If computers can improvise jazz, can they improvise your job?

Pat Chapman-Pincher posted this on

An article this week by Aaron Krumins in Extreme Tech says that DARPA is teaching an Artificial Intelligence to improvise and play jazz. Now the interesting thing about jazz is that it requires a high level of innovation, something we have always seen as the preserve of humans. So if computers can start to innovate where does that leave human beings – and your job?!

Last week I talked about how lawyers should start to find new ways of generating fee income as automation and global competition take away layers of their current revenue. To do this requires a high level of innovation.

Recently it was surprising and worrying to hear on the Today programme that the professions in the UK are falling behind their Asian and US rivals, because of lack of investment in technology. More evidence that the professions’ jobs could be at risk from automation?

Simon Jack of Radio 4’s Today interviewed Vivek Madden of OC&C strategy consultants who said: “[This research] has a stark message for the UK’s business-to-business sector – shape up or be sunk by overseas competitors.”

The research was among construction, engineering, professional services, outsourcing and marketing businesses. As Vivek said they are the UK’s invisible economy, contributing 30% of gross added value to the UK economy, over half of the UK’s growth since the recession and the UK’s export ambassadors. As he said, “These businesses keep Britain running”.

But he believes these businesses have stuck to a basic winning formula, based around labour, investing widely around the world and, in his words, spreading capital too thinly. Growth is now at just 1% whereas Asian and American businesses are investing in technology, seeing higher growth and “making British solutions now look outdated and expensive”.

Now if you say “lawyers” and “innovation”, or “accountants” and “innovation” in the same sentence people tend to think you must be mad but it’s surprising how innovative the professions have been. From double entry book-keeping to today’s sophisticated (many say over-sophisticated) financial instruments, accountants have been constantly innovating – often driven by financial regulation and the need to stay one step ahead.

Lawyers, being what one senior counsel described to me as “creatures of statute”, have to constantly change to keep up with new legislation.

You could argue that this only matters for the big multi-national firms but as Vivek Madden says law, accountancy, architecture and the other professions are now global businesses. As systems become ever more intelligent the majority of the back-room operations will be moved to the lowest cost places and those will be places that have invested in technology. People do not move jobs offshore anymore because wage costs are lower in those locations, but because automation has made those countries far more efficient and competitive.

But what if it is not just the lower level administrative work that can be moved but also work that requires intelligence and innovation? Talk to senior lawyers and accountants and they will tell you that while the backroom and junior jobs may go over time the senior jobs, the ones that require innovation, wisdom and experience, will not. But what if computers learn to innovate? They may not have all the wisdom of senior lawyers and accountants but will they be almost as good?

At least until computers start to learn from experience then senior professionals will have an edge but only, I think, if they learn to co-operate with machines that will be almost as smart as they are.

So once again the message for professional firms is to stop under-estimating the threat from machines, watch how technology is evolving and embrace it rather than dismissing it. It may make all the difference to the survival of your business.

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