As much as 98% of pilots’ routine work is now automated, and some in the industry worry about the tasks that human pilots are asked to do only occasionally. Picture: REUTERS
As much as 98% of pilots’ routine work is now automated, and some in the industry worry about the tasks that human pilots are asked to do only occasionally. Picture: REUTERS

THERE is a point in any talk about the automated future of the professions when the audience visibly relaxes.

It comes when futurists concede that a few expert lawyers, consultants or accountants will still be needed, even after cheaper, more efficient computer systems have taken over many of their juniors’ tasks.

It happened last week at a lecture by Richard and Daniel Susskind that the organisers claimed was the largest yet gathering of senior managers in UK professional services firms.

The father-and-son authors of The Future of the Professions predicted radical change in the sector. But the tense scepticism in the room dissipated as each senior partner or director quietly acknowledged he or she would be a survivor, even if algorithms and artificial intelligence swept away the consultant or solicitor in the next seat.

This cohort may well reach retirement unscathed — and without much incentive to alter how they work.

As Richard Susskind said afterwards, "It’s hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they have got their model wrong."

But change is coming. The main difference of opinion is over its pace and extent.

You can already ask Kim, a legal "virtual assistant" launched by Riverview Law, to help manage your case load, or get Ross, IBM Watson’s "super intelligent attorney", to research the entire body of law in a matter of seconds.

But a crystal ball-gazing report by The Law Society, the trade body for solicitors in England and Wales, expects the effect of this type of automation to level off by 2020. The society’s Stephen Denyer told a gathering that clients were not only looking for practical counsel, but for "negotiating skills, judgment, ethical standards, and reassurance about the direction they’re taking".

But how will future senior partners achieve that level of wisdom when machines are doing the tasks that allow them to build and hone their expertise?

Take financial journalism. I spent three years as a trainee, building confidence and skill by churning out news about corporate earnings. This is precisely the type of report that, quite rightly, Associated Press now produces automatically, in partnership with a company called — ominously for all columnists — Automated Insights.

Another parallel is aviation, where crashes often trigger fears that autopilots are undermining human skills. Delmar Fadden, Boeing’s former chief of cockpit technology, interviewed about the 2009 Air France crash, told Vanity Fair that, having automated 98% of pilots’ routine work, "we really worry about the tasks we ask them to do just occasionally".

The answer is not to halt the march of the robots. Indeed, technology is part of the solution. Novice astronauts practise tasks and challenges in carefully designed simulations.

Law students at the University of Strathclyde play out real-world legal problems in a fictional virtual community called Ardcalloch.

In the real world, professionals must recognise that much of the work they hand to juniors is repetitive servitude, often imposed on the tacit assumption that, if they had to do it, so should the new generation. Clients may still prefer dealing with human experts, but they do not much like paying for their juniors’ billable training.

New roles will evolve. The Susskinds suggest one could be the "empathiser". A sympathetic human may eventually act as assistant to Kim or Ross or their more cognitively capable descendants.

It may not happen at the top for years — or ever, in complex lawsuits or tax audits. But aspiring partners should start honing their listening skills.

© Financial Times Limited 2016