Robots are coming to take over our jobs.
Even jobs in professions that some might have considered “safe” from the technology takeover, including education, journalism, health and engineering, will soon be done by machines, according to Richard Susskind OBE, author of The Future of the Professions.
Susskind recently spoke to a select group of engineering business leaders about how artificial intelligence will revolutionise the way we work – and sooner than we think. However, there will be roles for humans in the age of the machines, he said: “The decision is: do you compete with the systems, or do you build them?”
Professionals, engineers included, must stop looking at processes and instead focus on what is produced, he said, using the example of creating a hole in a wall.
“Most professionals see scope for technology in other professions rather than their own. But you need to focus on the outcomes; the hole in the wall; rather than the power tools.”
“When we are thinking about our future we should take a step back and say: ‘might there be a different way of delivering?’”
Many people have the view that machines can process information but that any “creativity” or “innovation” requires human intervention, Susskind explained. This view is quite simply wrong, he said.
When we are thinking about our future we should take a step back and say: ‘might there be a different way of delivering?
“[The view was] that machines are very good at routine work, but that non-routine work requires a human being”, he said, “They [machines] can only take you so far but if you need a high level of imagination then you need a human being.”
But Susskind added: “The determined view that machines do the routine work underestimates the processing power of technology.
“Machines are outperforming us, but doing it in a different way”
One of the big questions on the minds of attendees understandably seemed to be what immediate effect will this will have on current ways of working and, if machines will eventually be able to do it all, what should they do instead? The answer was, said Susskind, “re-employment” rather than “unemployment”, which means engineers should use their skills to design the systems that will one day do their jobs; in effect replacing themselves.
“What does it mean for jobs, what is left for us to do? I don’t think the 2020s will be the decade of unemployment. It is about re-employment, developing systems to replace our own ways of working, replacing ourselves … designing the systems that will replace our ways of working. The decision is: do you compete with the systems or do you build them?”
Everyone thinks their profession is going to get away with it, and we have got away with it for too long
Tim Chapman, Arup
He added: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Skanska innovation and business improvement director Sam Stacey shared Susskind’s optimism and said humans will find other things to do. He said: “The world has a wrong-headed idea about what employment is about. We are heading towards [a world where] we can solve the fundamental needs of humanity today.
“Technology putting people out of jobs is the wrong way to look at it. Human beings are always going to find something to do.”
Susskind continued: “This will liberate us rather than unemploy us”.
Inevitably this means that the way future engineers are trained and prepared for the world of work will have to change, because if Susskind’s vision is correct then the professional landscape will be dramatically different when the students of today, and tomorrow, start their careers. As Arup London infrastructure director Tim Chapman pointed out: “All of our processes are going to be totally changed and undermined. Everyone thinks they [their profession] are going to get away with it, and we have got away with it for too long.”
We can have a lovely time fantasising about how much better it could be but we have to get over the problem of the shackles
Sam Stacey, Skanska
The consensus seemed to be that the old ways of teaching engineering students were already out of date, but that there are barriers to revolutionising the university education structure.
Aecom transportation director Paul McCormick said that each year companies take on a certain number of graduate trainees, but he questioned how long that model would suit the needs of businesses. He challenged: “When are businesses going to have to adapt? At some point we are going to realise that actually we don’t need 350 grads this year, we need 50, or none.”
Susskind agreed that an overhaul of the education system was needed so that graduates could be trained for the future. He said: “What are we training our graduates to become? We’re training lawyers and doctors for the 20th century. We have got to re-think our educational system as well”.
Arup London buildings group leader Nigel Tonks referenced a survey of graduates that asked about digital skills and said the results had been “disappointing”.
Imperial College London chair in systems integration Jennifer White told the panel that it can be difficult to get “cutting edge” digital skills into the university syllabus.
She said: “I thought it would be a no brainer” but added that it was difficult to break down the old ways of doing things. She said the solution she had found so far at Imperial was to teach the new skills as optional extras, and hope that this training will eventually become part of the mainstream course. She added: “If you run an evening class, it is optional for the students and you get the sort of groundswell that then allows it to get into the main course, but at the moment a lot of that sort of thing is optional evening classes.”
Barriers to tech change
Skanska’s Stacey said that in the construction industry there are “huge barriers” to break through to create the technological changes needed. He said: “There are all these ways that we can see how things can be better, we watch all these other industries and they are developing and there is some sort of continuity there.
“With construction we are shackled by the structure of the industry. We can have a lovely time fantasising about how much better it could be but we have to get over the problem of the shackles.”
Using more machines could lower risk in the workplace, as there would be fewer people working on the construction sites. This point was made by Bam Nuttall head of innovation Colin Evison. “Should we employ more machines and less people?” he asked.
One of the more philosophical questions posed by the debate was what the shift towards technology would mean for “power and democracy”.
The biggest problem, said Susskind, is that the technology takeover could create an inequality between the companies which own it and those which do not.
He said: “There is going to be a big disparity…how will we distribute the benefits and the burdens. What does it mean for power and democracy?”.
The conclusion: robots are coming for engineering jobs, but they might not create the dystopian scene that may spring to mind as long as humans are able to find a way to work alongside them.
Richard Susskind is a lawyer and technologist. His doctorate in the mid-1980s was in Aritificaial Intelligence (AI) and law. In 1988 he co-developed the world’s first commercial AI system in law.
Many of his observations on the engineering profession are drawn from the arguments and findings presented in “The Future of the Professions”, a book that he wrote with his son Daniel Susskind, a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College.
A simplification of the position laid out in The book draws four conclusions:
- that our systems and machines are becoming increasingly capable
- that they are taking on more and more tasks that were once the exclusive province of human beings
- that although new tasks will doubtless arise in years to come machines are likely in time to take on many of these as well
The book observes that many people respond by saying that there are limits to what machines can do; that there are many “non-routine” tasks – creative and emotional ones, for instance – that only human beings can perform.
The authors’ extensive research into professional work does not support the view that the new tasks that emerge are and will be ones for which humans are better suited than machines.
It transpires that insistence that there are tasks that can never be undertaken by machines often rests on what is called the “AI fallacy” – the belief that the only way to develop machines that can perform at the level of human beings is to copy the way human beings work.
The error here is to fail to notice that many contemporary AI systems do not operate by copying human beings. Instead, they function in quite different and unhuman ways.
Richard Susskind was speaking at a round table discussion organised by New Civil Engineer and supported by Arup in October. The event was a spin-off from New Civil Engineer’s Festival of Innovation and Technology in September. Around the table were a selection of business leaders. They were:
Tim Chapman director, Arup London
Tony Donnell director of engineering, Morgan Sindall
Chris Dulake global metros and transit practice leader and major projects portfolio director, Mott MacDonald
Colin Evison head of innovation, Bam Nuttall
Mark Hansford editor, New Civil Engineer
Jim Johnson director, Arup
Hael Kobayashi associate director digital, Arup
Paul McCormick transportation director, Aecom
Alberto Ragazzoni structural engineer, BDP
Dan Smith director, KPMG
Sam Stacey director of innovation and business improvement, Skanska
Nigel Tonks London buildings group leader, Arup
Jennifer Whyte chair in systems integration, Imperial College London
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