This is what Jeremy Rifkin, a social critic, was driving at in his book, “The End of Work”, published in 1995. Though not the first to do so, Mr Rifkin argued prophetically that society was entering a new phase—one in which fewer and fewer workers would be needed to produce all the goods and services consumed. “In the years ahead,” he wrote, “more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilisation ever closer to a near-workerless world.”
The process has clearly begun. And it is not just white-collar knowledge workers and middle managers who are being automated out of existence. As data-analytics, business-intelligence and decision-making software do a better and cheaper job, even professionals are not immune to the job-destruction trend now underway. Pattern-recognition technologies are making numerous highly paid skills redundant.
Radiologists, who can earn over $300,000 a year in America, after 13 years of college education and internship, are among the first to feel the heat. It is not just that the task of scanning tumour slides and X-ray pictures is being outsourced to Indian laboratories, where the job is done for a tenth of the cost. The real threat is that the latest automated pattern-recognition software can do much of the work for less than a hundredth of it.
Lawyers are in a similar boat now that smart algorithms can search case law, evaluate the issues at hand and summarise the results. Machines have already shown they can perform legal discovery for a fraction of the cost of human professionals—and do so with far greater thoroughness than lawyers and paralegals usually manage.