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Digital takes aim at the professions – disrupting doctors, lawyers, academics and accountants

Traditional professions will be the next to see significant change – and competition – as digital technology introduces new ways of working

The work of doctors, lawyers, professors and accountants has been only moderately affected by IT so far. But the digital innovations of the 2020s – deep learning, expert systems, software agents, speech and image processing, algorithmic operations, shared ledgers, smart contracts, digital cash, neuro-imaging and the internet of things (IoT) – are aimed directly at knowledge, learning and trust, the very traits that have defined the professions for centuries.

Over the past year, we have sought to understand the likely impact of these innovations on the big four professions, which are the embodiment of some the most advanced forms of human achievement while often being among the least open to digital change. We have concluded that significant professional disruption is now under way.

One thing all four professions have in common is the growing need for change. Whether we are looking at healthcare, law, education or high-end accounting/auditing services, the pattern is the same – high costs, limited citizen access, often crushing workloads, the inability to keep up with their fields, and a priesthood-like culture that often leaves professionals blind to their biases and prone to error. In this sense, professional disruption should be seen primarily as an important form of societal progress.

Although technology can, in theory, address all of the above pressures, until recently progress has been disappointingly slow, to the point where professional scepticism has become well entrenched, with a prevailing “we’ve heard these claims before” mindset. And although it is true that dramatic changes will not happen overnight, the signs of potentially seismic shifts are clear. Consider the following five scenarios:

  • Machine-based medical image analysis is either already, or will soon be, superior to human judgement in a wide range of diagnostic areas. Industry insiders are now asking whether medical schools should even be training new generations of radiologists.
  • The combination of fMRI, biometrics and traditional polygraphs may soon be able to tell, with very high levels of accuracy, whether someone is telling the truth or not. The potential impact on juries, trials and the law itself is hard to over-estimate.
  • Many educators now expect Google Translate or similar services to steadily supplant the introductory levels of school-based language learning because they will be so much more interactive, available and less expensive.
  • Recent research suggests that by scanning people’s vital organs and other signs, machines will be able to predict individual mortality rates much more accurately than human actuaries, with potentially fundamental effects on insurance pricing.
  • Don’t be surprised if Walmart and/or Amazon deploy blockchain, shared ledger and cryptocurrency technologies across their vast supply chains. Shared ledgers are likely to be the biggest change in accounting since the advent of double-entry bookkeeping.

Societal progress in a digital age

What is perhaps most notable about all five of these scenarios is they are being driven by digital players well outside their respective professional domains. The first four rely mostly on deep learning skills and specialised datasets, and so do not necessarily require traditional professional skills and credentials; the fifth seeks to embed trust and proof of work into the business transaction process itself. All five are examples of how value creation within the professions will migrate to new digital players.

This is what societal progress looks like. Radiologists have embraced machine analysis because they can see more patients and serve them better. Humans are notoriously bad in determining whether someone is telling the truth; schools can’t find or afford good introductory language teachers; every logistics firm wants more visibility and integrity within its supply chain. The tech industry is now in the process of delivering the necessary digital knowledge and trust for these advances.

Of course, not every professional is so enthusiastic. Many have grown up as late adopters of technology, and resist the notion that new digital tools are becoming an essential part of their fields.

The idea that machines might make better decisions and fewer errors still makes many knowledge workers bristle, in the same way that many coaches and athletes have bristled at the use of analytics and algorithms across professional – and now even amateur – sports. They are fighting against the tide.

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Although most of us are not doctors, lawyers, professors or accountants, the shifts we see within the big four professions are likely to prove relevant to just about every knowledge worker, including statisticians, tax advisers, recruiters, translators, editors, scientists, consultants, government officials and similar job functions.

Companies should be thinking about how their most knowledgeable workers will need to evolve as their fields of expertise come to rely on an ever-more powerful digital foundation, and as machine intelligence comes to both augment and replace traditional forms of human expertise. In short, IT eventually transforms the way every traditional industry works. The era of professional disruption is now under way.

An executive summary of the report, Disrupting the professions through machine learning and digital trust, is available to download. ....................................................................................................................

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