The future of futurologists

A World Economic Forum study claims the world is on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution and that machines will take over from lawyers and other professions. Editor of Signet magazine, ROBERT PIRRIE WS, considers the business of predicting the future.

This article first appeared in Signet, issue 10, February 2016.

An email invitation to a lecture at the offices of law firm Allen & Overy brought to mind the question of how, in the future, the future will be prophesied. The future in the future, so to speak. The lecture, by Professor Richard Susskind and his son, Daniel Susskind, follows publication of their book, The Future of the Professions. The title is deceptive in so far as the authors contend that the professions do not, or will not in the future, possibly the near future, have a future, or at least much of a future. The future is ever present. So is Professor Susskind who has made his career in the future.

Richard and son Daniel Susskind, co-authors of  The Future of the Professions , market leaders in the future business (picture © Oxford University Press).

Richard and son Daniel Susskind, co-authors of The Future of the Professions, market leaders in the future business (picture © Oxford University Press).

Beginning with doctoral research in the 1980s on artificial intelligence and the law, Professor Susskind has published regularly to bring the future up to the present, his penultimate book being the apocalyptic sounding The End of Lawyers? He introduced the legal profession to “disruptive technology” and predicted the “commoditisation” of swathes of legal work. Professor Susskind posits no future, or less of a future, for what he characterises as the lawyer-as–craftsman. This Canute-like artisan laboriously crafts legal work tailored to each client and to each matter even as technology sweeps away established structures all around. Understandably, Professor Susskind’s work greatly occupies the men and women in the legal business known as “thought leaders” and “change managers”. His books clutter the bedside tables, Kindles and holiday sun loungers of many law firm chiefs and other legal gurus. His diagrams and analysis have adorned many wipe boards, flip charts and smart screens.


Professor Susskind's son Daniel has joined the family business. Together they have diversified from law into the future of all the professions, from lawyers and accountants, to doctors and nurses, to teachers and academics, to engineers and architects. The Susskinds are not alone. A 157 page World Economic Forum study claims that the world is on the brink of a technological revolution. It is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The First Industrial Revolution was steam and mechanical power, the Second was division of labour, electricity and mass production and the Third electronics, IT and automated production.  The Fourth Revolution is unfolding at an exponential rate. The study predicts that by 2020 109,000 lawyers (a surprisingly precise number) in key economies will lose their jobs.


The Susskinds explain that the world is no longer print-based but internet-based. In this new age, an exponential growth in computer processing power, data storage capacity, connectivity and device proliferation is combining with developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology and biotechnology. Soon these developments will enable technology to perform an ever increasing number of the micro-tasks into which professional work may be deconstructed. Not only that, they predict, but technology will perform these tasks better than any human being.

The Susskinds point out that millions already use online brands in law, medicine, education, news reporting and financial markets. These brands use algorithms and other substitutes for human skills. They are accessible to infinitely more people than possible in human-to-human consultations. Sixty million disputes are settled annually using eBay’s automated dispute resolution software, far exceeding the numbers going through the courts of even the largest jurisdictions. Technology is being developed that can read human emotions, distinguishing a fake smile from a real one. The future is presented as a utopia in which infallible machines take over from human cognitive and motor functions and legal relations, healthcare, education and social services are available to millions through a smart phone app. This vision is contrasted with the “craft” professions serving only a relatively affluent minority.

What would the early 20th century law firm characters depicted in The Beautiful Game on page 20 and Drawing on Experience on page 28 make of it all? It seems likely they would mourn the lack of human empathy, warmth and humour in this brave new world. The sheer lack of human contact. The drawings of William Cumming WS could surely never be replicated, as opposed to copied, by a machine or, if they were, they would not have the same appeal, certainly not to Cumming and his colleagues. Given a glimpse into the present, they might question whether the professions are quite as antiquated and resistant to change as the  Susskinds' “straw man” of the lawyer-craftsman. Behind many innovations cited by the Susskinds are the minds of many lawyers, doctors, surgeons, architects, engineers and other professionals. Will this innovation and creativity also be assumed by machines? They might question whether an institution as rich and enduring as the Society of Writers to the Signet could ever be designed by a machine. As to predicting the future, they might observe from later in their own time how few economists predicted the Great Depression. Humanity’s capacity to surprise should never be under-estimated. Who predicted the demise of out-of-town shopping? The revival of vinyl records? The flat-lining of sales of digital books? So much of what is satisfying, reassuring and sustaining in the human experience is about the process of achieving a particular result and not just the result itself.     


Few predicted the sudden worldwide fame of Steven Avery covered in Junkyard Justice on page 42. Certainly not the law enforcement agencies of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. A global audience is shocked by Netflix’s documentary "Making a Murderer" and its portrayal of how prosecutors secured the murder convictions of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey. The internet has brought scrutiny to bear on what was otherwise just another murder trial in small town America. Professor Susskind might justly claim that a criminal trial in which judge, jury and lawyers are replaced by technology would produce better justice. It is difficult to imagine how an automated process by machine could be much worse than the real one. But that is to beg the question of who is to be the arbiter of justice. Justice is a human construct and the ultimate arbiters are human beings.


Interestingly, the World Economic Forum study identifies critical thinking, emotional reasoning and active listening as the “new” core skills required as technology and robots take over “narrow skills”. These might sound familiar to Professor Susskind’s lawyer-as-craftsman. There is, after all, a place for humanity in the future. But who, or what, in Professor Susskind’s future, is to prophesise the future? Is the place of academics like Professor Susskind and his son also to be assumed by machines? Is there a future for the futurologists? Perhaps that will be covered in the Susskinds’ next book.