 2016 USA Presidential election whilst expert ‘analysts’ almost exclusively said he would not. In the future, experts will become those trained in using AI for knowledge access and providing interpretation of subsequent actions and decisions based on that information. The expert will no longer be “the font of all knowledge”.
4. Is it that the professions simply need to adapt and embrace AI rather than try to justify their existence in spite of it?
We will all embrace AI and it will be as ubiquitous as the internet, word processing, and social media. Our children will be trained to use it and exploit it and it will, increasingly, be embedded in ambient technologies operating seamlessly in the background through the Internet of Things and our fully integrated applications. The question of whether we will choose to embrace it is moot. It will just be there, like we currently experience wi-fi. It is not the case that there will be professionals who embrace it and those who choose to provide service without it: it won’t be like choosing flat-packed, machine engineered kitchen cupboards versus engaging a cabinet maker to build us a bespoke, high quality (more expensive) kitchen. There will be no professional service that stands apart from AI-enhanced service as something more personalised and bespoke.
5. Does AI change who should enter the professions and how we should educate them?
The biggest impact of AI on the professions could well be how we educate and certify professionals. The requirement to gain considerable knowledge as the precursor to experience (ie, gain a first degree in the technical skills and knowledge base of the professional domain) will become redundant. Instead, future professionals will need training in other skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication, as well as specific technology skills. They will use AI to draw on the knowledge they need to apply. The net result might be that we see a different kind of person with different dispositions becoming the successful professionals of the future and not just those who demonstrated an aptitude for the core domain skills.