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Picture: 123RF/XIXINXING
Picture: 123RF/XIXINXING

You may have noticed that the costs of going to the doctor, consulting a lawyer and enrolling for a Masters in Business Administration have increased relentlessly over the years compared to the prices of things we buy in shops.

There is a good economic explanation. New technologies bring productivity improvements (fewer people producing more) to manufacturing, farming, logistics and related activities, bringing prices down, while professional services such as medicine, law and education rely on the time of experts. Their opinions take as long to deliver today as they did a 100 years ago. The key ingredient — the time of a doctor, lawyer or teacher — cannot be condensed.

Until now. Might artificial intelligence (AI) be the first technology to bring about a productivity revolution in the professions? To do so, AI will have to process professionals’ expertise to offer the same quality of advice in a shorter time or to more clients over the same time.

History suggests that when technology helps fewer people produce more, this may reduce the number of people in the original jobs, but also increase employment in related fields. Take information technology. “Computers” originally referred to people sitting in rows calculating manually. Those jobs disappeared when machines were created that did the job far more quickly and accurately; but that created a huge number of software, hardware and administrative jobs, and it enabled us to do vastly more with the same resources.

Might the same happen in services? Just as I expect far fewer accidents when self-drive cars finally take over, so I look forward to more accurate and comprehensive medical diagnoses using an AI app instead of (or better, with) my general practitioner (GP). I will have far greater confidence in the carefully prepared machine with access to the universe of medical knowledge, all the most recent research and my whole medical history, and without any of the biases, foibles and dodgy memory of the human.

I might still want my GP to help me frame my questions and interpret the answers, and sometimes I may need a physical examination to feel things my smartwatch can’t measure. But give me a machine any day for routine answers.

As this will be available online, I expect I shall consult such a facility more often, without the barrier of making an appointment and travelling to see the doctor. And it will be cheaper. And maybe we’ll all spend more time asking how to be healthy than how to cure illnesses. We might need even more doctors to update the AI and help patients use it. Or we may have fewer, more expert doctors, with more technicians to run the machines and more nurses to hold our hands. I can certainly see the number of jobs growing.

That’s how AI could improve productivity in one profession. What about education? We have already seen online learning take off, but what AI will offer is about as far from the old computer-based instruction as cars are from improved horsecarts. Watch this space.

What should small professional firms do about this now? Once a way is found to help chatbots stick to verifiable facts rather than making them up, the worlds of information search, knowledge management and learning will be transformed. Keep an eye on what Microsoft (Bing with improved versions of ChatGPT), Alphabet (Google with Bard) and several smart start-ups are creating that might either wonderfully enrich your practice or remove it entirely. Meanwhile, used wisely to supplement your work, with careful fact-checking, the tech can already give you a competitive advantage.

It generally takes about 20 years for a new technology to yield substantial productivity improvements, so there is probably no immediate threat. But what opportunities are opening up for the entrepreneurially minded?

• Cook chairs the African Management Institute.

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