Edinburgh International Book Festival
29th August 2016
There is a problem with events like this at the Edinburgh Book Festival – it’s impossible to do justice to a book in the space of an hour, or rather, in forty minutes with twenty minutes of audience questions afterwards, particularly when the bulk of us who asked questions hadn’t read the book (yet) and wanted to challenge or probe points that the Susskinds had made during their interview. Lee Randall, the freelance journalist who chaired the event, told me afterwards that she had been out of her comfort zone, but – hey! – she managed the problem pretty damn well. The problem is, of course, conversely an advantage; precisely because it is impossible to do justice to a book in the time given, there is an incentive for the audience to buy it, and that’s what it’s all about…
Richard and Daniel Susskind are academics, father and son, and they are, frankly, experts. Both are advisors to professional companies, governments, to the great, the powerful, and the vested interest. So it is, in a way, rather ironic that the subject of their book, The Future of Professions, deals with the way that technology is already replacing ‘the expert’, and will very soon obliterate experts as a class in all fields including theirs. Reliable information will be sought – no, is already being sought, and sought increasingly – from databases and online resources. As systems become increasingly capable, as algorithms become faster and more adept at identifying patterns within information, they will not simply parallel the work of the professional but will overtake that work and thereafter dominate in all fields. In support of this, the Susskinds point out such facts as there are more visits to WebMD in the USA than walk-ins to general practitioners. Perhaps that’s not a particularly surprising point, given that health care in the US is damned expensive and it’s cheaper for someone at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder to pop to an internet café for an hour than it is to consult a doctor. However, that’s only one of a number of areas in which technology is accelerating.
Developing from this argument is the idea that the ‘job’ – in particular the ‘job’ of the ‘expert’ – will disappear. This does not mean that we will see beggars on the street with a sign saying “DPhil with family to support”, but merely that jobs will be replaced by ‘bundles of tasks’. Funny, that’s what I thought a job was, in essence, and my betting is that when they’re looking for people to do these bundles of tasks, they’ll give the work some kind of job title, but I digress. Many of these tasks, the ones that can’t be fulfilled by other systems and other machines themselves, will involve servicing the systems and the information that goes into them, it must be supposed. Throughout the event I found it difficult to stop my mind wandering back to a 1960s routine by American comedian Bob Newhart, in which he describes a recurring dream about a machine whose bundle of tasks includes firing other machines: “Sit down ma-chine your work has not been go-ing to well late-ly and we are go-ing to have to let you go. This is a rec-ord-ed ann-ounce-ment…”
No, no, no, that’s not it at all! But you can see why I couldn’t shake the idea.
The audience raised all kinds of other issues. Who will be the gatekeepers of the information? What of empathy? What of judgment? Richard Susskind said that the question of judgment was the wrong question (oh dear!), and the proper one to ask was ‘can computers handle uncertainty?’. I have difficulty with the doctrine of ‘the wrong question’, but in this case I see what he means; there is a necessity to think about what we really want to know when we ask a question. Ideally I am supposed to be at events like this to observe and to report and to review, but sometimes I just can’t resist sticking my hand up and asking a question. Mine related to critical review of the information available via computer systems: both Susskinds are academics, they will have had their work peer-reviewed, and once it is published it is open to challenge from others in the same field. I had not heard the concept of ‘critical review’ carried forward into their vision of how the future is turning out, so where in this vision does the testing of the accuracy of the information come in, given that an algorithm will pull in so much information from so many sources? They replied that firstly the process of ‘peer review’ is in the hands of people who ‘have a stake in the game’ (agreed!), that challenge and debate within the community/ies of online users will outstrip the professional peers, and that ‘communities of experience’ will develop which will be both more powerful and more transparent.
Someone asked whether there was a future for politicians, given that even their expertise has been challenged in referenda etc. Earlier that day I had been to a photocall with Gordon Brown, the former PM, and afterwards observed him walking to the Baillie Gifford, with a small knot of suited men, to give his speech. The rarified bubble in which the technocrat-managerial caste exists was almost tangible! Even though the UK’s latest referendum was conducted with an apparent nullification of the ‘expert’, with no critical voice heeded that questioned (rather than denounced) the information being given, there seemed no barrier to that field of expertise being dismantled either.
But “It’s not a free-for-all” said Daniel Susskind, and Richard pointed to three possible gatekeeping models for the systems-dissemination of reliable information. Firstly that it is taken in by the private sector, and based on the profit motive. Secondly that it is taken over by non-profit organisations as varied as charities and national governments. Thirdly that it is held in common in some kind of freely-accessible cloud – think of the database that is to come after Wikipedia, whose shoes Wikipedia is not fit to fasten, if that doesn’t sound too messianic! That last metaphor’s mine, by the way.
At the end of the day, so many questions were left hanging. I can hardly resist the temptation to email the Susskinds and ask them. It might be a good idea to see whether they’re answered in the book. Again I remind myself that I am not here to review a book I haven’t read, however, but the event itself. Let me make a comparison, then. With poet and author Louis de Bernières, I was scribbling and tweeting fit to bust; with the Susskinds I was just scribbling, because I simply had no time to tweet! The event was packed with thought-provoking information. Both father and son are articulate, so adept at putting their ideas into words; if anything father Richard seemed to do more of the talking, but that isn’t to say Daniel was left in the shade. And a quick look back shows that I have written more about this event than about any previous at this year’s Festival. That says something.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson