Why robot doctors and lawyers will be good for society

In the future, legal and medical tasks may become increasingly automated and performed by robots instead of humans. Daniel Susskind argues that's a future we should embrace.
Pepper, a "companion robot" by SoftBank Corp., performs in Tokyo in 2015. (Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press)

According to new research from McKinsey & Company, up to 45 percent of the work people are paid to perform today could be automated and performed by machines and robots instead. 

And contrary to popular belief, it won't just be low-skilled workers who get displaced. Doctors, lawyers, and CEOs could also find that many of their duties are being carried out by robots in the future. 

Daniel Susskind, a lecturer at Balliol College at Oxford University, argues we shouldn't be afraid of that new world, we should embrace it.  He is the co-author of the new book The Future of the Professions, which he wrote with Richard Susskind

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

Make the case for us. If a lot of the work currently performed by people like doctors and lawyers is someday done by robots instead, why is that a good thing? 

We have to remind ourselves why we have the professions at all. It's not the purpose of ill health to provide a living for doctors. It's not the purpose of a legal dispute to provide a living for lawyers. The professions exist to solve these very difficult problems and these very important problems that we have in our lives, and if we can find better, more efficient, more affordable ways of resolving those problems, we should embrace them, rather than reject them. 

In the future you sketch out, as specialized professions like medicine or law or accounting or university lecturing or radio show hosting become increasingly are we going to make a living? 

A role that has arisen in the past few years -- actually decades -- and is becoming more and more prominent is that of the knowledge engineer. So last year in America, 48 million Americans used online tax preparation software rather than a traditional tax accountant to help them. But that software didn't come out of nowhere. Someone called a knowledge engineer had to sit down with experts, subject matter experts -- in this case tax professionals -- and mine the knowledge and expertise from the head of that tax professional and make it available in an online system. 

But did those tax professionals know they were contributing to the turning of their profession into an obsolete profession? 

This is a really, really important point. If your motivation as a professional is to work the way that you have done in the 19th and 20th century, the way that other professionals have done in your field, then these changes are threatening and worrying. But if your motivation for being a professional isn't to be a traditional doctor or lawyer or tax accountant, but it's to solve legal problems, to solve medical problems, to help people run their business in a way that is as affordable and as accessible as possible, well, then that reorientation is one that ought to excite people. 

What about face-to-face interactions? Isn't there a risk that patient outcomes -- or even just patient comfort -- will suffer without personal interaction with a doctor?

It's what we call in the book an example from hard cases. You pick the hardest example of a task that a professional does -- so in the case of being a doctor, it's interacting with a patient, or if you're a lawyer, it's standing up in court and delivering a stunning piece of oration -- and arguing that because machines can't do those things, they therefore can't do anything else that the professional does, and that's wrong. But there is a more fundamental question about...why do we need personal interaction? Why is it that we interact on a personal level with our professionals? The answer, we argue in the book, is that that was the only way we've had up until now of solving the sorts of problems that doctors and lawyers solve... But it's not clear that in a world where we can solve these problems in a very different way, ways that may not require personal interaction, that we should cling to the idea of personal interaction for its own sake. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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