The author Margaret Visser once described a professional as someone we trust to have understanding of what we cannot: the doctor with our lives, the lawyer with our freedom, the clergy with our soul. Other fields have taken on the mantle of professionalism, including my own architecture profession, but really we are all outgrowths of the trades and the guilds. (Palladio was a stonemason.) In an earlier post we asked Will a robot take your job? and concluded that most high-level managerial jobs, like the professions, were pretty secure.

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Or are they? A new book, "The Future of the Professions" by Richard and Daniel Susskind, calls this into question. They note that “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.” However that time is coming more quickly than we can imagine.

Historically, the authors note, professionals shared overlapping similarities: “(1) they have specialist knowledge; (2) their admission depends on credentials; (3) their activities are regulated; and (4) they are bound by a common set of values.”

…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… Doctors, accountants, lawyers, and architects, for example, have technical knowledge of their disciplines that lay people do not have in their heads or at their fingertips.

However this is less and less true; the specialist knowledge that took years to learn (and to accumulate all those books needed to look things up) is now pretty much available to anyone on the Internet.

Star trek screen captureNice to meet you, Samuel T. Cogley. What's with the books? (Photo: Star Trek, Court Martial)
I am reminded of an old "Star Trek TOS" episode, "Court Martial," where Kirk needed a lawyer and got one who likes books. "This is where the law is. Not in that homogenized, pasteurized synthesizer. Do you want to know the law? The ancient concepts in their own language? Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha III? Books....What's the matter? Don't you like books?" Kirk's response: "Oh, I like them fine. But a computer takes less space." They are easier to search, too.

In fact, today there are evidently more visits to sites like WebMD in a month than there are doctors working in the U.S. A robotic pharmacist in California has completed two million prescriptions without a single error, where human pharmacists average a mistake 1 percent of the time, totaling 37 million per year. In accounting, now 48 million Americans do their own tax returns online without the help of a professional. In law, paraprofessionals are doing a lot of the work that lawyers used to and legal research takes a fraction of the time. In architecture, the distinction between designing and building is disappearing as we go from idea straight to digital fabrication.

The Economist, in its review of the book, thinks that the authors go too far, that “They ignore the fact that, as people get richer, they choose to spend their surplus wealth on the human touch.”

But most people today are not rich, and do not get to deal with the cream of the professionals. So they go to a drafting service instead of an architect, a paralegal instead of a lawyer, and wait a very long time to see a doctor.

Ultimately most self-regulating professions do their best to keep their numbers low, their salaries high and to keep the upstarts out.

That may have been relatively easy before, but not in the Internet age where everyone has access to knowledge, where professionals are rated by their customers and patients, where computers like Watson are doing diagnoses, and where computers are actually doing a better job of finding information. As the Economist notes,

How far will this revolution go? Messrs Susskind and Susskind predict that it will go all the way to “a dismantling of the traditional professions”. These jobs, they argue, are a solution to the problem that ordinary people have “limited understanding” of specific areas of expertise. But technology is making it easier for them to get the understanding they need when they need it.

Is this a terrible thing? I don’t think so, because so few people actually had access to professionals in the first place. In a lot of ways we did it to ourselves by restricting access to the professions; we drove people to cheaper alternatives that may not have been as good. Now, in fact, the alternatives might well be better than the human version.

The people with lots of money will still want that human touch; that’s why there are “personal bankers” for the rich while the rest of us go to the computer and the ATM instead of lining up like we used to during limited banking hours.

In the previous post I noted that the professions were probably the safest jobs. After reading “The Future of the Professions” I think that they have a lot to worry about too.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.