By Adam Cailler
GLASWEGIAN Richard Susskind knows a thing or two about technology.
He is, after all, the IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; holds professorships at Oxford, Gresham College and Strathclyde University; is a past chairman of the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information; and is the president of the Society for Computers and Law.
And, his latest book, The Future Of The Professions (Oxford University Press, £10.99), for which he teamed up with son Daniel, looks at how technology will transform the work of humans.
The 56-year-old member of Radlett United Synagogue, London, explained: “A lot of people have the view that the professions will disappear in a very short number of years.
“That’s not our view — we think it is a far longer term change. Through the 2020s, we don’t think it will be unemployment . . . more re-deployment.
“For example, a journalist will still call themselves a journalist, but will be doing different things in the 20s than say three or four years ago.”
Richard, who is also father to Jamie and Alexandra, acknowledges that some people do fear these changes, but many are excited by them.
He continued: “There are things that our machines can do, but that we wouldn’t want them to do.
“I wouldn’t want a machine to make the decision of whether or not to turn off a life-support system.
“I also wouldn’t want one passing a life sentence on a human being.
“There are areas that would make us uncomfortable should machines encroach on them, so we need to have a public debate about that.
“We’ve come to a crossroads in humanity where the idea of full-time employment is now up for discussion.
“It may not be necessary as a way of generating income and it might not even be desirable as many people don’t enjoy their jobs anyway!
“So we are back to the ancient Greeks asking what are human beings here for and what is a meaningful life?”
Richard added that the question of technological advancements, specifically in the legal profession, has been something he has pondered for more than 30 years.
He explained: “It has interested me often that after my talks, perhaps I’ll see an architect or a doctor in the audience and they’ll come up to me afterwards and say ‘you know, Richard, what you’re saying is not just about law, it’s applying in our professions, too’.
“That got me thinking that there are broader issues going on.
“And at the same time, Daniel was working in the Prime Minister’s office in justice, education and health policy and looking at the impact of technology.
“As we came to discuss our roles and experiences, we thought that technology was really playing a fundamental role, not just in changing the way the professions work, but in how we share expertise in society.
“So we thought this was a subject worth our considerable investigation, and so we set off on this journey together.”
Richard, who is married to Michelle and is a keen runner and golfer, looks at eight different professions — health, education, divinity, law, journalism, management consulting, tax and audit and architecture.
He said: “Although technology is vital, we really wanted to focus on human beings and the extent of which these experts’ work will be relevant for the future.
“But there is no question that the essential theme of the book is in our language.
“The machines are becoming increasingly capable, and what we thought we would do when we looked to the book was think ‘what is it that human beings do as professionals, what expertise do we have?’.
“And we thought, in the first instance, we have cognitive skills, which allow us to solve problems, offer advice, reason and draw conclusions.
“And as human beings, we have physical skills, psychomotor skills and manual skills — very important for people like dentists and surgeons and so forth.
“Then, we have emotional skills which allow us to listen to or respond to those we advise in an appropriate way.
“And finally, we have some kind of moral capability.
“We recognise that the implications of our work are often good or bad and we take responsibility for the decisions we make and for the advice that we offer.
“Each of these skills, particularly the cognitive, manual and emotional skills, are being taken on one way or another by these increasingly-capable machines.”
But, he argues, there will come a point where humans have to say enough is enough.
Working with Daniel taught Richard quite a lot.
He said: “He is from the internet generation. Anything I’ve learned about economics came from him.
“He is far more rigorous and hard working than I am.
“There were moments when he was complaining to my wife that I wasn’t pulling my weight or working hard enough.
“That was a funny, kind of role reversal when it comes to father and child.”
The book took the pair five years to put together.
Richard explained: “Daniel went to Harvard University for a year and conducted a series of structured interviews across the professions we identified — the ones that Jewish mothers would be proud of their children taking on.
“He interviewed the market leaders, thought leaders and disruptors who are trying to change those professions.
“That was our raw data, which led us to disappear for five days, with a lot of yellow sticky pads and whiteboards and brainstormed.
“We identified eight big topics and divided them up . . . and wrote about them.
“When we started this, we didn’t have a very clear conception of it. We thought it would be 80,000 words and introductory . . . it’s ended up as 140,000 and quite advanced.”
The more Richard looked at the topic, the more he realised it was not so simple.
He said: “The discussion of what is a profession could have been a page, but it ended up being a full chapter.
“This took us into looking at the sociology and history of the professions.
“It was a big chunk of something that had not been anticipated.”
When I first spoke to Richard, it was only a few weeks after the ransomware cyber attack which caused chaos in the National Health Service, among other big companies worldwide, and the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester.
Given his expertise, what was his take on the crises?
He said: “I do think it is a deeply specialist area. We do need to invest heavily in cyber crime and prevention. It is a huge area for us.
“Policing the web has become an extremely important priority for most states in protecting its citizens.
“The thing about the web, and technology in general, is that it brings massive benefits, but at the same time it also brings severe threats.
“What you can’t do is un-invent it, so our challenge is to regulate appropriately and develop ways of making it safer.”
Since 1998, Richard has held the role of IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice, but began as an adviser to Lord Woolf.
He recalled: “He and a number of other judges wanted me to become formally involved as an adviser.
“It’s something I do, pro-bono, for half-a-day per week.
“I advise the judges and government on the computerisation of the court system.
“My main initiative, at the moment, is in online courts.
“I’ve been pushing really hard to recommend that we introduce online courts into England and Wales — the government is now investing £730 million in modernising and digitising the court system.
“I really want this to happen because I think our court system has become too costly, too slow and too unintelligible and the idea of solving disputes online is very attractive.”
What does Richard do in his spare time?
He said: “I love rugby, but being a Scotsman that is a fairly depressing process. I’ve also been a distance runner for many years.
“I spend a lot of time with the family and enjoy the theatre and cinema.”
Richard was awarded an OBE in 2000 for services to IT in law and administration of justice.
Follow Richard on Twitter @richardsusskind