You’ve likely had more than one heated conversation with an automated voice messaging system or nearly lost it trying to buy avocados at the self-checkout. You’ve seen the images of robots building cars and now providing companionship for senior citizens. Our new creations are freeing us from work as never before, but we’re often left asking: Now just what were we created for?
If you believe, as we do at Comment, that humans were made for work, then our increasingly automated, digitized age provides good reason to panic. But in Richard and Daniel Susskind’s provocative book, The Future of the Professions, you’ll find that things are not as bad as the doomsayers suggest. Our work is not being done away with—at least not completely. However, it will look radically different in the coming years. How? We’ve enlisted professionals in medicine, automation, divinity, journalism, and business to bring us some critical, skeptical, and insightful reports from the future, as it were. Take a peek.
In a short scene from Charlie Kaufman’s 2015 animated film Anomalisa, the main character, Michael, dreams that behind flesh and blood he is at the core merely a gadget. Clad in towel and standing in front of a hotel bathroom mirror, Michael pulls at his face, grimacing in terror at the realization that beneath his skin are merely the workings of a machine. He awakens from the nightmare, drenched in sweat, to a life that doesn’t feel all that much more humane.
Michael is a professional of the sorts written about in Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book The Future of the Professions. His dream takes place the night before a speaking role at a hotel in the heart of the Midwest. Throughout the film Michael emerges as part management consultant, part teacher, and in his deepest anxiety, fully machine.
A few years ago I was walking down the hallway of the college where I teach when I heard a colleague make a joke in his classroom. To the students, it was the kind of humour that made this professor human—sure, a bit dated, but ultimately less mechanical than many of his peers. My reaction was a bit different. I had heard his joke last semester. I had heard it the semester before. If my colleague’s joke was humanizing in some small way, it also hinted at the underlying potential for the automation of what we do. A Henry Ford assembly line of humanity. What I felt walking down that hallway was the same anxiety Michael feels in Anomalisa. Whether consultant, physician, or clergy, we sometimes wonder to what extent what we do is mechanical, distillable down to less complex tasks, units of analysis ultimately best done by machines.
Consider my vocation as an example. In the classroom, I stand between the students and vast streams of knowledge. In this role, I hold the key to information and the method to interpret it. In a consulting relationship, I might hold unique insights on my client’s industry, some proprietary process, or perhaps methods to help interpret their world in a way that renders it more intelligible. But The Future of the Professions is quick to show that such information arbitrage is increasingly undermined in an open-source and technological environment. My students can access research through other channels, watch lectures from the world’s best professors, and gameify their learning with tools like Duolingo. Increasingly, my clients can access information and insights that historically would be unavailable or, at the very least, behind a significant paywall. We know this, don’t we? In moments of confidence, we believe in our contributions. But in moments of despair, we sometimes feel ourselves more closely aligned with the talking head, the less accurate Wikipedia page, and the assembly-line joke.
But not all is lost in this evolution. At the end of the book, the Susskinds make a case for hope. They encourage their readers to “imagin[e] human beings across the world—rich and poor—having direct access to living, evolving treasure troves of help, guidance, learning and insight that will empower them to live healthier and happier lives.” While it is fair to fear what will happen to those of us caught in an old model, I agree that we should be energized by this potential. If I really believe the insights of my lecture or consultative advice, shouldn’t I be willing to let it move to an open commons where access might create value broader than the arbitrary four walls I find myself within?
If the future is as inevitable as the authors argue, there are a few questions we must wrestle with. The Susskinds make it clear that a move toward automation need not replace full jobs, but instead might free us from the less humanizing tasks within our roles. For those in professional worlds, this is an olive branch extended from machine to man.
At the Detroit Institute of Art, there is a room called the Rivera Court. The space contains a mural by the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera titled Detroit Industry. Rivera spent eleven months completing the work. In it he captures and comments on his experience with the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan. The work was initially seen by many as a stringent critique of capitalism, but it is clear from the murals that Rivera’s relationship with technology and the economy was much more complex. In the technology of the automotive and pharmaceutical industries, Rivera saw power for good and evil, woven together like wheat and tare.
Those of us living over eighty years after the completion of the murals likely feel some of the same. We work in creative industries but remain tethered to the ping-pong of email correspondence. We feel moments of unique impact, but we hear repetition in the value we hope to bring to those with whom we work. The Susskinds provide us a framework for thinking about the role technology plays in replacing parts of our work rather than our jobs in full. In this, we should ask whether we have an opportunity to more fully participate in the parts of our roles that we as humans are uniquely capable of performing.
More practically, listening to the lessons of the Susskinds means conceiving of ways for enterprising professionals to use technology to provide their contributions at lower cost, higher quality, or in more open-source environments. An entrepreneur reading this text will find littered across the book alternative ways to think about providing the value of professionals in ways not limited to gatekeeping McKinsey consultants and robed professors. In the rubble of technological destruction, we can erect our contributions on stronger foundations, working alongside the tools we created for these very purposes.
But even with the hope of automating out the inhumane, or reinventing our models for driving value, there is something unsettling about the text. If our value as professionals— and indeed our humanity itself—is defined by the gaps between what machines can accomplish and what we can do, are humans reduced to merely standing in those gaps? Maybe the anxiety we share with Michael is the fear of having those gaps close.
In one of the final scenes of Anomalisa, Michael stands onstage delivering a keynote speech on customer service. Mechanically reading through the prepared remarks, he begins to crack. Moving toward breakdown, Michael reaches out for agency. In what seems to be the only way to assert his humanity, he veers off script— offering manic critiques of his American audience and his industry, all with a sarcastic edge pointed toward himself.
While our reactions to the future of the professions might be less publicly humiliating, being honest with ourselves requires acknowledging that Michael’s response comes from an impulse we share. If we are able to automate our value, are we moving beyond the postindustrial assembly line, or stepping more closely into Rivera’s murals? When we build systems that do what we see as uniquely human, what does it mean to be human in the first place? We, like Michael, stand alone on the stage, set alongside machines in the mural, contemplating our next step.