"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Future of the Professions

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This book was recommended at a conference on engineering accreditation as support for why the engineering education system needs to be overhauled.  (Oxford University Press, Daniel and Richard Susskind, 2015).  They outline why professions need to be developed or be rendered obsolete by tech like AI and the internet.  I’m a skeptic of such claims.

Since they consider one profession I’m a member of (clergy) and a second that is related to another of my professions (architecture, a close relative of engineering) I thought I should take at least a quick look.  (They don’t deal with my third profession, the profession of arms, although there is a better argument for cyberwarfare being able to replace segments of conventional warfare).

As I was trying to formulate a critique of their hypothesis I noted that I had been cut off at the knees while still in the introductory material.  Pg 43…”Some professionals are likely to reject our thinking…Often this response will be rooted in important anxieties and concerns…But much of this resistance will flow from common biases that inhibit professionals from thinking freely about their future.”

As the Susskinds are what you might call professional predictors of the future, my logic tells me that the same assertion likely applies to the authors as well.  Such saws always cut both ways, and if my critque is invalidated by my intrinsic anxieties and biases I have to wonder the same thing about them.  Merely asserting that their view of the future is free of such biases, while my criticism of them is flawed, is no argument at all.

Richard Susskind is an IT professor by trade, who has focused on technology and the legal profession.  His books on the future of the legal profession are interesting,  but I am not sure that his theories there scale nicely to all professions.  The only science he includes in his analysis are health care professions.  There is some interesting work being done by expert diagnostic systems which have already started to transform the medical profession, and this will continue, but AI and the internet will not replace the role of healers.

The same words apply to their predictions about clergy, and I’m not sure reading the prediction if they really understand what clergy do.  Online presence is one thing, amazing access to all sorts of scholarship for all people of faith are transformative to be sure…but sitting with a family who have a loved one on brink of death is not an action that broadband access will change much.  There will be no technological replacement of healers or prayers.

I think the lack of science professions is telling because the sciences are always in the midst of transformation by technology as a foundational value.  The scientific method (although my chemist daughter tells me it is no longer used) presupposes that the state of the art is always developing which in turn transforms the profession.  Scientists are used to having foundational belief overturned every few decades…perhaps with the exception of classic biology.

Susskind’s comments about architecture I think border on the irrational.  The use of automated design software and robotics is used to demonstrate how the stranglehold on building design is borken.  It is one thing to talk about a family dwelling built with 3D printing, bur quite another to talk about serious load bearing structures like bridges, tunnels or high rises.

The reason engineers are so rigourously trained in classic design is because of the failures we have already seen in over reliance on design software.  You need to be smart enough to know when your expert program is going to kill you.  That has also been learned in spades through some of the disasters in cockpit automation.

A simple example from a few months back.  I generated a finite element model of a metal structure to study thermal response for a forensic case.  I was using a good purchased FEM package that included automatic meshing.  Because I am trained in numerical analysis, I know enough to recognize that automatic meshing systems need to be closely supervised, because if the mesh is off the solution can be outright whacky.  In a few days of work I spent most of my time correcting errors introduced by the automatic mesh generator.  Over 3/4 of my runs resulted in incorrect results…some were clearly wrong, but others were close enough to look correct while still not being an accurate representation of reality.

All this to say, I don’t think there is any danger that bridge design will be automated and done by anyone with access to a good FEM package…unless we are willing to have lots more bridges falling down.

So, an interesting read, but a book that would be good to take out of the library.  It is ultimately unconvincing.

As a footnote, I suspect the legal profession is already in the midst of massive transition.  That has to do more with them pricing themselves out of the market domestically, while there are lots of other common law jurisdictions around the world.  $600-$1,200 an hour down the street, or a flat rate of a few hundred dollars from overseas?  Seems an easy choice.

While engineering is also being offshored, we haven’t priced ourselves out of the market because engineering is a commodity.  While engineering can be done overseas, there are a host of standards and regulations here which must be complied with, which ultimately requires that licensed domestic engineers be involved.  The same can’t be said for at least a portion of legal work, which is only ultimately tested if challenged in a court.  That’s a different situation than a bridge or a refinery, tested everytime a truck drives over, or a barrel is processed.

But I’m probably reacting out of my professional anxiety…





Written by sameo416

October 15, 2016 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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